— Perfection is meant to be beyond the grasp of man.
Except, perhaps, from the pitcher’s mound.
Matt Cain of the San Francisco Giants threw a perfect game Wednesday night — 27 men up, 27 men down. It was only the 22nd such game in major league history, although there were two others that were lost in extra innings. It’s a rare feat.
On the other hand, five of them have come in the past 36 months — and there would have been another but for a blatant umpiring error on what should have been the final out (the Armando Gallaraga⁄Jim Joyce “imperfect” game). The majority of perfect games — 12 — have been thrown during my tenure at The Free Press, which began in 1984.
Perfect games are not as common as dandelions or political attack ads, but they’ve happened often enough recently to have lost the “oh my lord” cachet. Perfect games used to come decades apart; now we’re getting almost two a year.
Here’s the (unanswerable) question: Is there some reason behind the increase in perfectos, or is it sheer chance?
This is a slightly different question than asking why there are so many no-hitters this year. Cain’s gem was the fifth no-hitter of 2012; there were six in 2010, counting one in the playoffs; there were “only” three in 2011. Fourteen no-hitters in less than 21⁄2 seasons— that seems like a lot.
It seems like a lot, but we’ve seen that kind of outcropping before. For example: There were 14 no-hitters in 1990-91, just two full seasons. It’s plausible to attribute the current surge in no-hitters to happenstance.
There are almost twice as many games played now as there was in the pre-expansion era. The more games, the more opportunity for something odd — a no-hitter, a perfect game, a triple play — to happen.
But there’s more to it than that. The growth in perfect games far outstrips the expansion of games played.
How the games are played — the core strategies involved — are probably a bigger factor. The sabermetric revolution has a role in this.
In 1984, pitchers averaged 5.34 strikeouts per nine innings. Entering Sunday, pitchers this year averaged 7.45 K⁄9 — better than two strikeouts more per game.
The strikeout rate has drifted steadily higher over the years, I think, because of the change in how we understand run production. The men who assemble teams are far less worried about batter strikeouts than ever before, and they cherish pitcher strikeouts more than they once did.
For hitters, strikeouts are the exhaust emissions of the home run engine; for pitchers, strikeouts are both an essential indication of their stuff and a harbinger of durability.
In addition, defenses are better. The error rate has never been lower, and the growth in data has prompted increasingly drastic defensive shifts.
Averages, of course, are averages; perfect games, even at two a season, are anything but average.
More hitters are taking pitches, trying to get ahead in the count with the goal of hitting the long ball; in those games when the pitcher is particularly effective, this approach plays into the pitcher’s hands. He gets strike one, strike two quickly, and the at-bat is in his command.
And sometimes, rarely, each at-bat plays out perfectly for the pitcher, 27 straight times.
Edward Thoma (344-6-377; email@example.com) is a Free Press staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @bboutsider; read his Baseball Outsider blog at fpbaseballoutsider.blogspot.com.