Perfection popping up more often
Two flawless games in one month has experts stumped
Through Saturday, a total of 391,904 games were played in Major League Baseball's 135-year history.Twenty of them were pitched perfectly. So a perfect game is hardly an everyday occurrence. But what had been a once-in-a-generation phenomenon has turned into twice-in-a-month lightning. When the Phillies' Roy Halladay perfected the Marlins on Saturday to match the May 9 feat of Oakland's Dallas Braden against Tampa Bay, he brought new focus to the relative preponderance of perfect games. "I think," San Francisco reliever Jeremy Affeldt said, "it baffles everybody that there were two perfect games in one month." It is no less baffling that there have been four in the last seven years, and eight since the '90s. More than half of the historical total -- 11 -- has come within the last 30 years, or since Len Barker, an otherwise nondescript Cleveland right-hander, unwittingly ushered in a perfect era on May 15, 1981, against Toronto. For an uneven timeline to be tilted so distinctly toward an era otherwise known for mushrooming offense flies in the face of any logic. Attempts to explain the trend by the most obvious, superficial means quickly fold. Is it the advent of night baseball, since good heat thrown under the lights is certainly harder to track and smack solidly? Nope: Six of those 11 were thrown in day games.
Is it the expansion era, and the resulting dilution of talent? Couldn't be: Pitching is perceived as the most diluted commodity. Besides, expansion coincides with the DH era, and seven of those 11 perfect games have come in the American League.Some of the insiders consulted by MLB.com even went for the politically incorrect explanation that the eradication of steroids from the game has enfeebled hitters. Come on: Then why weren't a rash of perfect games thrown all those years before PED joined the acronyms list?
Well, then, how about the hardship of the modern schedule, and the debilitating travel necessary to comply with it? Nope: While seven of those 11 perfect victims were visitors, only three of them came in the opening games of series, when you could possibly make an argument for weariness.A very weak argument, to be sure. So, what is it? Standout talent is an undeniable element. With the exception of the era's pioneer (Barker had an 8-7 record in 1981 and retired 74-76) and a young guy (Braden) on whom the jury is still out, the recent perfect games were by pitchers at the peaks of exceptional careers. Exhibit A: Halladay. While only an isolated snapshot, it is worth noting that he pitched his perfect game on a day that remained a "hitters' era" elsewhere around the Majors: An average of 10 runs were scored in the other 14 games. "With the stuff he had, getting a no-hitter ... I don't want to say it was coming, but it wasn't a shocker," said the Mets' Jason Bay, who while with the Red Sox had frequent run-ins with the Toronto Doc. "It didn't seem too far out of the realm of possibility." "It couldn't happen to a better guy and a more qualified guy," said John Gibbons, the Kansas City bench coach who was Halladay's manager in Toronto for five years. "He can shut 'em down with the best of 'em. You look at Halladay and he's among the league leaders in giving up hits, because he attacks the zone, but when he's on, he can overpower you." "You get guys like Halladay, who have the ability to throw a perfect game -- he throws a lot of strikes," said Affeldt, continuing Gibbons' train of thought. "Some people say it's hard to throw a perfect game if you throw a lot of strikes, because the hitters are going to be able to get to the ball. But he throws a lot of strikes with movement." "You're surprised when anyone throws a perfect game, just because it's so difficult to do, because you can't just rely on what you do," Yankees manager Joe Girardi pointed out. "I think that's true in seeing there [have] only been 20 of them. But if someone is gonna do it, [Halladay has] definitely got the skill set." Other than Barker and Braden, and with the meters still running on Mark Buehrle and Halladay, the nine perfect-game authors since 1981 combined for 1,733 Major League wins. That's a mountain of every-fifth-day possibilities. "I don't know if you'll get to a point where [pitchers] dominate, but the game has changed somewhat. There's no doubt about it," Girardi said. "You don't see as many home runs, you see teams running more. It is somewhat of a different game. There are a lot of good pitchers out there, and some of the young pitchers have come up and developed very quickly to make the crop of pitching very good." "Pitching has dominated here a lot more early than it has in the past. I don't have any explanations for it, but it has," said Cubs manager Lou Piniella. "We've had three shutouts on this homestand, and I don't remember that happening in the four years I've been here. And the kid Braden has good stuff -- we faced him in the spring, and he has good stuff." Naturally, many wave off the trend as "one of those things." "I think it's just a quirky thing," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "I don't really read anything into it. On any given night here at the big league level -- they're all in the big leagues for a reason, because they're good. If [you] can command their stuff like Halladay did [Saturday] night, the odds might be that you can throw a no-hitter.
"I mean, it's tough to do. You've got to be perfect with all your pitches. You can't make a mistake and, if you do make one, it's got to be your night that your mistake is hit to somebody."Giants southpaw Barry Zito called the increased frequency of perfect games "pretty hard to explain." "Perfect games are so fickle and fleeting," Zito said. "You can have a game where a guy gives up two homers and five hits in a complete game and when you look at the reality of it, that's a total of four inches away from a perfect game when you talk about missing the barrel and having it be a fly ball instead of a home run. "I approach it more from that standpoint: So rare, but also so close to giving up, say, a couple of balls in the hole." Try to come up with a sensible explanation for the rash of perfect games, and you probably end up with the same thing: A hole in your theory.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.