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.
The first man Philip Humber faced in the start after his Perfect Game? He walked him. The third? He surrendered a base hit to him. The fourth? He watched him smack an RBI double. In short, after retiring 27 consecutive batters against Seattle, in his next appearance against Boston, before he could get two outs in total, he had lost his shot at a Perfect Game, a no-hitter, and a shutout.
By the third inning, Humber no longer had a homer-free streak, or even a grand slam-free streak. By the fifth, he had gone no games without surrendering two homers to the same guy (Jarrod Saltalamacchia) The Coach had turned back into The Pumpkin.
The vagaries of the perfecto – the idea that a muse appears, gives a pitcher flawless results for three hours or less, then vanishes, never to return – are countless. For virtually every one of the 21 flawless games, I think there are overwhelming mitigating circumstances that made the outcome slightly more possible than usual on the day in question. This would require a lot of research on some of the early games (like the first of the three by the White Sox, by Charlie Robertson in 1922), but just anecdotally: Mike Witt’s 1984 job was on the ultimate getaway day, the season finale between two teams not in the pennant race. When the kinescope of the Don Larsen game resurfaced three winters ago we learned that the batter’s eye at Yankee Stadium had been removed to accommodate the World Series crowd (it is thus more amazing that the Yankees got any hits that day, more than that the Dodgers didn’t). Mark Buehrle’s had an obvious aberration (an epic outfield catch by Dewayne Wise) and a less obvious one (a free-swinging Tampa Bay line-up, in a really early start for a day game after a night game, on getaway day). And as if he needed the help, when Sandy Koufax mesmerized the Cubs in 1965, he was facing a line-up with three future Hall-of-Famers in Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, and Billy Williams. The other six batters were a pitcher, and five rookies – and two of them were playing in their first major league games.
What were the telling signs for Humber? He took no-hit bids into the sixth and seventh last year, had a new pitch that not everybody had seen before (six of the nine Mariner hitters were not in the line-up during his last start against Seattle, even though that was only last June), and is pitching during a time in which the hitters are deflating. Clearly PED use by hitters is down, perhaps by some extraordinary percentage, and lord knows how much that’s reduced strength of contact, let alone results, or even hand-to-eye coordination.
Perhaps the only Perfect Game that gets a note if not an asterisk might be the effort by the great Addie Joss in 1908. As his Cleveland Naps took the field against the White Sox on October 2, 1908, they were half a game behind first-place Detroit, and just a game ahead of Chicago. His future fellow Hall-of-Famer Ed Walsh (who only won 40 games that year) was the opponent. Joss, in the tightest imaginable pennant race, retired all 27 men he faced, and won 1-0, on an unearned run in the third. The degree of difficulty on that was pretty big.
But anyway. In June, 2010, at the end of the Buehrle-Braden-Halladay-Shoulda-Been-Galarraga-Too swarm, I asked here if the achievement itself might have a long-term negative impact on the pitchers involved. It’s time to update that data:
Is there something about getting 27 outs in a row that psychologically alters a pitcher? The sudden realization that you can do it? The gnawing sensation that a “quality start” or even a six-hit shutout just isn’t the ceiling? Or is it possible that a Perfecto really is some sort of apogee of pitching skills, and not merely the collision of quality and fortune? Whatever the impact of the Perfect Game on the Perfect Game Pitcher, six of the other 20 to throw them have not managed to thereafter win more games than they lost. Another was one game over .500. An eleventh was just three games over. Fully fourteen of the pitchers saw their winning percentages drop from where they had been before their slice of immortality (though obviously the figures on Braden, Buehrle, and Halladay are at this point embryonic) Consider these numbers, ranked in order in change of performance before and after. First the good news: it is perhaps not surprising that of the eight pitchers whose percentages improved afterwards, the two most substantial jumps belong to Hall of Famers.
Jim Hunter Before: 32-38, .457
Jim Hunter After: 191-128, .599
Jim Hunter Improvement: Winning percentages jumps 142 points
Sandy Koufax Before: 133-77, .633
Sandy Koufax After: 31-10, .756
Sandy Koufax Improvement: 123
Koufax is a bit of an aberration, since that 31-10 record, gaudy as it seems, represents only one season plus about a month, before his retirement in November, 1966. Five of the other six improvements are a little more telling.
