Flurry of no-hitters and perfect games reflect changes in baseball
Matt Cain of the Giants threw a perfect game against the Astros on Wednesday
It was the 14th no-hitter since the start of 2010 and third since June 1
Pitchers are dominating the game like at no other time since the advent of the DH
Is the no-hitter becoming so common that it's losing its luster? Over the past three seasons, no-hitters are about as common as your cable bill: they come almost once a month. The perfect game by Matt Cain Wednesday in San Francisco was the 14th no-hitter in the past 2 1/3 seasons.
Back at the start of May, when Jered Weaver threw the second no-hitter of this season, I wrote, "At the rate we're going these past three years, you can expect three or four more no-hitters before the season is over." I didn't expect we would get three more just within a 13-day span this month.
This seems crazy, but it's actually nothing we haven't seen before. You just have to go all the way back to the late 1960s, when hitting was so bad they had to make two huge rules changes: they lowered the mound (1969) and added the designated hitter (1973). It is tougher to get a hit in the major leagues this season (.253) than any season since 1972 (.244), the last year without a DH.
How much more common have no-hitters become in the past three years? This quick look at the rate of no-hitters in the Modern Era will give you an idea:
1901-2009: 1 every 794 games
2010-2012: 1 every 414 games
So the rate of no-hitters has increased 48 percent in the past three seasons as compared to the modern era up to that point. But what if we compare the past three years to baseball late-1960s doldrums? Here you go:
2010-2012: 1 every 414 games
1967-1969: 1 every 345 games
We've essentially brought the game back to pre-DH levels. This has been an undeniable trend over a decade, but especially in the past four years. The major league batting average has declined for six straight years. Go back to 2000 -- the height of The Steroid Era -- and the major league average was .270 with 10.28 runs scored per game. Now it's .253 and 8.60 runs per game. That's a 16 percent cutback in scoring. In raw numbers, based on projected numbers for this year, that means pitchers have removed 4,086 runs and 3,461 hits from a baseball season.
Chew on this for a minute: There have been more no-hitters in one-third of a season this year (five) than in the last three full seasons without steroid testing (four, from 2000-02). But testing for steroids is only one ingredient to why pitchers are taking back the game. The need and emphasis on pitching development was a response to the wild offensive years of The Steroid Era. Coupled with that is the emphasis on defense, including the use of defensive metrics and defensive positioning.
The biggest play in Cain's perfect game was made by a player who would have had no place in The Steroid Era -- Gregor Blanco, a small, speedy corner outfielder with six career home runs -- and was positioned in a place that would have seemed unlikely more than a decade ago -- shaded toward right-centerfield against a lefthanded hitter. The Gregor Blancos of the world have been welcomed back into major league baseball because the game has returned to an emphasis on pitching and defense. As I wrote recently, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, the biggest proponent of using defensive metrics, said the flood of intelligence in baseball has been almost entirely to the advantage of the defensive side of the game, with little upside for offense.
The last time the game truly belonged to pitchers, back in the late 1960s, the lowering of the mound and the addition of the DH were designed to make the game more attractive to fans. But this depressed run-scoring environment is occurring at a time when baseball is wildly popular. Attendance is up 7 percent this year, with 20 of the 30 clubs reporting an increase in ticket sales.
And you know that legend that owners let steroids go unchecked because they were raking in the dough from ticket sales? It's a myth. Per-game attendance went down three of the next five seasons after the seminal 1998 season and the great home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Per-game attendance this year in a depressed run-scoring environment (30,416) is better than any of the last nine seasons when players were free to juice up without any penalties (1995-2003). It seems fans dig these close low-scoring games.
Finally, there has been a lot of talk about how Cain just might have pitched the best game in baseball history, seeing as he tied the record of Sandy Koufax for most strikeouts in a perfect game (14). In other words, Cain took care of the majority of outs himself without letting anybody on base. That puts his game among the greatest ever, though for importance, there's no way it stands up to Don Larsen throwing a perfect game in the 1956 World Series against a Dodgers team that led the NL in on-base percentage, was second in runs scored and had four future Hall of Famers in the lineup.
But you also have to keep in mind that there are more strikeouts in today's game than ever before in history. When Koufax fanned 14 Cubs in his perfect game in 1965, NL batters struck out once every 5.74 at-bats. This year they are punching out once every 4.42 at-bats -- a 23 percent increase in the rate of strikeouts. The less often the ball is in play, the more likely a no-hitter becomes. And that's another reason why -- okay, I'll say it again -- we will see another three or four no-hitters before the year is out.
Moreover, that's why Ken Holtzman of the Chicago Cubs may have thrown one of the most impressive no-hitters ever, strikeouts be damned -- literally. Holtzman no-hit the Braves on Aug. 19, 1969 at Wrigley Field without striking out a single batter. The ball was put in play 27 times -- 15 times in the air and 12 times on the ground -- and 27 times an out was recorded. It was done once before, by Sam Jones in 1923, and never again. Let's see one of today's pitchers pull off that trick. Now that would be rarer than your cable bill.