The Perfect Game Swarm: The Contrarian’s View

Last night, Matt Cain threw the first major league perfect game in nearly two months!

He threw the first individual no-hit game in nearly two weeks!

He threw the first no-hitter of any kind in five days!

He did throw the only no-hit game of the night, though R.A. Dickey didn’t get one in St. Petersburg only because of a dubious scorer’s decision that might yet be reversed, and Felix Doubront carried one through two out in the sixth.

There’s something wrong with this picture.

Look, I yearn to witness a perfect game, still kick myself for skipping one one year because it was too cold (David Wells, 1998) and another the next because it was too hot (David Cone, 1999) like some baseball fan version of Goldilocks. And there is no offense meant to Matt Cain, or Phil Humber, or Roy Halladay, or Dallas Braden, or Mark Buehrle, or for the man whoshouldalso be on this list, Armando Galarraga.

But as of the morning of July 23, 2009 – less than three full years ago – there had been exactly 17 perfect games in the 139 seasons of organized big league baseball. In the 34 months since there have been five of them (really, six). In the game’s first 139 seasons we had had one year in which there were two thrown. In the last three seasons, we have had one year in which there weren’t two thrown.

Five of the last fifteen individual no-hitters have been perfect games.

There have been so many of them now that Ted Barrett has now been the home plate umpire in two of them, and his colleague Brian Runge has worked two of them this year (he was at 3B last night, and behind the plate for Humber’s, and, oh by the way, he was also behind the plate for the Mariners’ combined no-no last Friday).

Cain’s was the 22nd of all-time (the total should be 24: Galarraga should’ve gotten his, and Harvey Haddix’s flawed 13-inning gem should be counted somehow even though it isn’t). If the frequency at which they’ve occurred over the last three years had applied to all of baseball history, we wouldn’t have had 22 perfectos, we would have 91 of them.

I understand there are historical anomalies in the game. One of my favorite factoids is the mind-numbing truth that an enterprising fan in the northeast could’ve seen Lee Richmond throw the first one in big league history on Saturday June 12, 1880 for Worcester of the National League, and then could’ve turned up just five days later in Buffalo to watch Johnny Ward throw the second one for Providence of the N.L. But if our hypothetical spectator had wanted to make a hat trick out of it and see thethirdperfect game ever pitched in the National League, he’d have had to chill for 84 years because the next one wouldn’t be pitched until June 21, 1964, by Jim Bunning at Shea Stadium.

Bizarre statistical thunderstorms occur. We had two batting Triple Crowns in 1933 and five out of a potential ten in the five-year span ending in 1937. The American League had one (by Frank Robinson) in 1966 and another (by Carl Yastrzemski – with a tie in the homer category) the next year. Not only has nobody performed the trick since but the seven I’ve just mentioned account for sixteen of all of them dating back to the first by Paul Hines in 1878.

But just as ‘these things sometimes happen,’ they also sometimes indicate a severe skewing of the sport. If a lot of guys accomplishing a very rare feat is a good and totally explicable thing, then pitching reached its modern pinnacle in 1968. Seven different pitchers recorded ERAs of less than 2.00. Twelve were at 2.15 or under. Twenty came in below 2.50. And there’s something relevant to the perfect game swarm. The top eleven ERA finishers were as follows:

1.12 Bob Gibson

1.60 Luis Tiant

1.81 Sam McDowell

1.95 Dave McNally

1.96 Denny McLain

1.98 Tommy John

1.99 Bob Bolin

2.05 Stan Bahnsen

2.05 Bob Veale

2.08 Jerry Koosman

2.12 Steve Blass

See my point? I have argued here for two more of the men on this list to be in Cooperstown but in point of fact only one of them (Gibson) is. A derangement of the pitching-hitting balance will make some fair pitchers good, some good pitchers great, and some great pitchers immortal (remember, 1968 was also the only time since 1934 that anybody – in this case McLain – has won as many as 30 games in a season). And it applies to hitting, too. We like to forget the fact that an incredible percentage of fans and an almost equal number of credulous reporters saw nothing at all wrong with the idea that all six of the seasons in which somebody hit more than 61 homers occurred between 1998 and 2001. I can remember clear as a bell the late, great Leonard Koppett trying to convince me and Jim Bouton on my tv show that the discovery of androstenedione in Mark McGwire’s locker had absolutely nothing to do with anything and wouldn’t be remembered by anybody.

I’m not saying the pitchers are juiced and I’m not saying there will be a mental asterisk placed some day on Cain’s perfect game, or Humber’s, or anybody else’s. I’m not even saying that I’m fully invested in the most obvious theory of what’s going on: that the subtraction of Performance Enhancing Drugs has left a generation of hitters who have known nothing but to swing from their heels with no gas in their tank (although Cain’s victims, the Astros, have now struck out 505 times in 62 games – that’s 8.2 per game – and have averaged nearly 12 per game this month, meaning from their perspective, their 14 K’s against Cain last night was only a little worse than usual).

