Seeking an Explanation for the No-hitter phenomenon

After Matt Cain’s perfect game 2 nights ago, in which he struck out a career-high 14 hitters, the exceptional pitching in baseball jumped from a trend to the norm.  Something is happening, especially in the last 4 seasons where we have seen perfect games and no-hitters become less and less of an aberration.  Cain’s gem marked the 22nd perfect game in MLB history and the 5th since 2009.  That is not including the 28-out imperfect game with Armando Galarraga in 2010.  Of course the only thing that wasn’t perfect about that game was the umpire’s call on the final out.  Nevertheless, that means that about 23% of all perfect games in the last 140 years have occurred in the last 4 seasons.  For more perspective, there have been 21 official no-hitters since the start of the 2007.  That’s the same number of no-hitters in the previous 13 seasons.  There have already been 5 no-hitters (including the 2 perfect games) already this season.  An average MLB season sees 3 no-hitters – we’ve already seen almost double that and it’s not even July yet.  There was almost even a no-hitter on the same night as Cain’s perfect game but the league upheld the official scorer’s decision to give B.J. Upton a hit denying R.A. Dickey the Mets a 2nd no hitter in as many weeks.  So what is the reason for the proliferation of historic pitching performances in the past four seasons?

Logically, my first thought was that there must be better pitchers now than there were in the first 136 years of baseball history.  But that was quickly disproved after looking at the list of names who accomplished the feat…

2009

Ublado Jimenez, Mark Buehrle (perfect game), Jonathan Sanchez

2010

Dallas Braden (perfect game), Roy Halladay (perfect game), Edwin Jackson, Matt Garza, Roy Halladay (postseason no-hitter)

2011

Francisco Liriano, Justin Verlander, Ervin Santana

2012

Philip Humber (perfect game), Jered Weaver, Johan Santana, Mariners (combined no-hitter), Matt Cain (perfect game)

While there are definitely names on this list that you would throw in with the all-time greats (Halladay, Verlander, J. Sanatana), there are also some names that will only be remembered because they threw a no-hitter.  Also there have always been great pitchers throughout history and it would be very hard to argue that the current crop of pitchers is superior to those that came before them.

Next, I thought maybe the hitting is sub-par.  Is there any trend developing with the team’s that are being no-hit?  Tampa Bay is the only team to repeat (3 times) on the list of teams that have been no-hit since 2009.  Cleveland would also have been included on that list if Galarraga’s perfect game was called correctly.  Of the 16 no-hitters in the last 4 seasons, 7 came against NL teams, while 9 came against AL teams.  3 no-hitters came against teams that would eventually make the playoffs that season, including one occurring in the postseason.  Furthermore, as a general trend in baseball, teams are scoring more runs than in seasons past.  Therefore, I don’t believe that sub-par hitting is causing this spike in superb pitching performances.

Steroids is always another variable to consider but both hitters and pitchers used PED’s and now hopefully the playing field has been leveled again with rampant drug testings.  Ballparks and fielding can also be playing a role in this phenomenon.  It seems as if there are more pitcher’s parks now and manager’s are beginning to conquer the fielding frontier – figuring out more effective ways to defend specific hitters with shifts.  I don’t think that any of those are enough to be solely responsible for the last 4 years.

Baseball is a numbers game with a plethora of statistics to try and explain what is happening and what should be happen.  Having said that, maybe there is no explanation for the recent pitching dominance.  Throughout baseball history, there have always been ebbs and flows and we search for answers to explain those changes.  Just like we do in life.  There is no explanation for some things and although there might be a unique explanation for this recent pitching dominance, I’m not sure it really matters what that is.  It was another great night in baseball 2 nights ago.  Cain’s perfect game was a joy to watch and it felt as if he would have had a harder time placing the ball on the corners than he did throwing it there.  Seeing so many no-hitter so fast is by no means diluting the experience for me.  I am really enjoying each dominant performance and get just as emotionally invested in the game each time it occurs.  I can’t think of a more dramatic half hour in sports than the final innings of a no-hitter or perfect game.  At this pace, 2012 might give 1884 a run for its money for most no-hitters in a season (8).

2 perfect games in the same season has only occurred 3 times in MLB history.  2012, 2010 and 1880.  That should be enough right there to realize how special the last couple of seasons have been.  So instead of continuing to search for an answer, I’m going to sit back and enjoy the ride.

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