Talking Baseball

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Posted by Jon on Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The Ease of Perfection: A Recent Surge in Perfect Games

Here’s a pitching line you don’t see every season:

9.0 3 1 1 1 18 1

And here’s a pitching line you don’t see every decade:

9.0 0 0 0 0 13 0
On Sunday, Ben Sheets strikes out a mediocre Braves lineup 18 times. Tuesday, after an off-day, the same lineup from the noticeably not Hot-lanta doesn’t muster a base runner against another very good pitcher, future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson. No walks. No hits. Nobody hit by a pitch. No Braves reaching base due to fielding errors.

Twenty-seven up. Twenty-seven down.

The first thing that struck me—and I’m sure it struck many other baseball fans—is that the Braves are floundering on offense. Atlanta hitters have struck out 31 times in their last two games. They've whiffed in more than half of their last 58 trips to the plate! (Who knew that changing more than a third of the lineup after a stinking 18-K performance would result in worse results?) Surely, when the prospects of Eli Marrero returning is cause for hope, you’re looking at an offense in shambles.

It’s not every day you see an 18-whiff performance, but to follow it by being no-hit and no-walked from the first to the last pitch must be a historic occurrence. Maybe along with Johnson’s game balls and glove, the Hall of Fame should also create a monument to the new-look Braves, Jesse Garcia, Nick Green, Dewayne Wise, and (my favorite) Wilson Betemit, to commemorate Atlanta’s historic ineptitude. But it wasn't just the new guys. Neither J.D. nor Chipper nor Andruw had any better luck.

Nevertheless, I was excited. This was the first time I’d seen such a historic performance, even on television. Although the Diamondbacks (aside from the lovable Robby Hammock) seemed less energized than me after the fact, this was a rare performance—one not likely to be repeated in the near future...right? After all, since the birth of modern day baseball, you’re likely to witness one perfect game every six some odd years. Johnson’s was only the seventeenth perfect game since the beginning of the 1904 season (I give Pedro and Haddix the nod; sorry Ernie...).

Noticeably, the amount of perfect games pitched has recently increased. In just the last 10.25 seasons (since the shortened 1994 season) five perfect games have been tossed. To examine the increase, I’ll break it down by ten year spans beginning in 1904, when the first modern day perfect game was tossed by a guy with name recognition.
Years		PG	PG/17

1904-1913 2 11.7
1914-1923 1 5.9
1924-1933 0 0.0
1934-1943 0 0.0
1944-1953 0 0.0
1954-1963 2 11.7
1964-1973 3 17.6
1974-1983 1 5.9
1984-1993 3 17.6
1994-2004 5 29.4
Note that 1) the last ten-year span includes the beginning of the 2004 season, and that 2) 'PG/17' refers to the percenge of a ten year span's recorded complete games out of the total number recorded (17).

Perfect games were very rare before the mid-fifties. In fact, just three of the seventeen perfect games came between 1904 and 1953, due to the dry spell in the thirties and forties. I’m no expert about baseball history, but it seemed to me that while baseball hitters have developed the technique and the musculature to hit more homers than ever before, the best pitchers have also become more adept and refined at the skill of limiting their opponents' ability to reach base. More than a quarter of baseball’s perfect games have come within the last ten years. How can this be explained? And should the value of a perfect game diminish with the feat’s increased frequency?

First, it should be noted that it takes a combination of skill and luck to record a perfect games, which means that basing a decade’s ability to pitch on the amount of perfect games tossed is fairly ridiculous.

Originally I attributed the increase in perfect games to an ever-refining baseball talent base. Perhaps pitching talent has developed and increased, culminating in a historically astoudning perfect game to season ratio of 0.5. This could be the case, and is no doubt true on one level. Just as some batters have become more powerful at the plate, specific pitchers are stronger and possibly more dominant than ever before. But there is a more discernable reason for the increase in the frequency of perfect games. I’ve added average Major League games played per each ten-season span.
Years		PG	PG/17	Games 	PG/Games (*e-5)

1904-1913 2 11.7 24640 8.11
1914-1923 1 5.9 24640 4.06
1924-1933 0 0.0 24640 0.00
1934-1943 0 0.0 24640 0.00
1944-1953 0 0.0 24640 0.00
1954-1963 2 11.7 32400 6.17
1964-1973 3 17.6 38880 7.72
1974-1983 1 5.9 38880 2.57
1984-1993 3 17.6 45360 6.61
1994-2004 5 29.4 49815 10.03
Note that 1) the 'Games' figures are estimated from the totals of the last year of each ten-year span and that 2) the 'PG/Games' (perfect games per total games in ten year span)figures are all *e-5.

In the last 10.25 seasons, the percentage of perfect games out of total games played has increased. From 1954 to 1993, the average frequency of perfect games was 5.77 (*e-5. In the ten year span since 1993, the frequency has increased almost twofold.

After the 1994 strike came our current era of increased hitting and power. In this context, the remarkable rise in perfect game frequency seems a strange revelation. More teams and more games played notwithstanding, perfect games are becoming more frequent. I have trouble attributing this jump to pure luck alone. Maybe pitchers have been better since the mid-nineties, as I originally hypothesized. But now I have trouble believing this, too. In fact, the rise of perfect games may be attributable to the watering down of baseball lineups.

If the hitting to pitching talent ratio has been relatively constant in the league since at least the 1950s, it is not impossible to assume that the same number of dominant starting pitchers exists now as before, but that they are more spread out across the league. Just as pitching metrics have shown that expansion allows worse pitchers into the league, hitters have also become, compared to decades ago, less proficient. In addition, it would appear that, at least for the one game, pitching a perfect game requires a dominant pitcher against a poor offense.

Hence, as pitching and hitting talent has become more diffused throughout the league, it becomes more difficult to field a strong offense. So the most dominant pitchers in the league, of which we assume there remain a relatively constant number, are more likely to face terrible—or at least worse—offenses, resulting in more perfect games and dominant performances.

This theory can be extrapolated to deal with high-strikeout games—another measure of pitching diminance—as well. Of the top ten single game strike out performances of all time, half occurred within the past ten years. Add two more if you start counting form the mid-eighties.

It is important to remember that this is only a theory and correlation between years and power pitching performances alone is not indicative of causation. But if Betemit and the rest of the gang strike out in 27 straight at-bats and fail to reach base in their next game, I reserve the right to change my theory into fact.

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