What I am saying is that to respond to Matt Cain’s perfect game by simply jumping up and down and buying souvenir merchandise is to miss a bigger picture, one that isn’t exactly clear yet. But when you get five (six?) perfect games in three calendar years, and you get 37-year old knuckleballer R.A. Dickey suddenly launching into territory in which he has struck out 50 and walked 5 in his last 47 innings, and he’s 10-1 and former middle reliever Lance Lynn is 10-2 and Chris Capuano – with one previous winning season since 2003 – is 8-and-2, some kind of tipping point has been reached and maybe all the pitching is just as incongruous as was all the hitting in 1998-2001.

Scorebook page from the first perfect game ever, Lee Richmond’s, June 12, 1880




  1. Sriram

    Oh I don’t know. The perfect game (or a no-hitter for that matter) is much more like a hole-in-one in golf than a pure achievement of pitching amazingness. Indeed the list of extreme high strikeout games is a much, much better indicator of a phenomenal night on the hill.

    The PED argument is hogwash from the standpoint that there is precious little empirical proof that PEDs let you hit the ball better (further possibly). The trend of swinging hard and waiting for the 3-run homer is from the vestiges of Earl Weaver – it’s just higher percentage baseball. The perfect game is a lucky accident – always has been, and the fact we have had a bit of a run says as much as the times when they weren’t around. Short of 27 strikeouts there is none of these that does not involve a lot of good fortune.

    • walt kovacs

      well then…cain k’d 14…so he had an incredible night…unless you are ko…and therefore the only person you can cheer for is dickey

      • Sriram

        oh hell yeah he had a great night – this was not a fluke, just a great performance – and would have been the same without the perfection

  2. Stephen S. Power

    This is a though-provoking analysis, but Sriram brings up two points that could be studied statistically: free swingingness and, my suspicion, luck. If you flip a coin a hundred times, it will come up heads 6 or 7 times in a row. And if achieving a perfect game does rely on some amount of luck, maybe we’re seeing one of those streaks now. In addition, let me ask: is a perfect game the pitcher’s achievement or the opponent’s fault? And how many perfect game have not occurred because the hitting team got lucky, say, because the pitcher’s team didn’t make the inevitable awesome play that saves the game?

    • Sriram

      here is the thing … we know that any batted ball in play requires an element of luck – luck including having teammates capable of getting to and catching balls. So Cain’s masterpiece still had 13 balls that needed to not find holes. What is interesting is the ground ball: fly ball thing. Ground balls obviously help run prevention, but increase the probabilty of a hit – while fly balls have a lower chance of being hits but a high chance of being a real problem. And line drives – well, if there are a lot of line drives, you probably aren’t winning much of anything.

      • Stephen S. Power

        I’ve been obsessed all day by that line Sriram: “Cain’s masterpiece had 13 balls that needed to not find holes.” It makes me wonder why there aren’t more perfect games. When Kerry Wood struck out 20, he only 7 balls to not find holes and Ricky Gutierrez and his lifetime OPS+ of 83 still managed to single, although Wikipedia says it was off third baseman Kevin Orie’s glove and was arguably an error, not a hit. How often is this the case, that the pitcher doesn’t get the big defensive play that occurs in every no-hitter and ends up leaving with a one-hitter? (Wood also hit Biggio, how has to have some sort of leather magnet in his chest to get hit even in such a well-pitched game.)

  3. Jw

    How many teams were there 100 years ago? How many games were played per season? How many pitchers? How deep were the parks? I am no baseball historian. I do not know the answers, or how much these figures factor in, but I would suggest that there is more to this trend than the mere magnitude of the raw counts. And I’m jumping up and down anyway. So there. =)

  4. Jason

    Olbermann’s baseball commentary reminds me of John K. Galbraith’s point about William F. Buckley: (paraphrased) How can someone who writes so eloquently about sailing be so wrong about everything else?

  5. Pingback: Blogging Matt Cain’s Perfect Game « Blogs Central
  6. blair

    132 years and one day from the first to the most recent? looks less meaningful when i write it out. but i wrote it out. pareidolia is a strange motivator.

  7. Terri

    I watched the game last night. I’m a Giants fan from way back and live in San Francisco. Matt Cain’s perfect game was a joy to behold because it was only made possible via a team effort. The plays made by Blanco, Cabrera, Arias, Crawford were spectacular. That was the point for me last night – not how many perfect games have been pitched. It was the pure joy of watching a great game by my favorite team when everything and everybody was working right. That’s what baseball is all about for me. I’m still smiling.