David Wells Before: 110-86, .561
David Wells After: 128-71, .643
David Wells Improvement: 82
Don Larsen Before: 30-40, .429
Don Larsen After: 51-51, .500
Don Larsen Improvement: 71
Roy Halladay Before: 154-79, .661
Roy Halladay After: 36-14, .720
Roy Halladay Improvement: 59
Mike Witt Before: 37-40, .481
Mike Witt After: 79-76, .510
Mike Witt Improvement: 29
Dennis Martinez Before: 173-140, .553
Dennis Martinez After: 71-53, .573
Dennis Martinez Improvement: 20
There is one improvement that is really misleading. Dallas Braden hadn’t been much of a pitcher before his 2010 perfecto. Since, he’s been ok – he just hasn’t pitched much:
Dallas Braden Before: 17-23, .425
Dallas Braden After: 8-7, .533
Dallas Braden Improvement: 108
For everybody else, the Perfect Game has meant comparative disaster. We can again discern some unrelated factors: many pitchers threw their masterpieces late in their careers (Cone), late in life (Joss died about 30 months after he threw his), or not long before injuries (Robertson and Ward, the latter of whom would switch positions and become a Hall of Fame shortstop). Still, the numbers don’t augur well for our trio of active guys. They are listed in here in terms of the greatest mathematical drop from career Winning Percentage before the game, to career Winning Percentage afterwards:
David Cone Before: 177-97, .646
David Cone After: 16-29, .356
David Cone Dropoff: 290
Lee Richmond Before: 14-7, .667
Lee Richmond After: 61-93, .396
Lee Richmond Dropoff: 271
Jim Bunning Before: 143-89, .616
Jim Bunning After: 80-95, .457
Jim Bunning Dropoff: 159
Len Barker Before: 33-25, .569
Len Barker After: 40-51, .440
Len Barker Dropoff: 129
Charlie Robertson Before: 1-1 .500
Charlie Robertson After: 47-79, .373
Charlie Robertson Dropoff: 127
Mark Buehrle Before: 132-90, .595
Mark Buehrle After: 29-32, .475
Mark Buehrle Dropoff: 125
Addie Joss Before: 140-79, .639
Addie Joss After: 19-18, .514
Addie Joss Dropoff: 125
Cy Young Before: 382-216, .639
Cy Young After: 128-116, .525
Cy Young Dropoff: 114
Randy Johnson Before: 233-118, .664
Randy Johnson After: 69-48, .590
Randy Johnson Dropoff: 74
Johnny Ward Before: 80-43, .650
Johnny Ward After: 81-60, .574
Johnny Ward Dropoff: 46
Tom Browning Before: 60-40, .600
Tom Browning After: 62-50, .554
Tom Browning Dropoff: 46
Kenny Rogers Before: 52-36, .591
Kenny Rogers After: 166-120, .580
Kenny Rogers Dropoff: 9
If you’re wondering: Phil Humber was 11-10 before he performed his magic against the Mariners.
With Mark Buehrle’s loss Monday, and Dallas Braden getting scratched from his start last night, the combined record since their achievements of the three active pitchers to have tossed Perfect Games has dropped to 8 wins and 18 losses.
Jim Hunter Before: 32-38, .457Jim Hunter After: 191-128, .599Jim Hunter Improvement: 142Sandy Koufax Before: 133-77, .633Sandy Koufax After: 31-10, .756Sandy Koufax Improvement: 123
Koufax is a bit of an aberration, since that 31-10 record, gaudy as it seems, represents only one season plus about a month, before his retirement in November, 1966.
David Wells Before: 110-86, .561David Wells After: 128-71, .643David Wells Improvement: 82Don Larsen Before: 30-40, .429Don Larsen After: 51-51, .500Don Larsen Improvement: 71Mike Witt Before: 37-40, .481Mike Witt After: 79-76, .510Mike Witt Improvement: 29Dennis Martinez Before: 173-140, .553Dennis Martinez After: 71-53, .573Dennis Martinez Improvement: 20
For everybody else, the Perfect Game has meant comparative disaster. We can again discern some unrelated factors: many pitchers threw their masterpieces late in their careers (Cone), late in life (Joss died about 30 months after he threw his), or not long before injuries (Robertson and Ward, the latter of whom would switch positions and become a Hall of Fame shortstop).
Dallas Braden Before: 17-23, .425Dallas Braden After: 0-5, .000Dallas Braden Dropoff: 425David Cone Before: 177-97, .646David Cone After: 16-29, .356David Cone Dropoff: 290Lee Richmond Before: 14-7, .667Lee Richmond After: 61-93, .396Lee Richmond Dropoff: 271Roy Halladay Before: 154-79, .661Roy Halladay After: 2-3, .400Roy Halladay Dropoff: 261Mark Buehrle Before: 132-90, .595Mark Buehrle After: 6-10, .375Mark Buehrle Dropoff: 220Jim Bunning Before: 143-89, .616Jim Bunning After: 80-95, .457Jim Bunning Dropoff: 159Len Barker Before: 33-25, .569Len Barker After: 40-51, .440Len Barker Dropoff: 129Charlie Robertson Before: 1-1 .500Charlie Robertson After: 47-79, .373Charlie Robertson Dropoff: 127Addie Joss Before: 140-79, .639Addie Joss After: 19-18, .514Addie Joss Dropoff: 125Cy Young Before: 382-216, .639Cy Young After: 128-116, .525Cy Young Dropoff: 114Randy Johnson Before: 233-118, .664Randy Johnson After: 69-48, .590Randy Johnson Dropoff: 74Johnny Ward Before: 80-43, .650Johnny Ward After: 81-60, .574Johnny Ward Dropoff: 46Tom Browning Before: 60-40, .600Tom Browning After: 62-50, .554Tom Browning Dropoff: 46Kenny Rogers Before: 52-36, .591Kenny Rogers After: 166-120, .580Kenny Rogers Dropoff: 9
Rogers’ fall off is not even what the typical decline of a pitcher would suggest, and Browning’s and Ward’s aren’t very spectacular. Then again, neither are the improvements of Witt or Martinez.
This does boggle the mind. Since Mark Buehrle’s perfect game against them last July, the Tampa Bay Rays have now been no-hit three times in a span of 140 games.
There have been 20 official Perfect Games (sorry, Harvey Haddix; sorry, Pedro Martinez) in baseball history, and thanks to Dallas Braden and now Roy Halladay, there have been two of them in just twenty days.