  8. J.D.

    I think the new Era of Pitching is merely an adjustment period after the Steroid Era. Wait a few years, and the offensive/pitching balance will return to something more akin to the 70’s and 80’s.

    One aside: Living in Indianapolis, I’ve followed Lance Lynn’s career since the Brownsburg days. Let me assure you, he is the real deal. Much like C.J. Wilson a few years back, he merely needed the opportunity to show what he could do as a starter, and now that he’s been given that opportunity, he’s running with it.

  9. Doug Conroy

    One factor that you do not consider is the ballpark issue. Three of the Five perfect games in the last three years were thrown in venues that are not considered hitter friendly (AT&T, Safeco, and Oakland-Alameda). Perhaps this is a factor that should be considered.

  10. swoll85

    I think the recent pitching dominance is mostly due to the lack of PED’s in the sport. Now granted pitchers were using PED’s as well but it was much more prevalent in hitters. When there are fewer guys who can make the game lopsided with a 450 ft blast it allows these pitchers to pitch differently. Its not just the home runs but the approach to pitching the entire lineup. I used to say steroids don’t deliver a great deal of improvement but I think the numbers support the opposite. Almost 30% of all perfect games in the history of baseball have happened in the last 9 years. ERA’s are considerably lower since league wide testing began in 2003. Now I don’t want to take away from the talent of these pitchers like Cain. The pitching talent pool is very deep right now but I think the great pitchers are once again overly dominant on their best nights. This, like i said, is mostly due to a lack of slugging. Even decent pitchers now have a chance to throw a no-hitter with their best stuff. Look at Phil Humber. His numbers have been anything but staggering since his perfect game earlier this year.

    Hitters are performing at a more natural rate and now the natural progression of the game/pitching has caught up. This is what baseball is supposed to look like. Even if hitters and pitchers progress over time at the same rate, it still gives the advantage to the pitcher. Each generation in general appears to be more athletic, more talented, and more cerebral. Technology and the raw number athletes are what produce these results. I don’t think there is any reason to question all the no-hitters and perfect games in recent years. Enjoy it. We can all start to really appreciate just how hard it is to hit a baseball in today’s game.

  11. ShoeBeDoBeDo

    I’m planning to have a really good day today. Optimism? No. Dead on balls certainty. My boss was born and raised in Alameda and is a HUGE Giants fans. He’s generally easygoing, but when I came into the office this morning, the man was SMILING, and I know I wasn’t the cause of it. So, thank you Matt Cain and the rest of the Giants! 🙂

  12. Sriram

    KO’s analysis – such as it is – misses the idea that perhaps the previous 100 years was underachieving. After all, if a team is a 45-55 underdog, the odds of them winning four in a row (and coming back from 3-0 down) is roughly 1 in 25, yet it has not borne out. It is far easier to cite the last five years as simply noise in the data than anything causal – the explanation sounds more like PED hysterics searching for a trend that is not there.

  13. mary caruso

    Keith, your knowledge of the sport of baseball never ceases to amaze me. From stats to actual events are so well documented within your blog. I followed the game on twitter last night and enjoyed sharing the celebration with some of my Twitter friends. The no-no’s are becoming more prevalent and may default to a norm of sorts but in any event, they are exciting when you actually see it happen. I do hope you get to actually BE at one soon as is your wish.

  14. blair

    That 1880 scorecard is neat, but that’s only the winning pitcher’s side, showing his team’s batting (scoring one run in the 5th on what looks like a single and two errors by the second baseman), and fielding (including 6 assists for the perfect-pitcher and only 3 balls reaching the outfield). Is there a picture of the other half of the record?

  15. Rick


    Wikipedia has the Cleveland half of the scorecard on its page about Lee Richmond’s perfect game.

    As for the analysis itself, certainly it seems that no-hitters and perfect games are more prevalent in a post-Moneyball world, but it also seems to me that this is an expected result, given the increased acceptance in the last decade of Three True Outcome players. Take a look at strikeout (and walk) rates: they are so much higher than in earlier eras. That means fewer balls being put into play, which means fewer times for dominant pitchers to have to rely on luck/fielding.

    Nowadays, pitchers have truly dominant days might only need to get “lucky” 13 times, as Cain did last night, as opposed to 17 times (Bunning) or 21 times (Charlie Robertson). In the aggregate that makes a huge difference.

  16. Chadzo

    It’s not possible to determine the quality of pitching vs hitting on a league wide basis via the number of perfect games and no hitters over the course of a few seasons. The reason for this is that there are far too many factors, other than pitching skill, that contribute to a perfect game. If Blanco doesn’t make a great catch last night, or if DeWayne Wise failed to make his amazing catch a few years ago to save Buehrle’s perfect effort, would we still believe that pitching is more dominant today than it was in 2001? I think we would, because it is, not because of the number of perfect games and no hitters since 2008.

  17. Pingback: No-hitter analysis: a study in contrasts | HardballTalk
  18. Greg

    Thanks for a mention of Leonard Koppett. I took a class he taught when I was studying journalism at San Jose St. By far the best class I ever took. He was brilliant.

  19. Sam

    I’ll never get over missing the first Met no-hitter, two days after losing MLB Extra Innings on my TV. Since I’m also a Giant fan, missing Cain’s perfect game is tough to take as well. And a fan hates to miss these because a perfect game and even a no-hitter is still a rarity as far as being able to see one start to finish. The first I ever saw (obviously on TV, not in person) was Jimenez’s against the Braves, and I had watched baseball night and day for almost a decade. Then, soon after, I happened to be watching a Phillies-Marlins game on a Saturday night (I like the Marlins’ announcers Rich Waltz and Tommy Hutton and it was a good pitching match-up of Doc vs. JJ) and what do you know Halladay throws a perfect game. Those are the only two I’ve seen in my lifetime. Sure, I’d love to see Jeter hit a grand slam (a bigger rarity) but the thrill of watching a pitcher on your favorite team do something so difficult, and to be there for the ride, as he gets closer and closer to out #27, that’s what makes it special. “27 up, 27 down, baseball immortality” — I think those are the immortal words of John Sterling. So, stats to one side, a no-no and especially a perfect game– it’s still a thing of beauty [that] is a joy forever (in the immortal words of John Keats).

  20. Bill Grabarkewitz

    I have to wonder if a lot of it isn’t due to poor umpiring as well. I saw only the last three innings, and it was obvious that the umps weren’t going to take responsibility for breaking up the game. Anything called a ball had to be egregiously outside the zone. Balls three and four inches outside, inside, high, or low got strike calls. The biggest mystery to me was, once Cain started to approach 100 pitches, he started to get tired and wild and the Astro batters did nothing to take advantage of that. With patience, they could have worked a walk or at least made him struggle and potentially make a mistake. But they went up there swinging away, giving Cain every advantage. It was a well-pitched game, but he had a LOT of help.

  21. Willimungus Wurl

    Cain certainly had about an inch of room on both sides of the plate (I’m not sure about top but the bottom of the plate never looked unfair) but he was working the lateral movement of his sliders something excellent. I don’t believe that PEDs would contribute to the eyesight that makes good hitters as there were plenty of roid users who still under-preformed. I do think that throughout the 2000s less and less hitters were content with hitting for average and more felt that they had to hit it out as the legacy of the PEDs. I’d be curious to know FO vs GO statistics on average for the last 30 years. Or shallow outfield vs medium to long outfield.

  22. Dwane Lay

    The only issue I take with this is the labeling of Lance Lynn as a “former middle reliever.” He was a pretty good starter in the minors, got his shot in the pen at the big league level, them moved into the rotation, which, while it happened because of injuries, was still kinda the plan I think.

    Great stuff, KO. Thanks for writing it.

  23. Andrew Milner

    One of my favorite “historical anomalies” in MLB is that there was an unassisted triple play on 5/30/1927, and another one the following day… and then not another one for 41 years.

  24. Pete Xander

    People . . . how many baseball teams were there in 1900? 1930? There are 30 teams now, playing a 162-game schedule. Even allowing for a dilution of “major league” talent, isn’t the sheer increase in the number of teams and games responsible for the apparent increase, statistically? There are no Bob Gibsons in the majors, for sure, but there weren’t the massively scientifically trained and sculpted athletes then, either.

  25. walt kovacs

    in 2001, the year that bonds hit 73 dingers, there were 3 no no’s

    ko…time to give up this fantasy that you know anything about baseball and are, in reality, a hater of everything giants

    go back to what you do best…ranting about wingnuts

  26. Igor Zbitnoff

    This is not exactly relevant to this column, but I’ve been bugged by this for a long time. On May 1, 1920, the Brooklyn Robins (Dodgers?) played the Boston Braves in a 26-inning 1-1 tie. Both pitchers went the distance. I realize pitch counts weren’t happening back then, but there must be some estimates of the number pitches thrown in that game. What are these estimates? Even 10 pitches/ininng is 260 pitches. And I’m guessing they threw more than that.

  27. Budd Bailey

    This may have been touched on during the comments — didn’t get through all of them — but I do wonder if the rise in strikeouts has something to do with all of the no-hitters. Teams don’t seem to mind having them on offense as long as the hitters produce when they hit (see Mark Reynolds), while they like them on defense because it tends to cover up defensive deficiencies because the ball doesn’t go into play much. With fewer batted balls per game, fewer things like bad hops and Texas Leaguers happen to break up no-hitters.

  28. Pingback: The Present Imperfect | FanGraphs Baseball

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s