Felix Hernandez’s perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays Wednesday afternoon was a sublime display of pitching. But if you’ve been following Major League Baseball this season, it was starting to look a little familiar.
True, even by already lofty perfect game standards, the Seattle Mariners ace was dominant Wednesday, striking out 12 in no-nonsense fashion without even one miraculous fielding play to keep it going.
However, King Felix’s performance was just the latest yield this season in a surprisingly fertile crop of no-hitters and perfect games that have come to define 2012 as one of the great pitching years in MLB history.
But is this strikeout-crazy season an anomaly, or the culmination of a variety of factors favoring the defense – and making it harder for the poor sap at the plate?
Perhaps a little bit of both. If you’re a baseball fan who revels in the jittery excitement of a potential no-hitter, the 2012 MLB season has been an anxiety-ridden treat.
Felix’s outing was the third perfect game since Opening Day, and the sixth no-hitter. Three of those were at Safeco field, the Mariners’ home base in Seattle. To put those numbers into perspective, there have been only 24 perfect games since Major League Baseball began tracking such things in 1880. Typically, a perfect game comes along a few times per decade (in a good decade, that is). Three in a single season is a major league record.
Around the web, speculation abounds as to the cause. Some bloggers posit the theory that umpires are being more forgiving as far as what constitutes a pitch finding the strike zone. Others, like the Oregonian’s John Canzano, insinuate that steroids may still be involved. One industrious commenter on Canzano’s blog even suggests that the Internet is to blame – pitchers have access to unlimited information about opposing hitters and their weaknesses.
The answer, though, is probably simpler. Historically, pro baseball has always been a pendulum, swinging back and forth between pitching and hitting advantages.
In the beginning, during the Dead Ball Era, the game was small – low-scoring and strategy-minded. Ballparks were big, home runs were comparatively rare, and pitchers had the luxury of old, dirty balls that were tricky to hit, as well as the now-illegal spitball.
Then Babe Ruth came along, and offenses got bigger, better, and more home run-oriented. It didn’t hurt that the spitball was outlawed.
In the 1960s, pitching found its dominance again. Following Roger Maris’s record-breaking home run season in 1961, the strike zone was enlarged. A decade of dominant pitching followed, culminating in “the year of the pitcher” in 1968. Earned-run averages under 2.00 became commonplace, and hitting numbers were ghastly (only one hitter, Carl Yastrzemski, finished the year with a batting average above .300). In response, the pitching mound was lowered five inches the following season, and the offense perked back up.
Even in the midst of the Steroid Era, with the likes of Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire shattering home run records, pitching was quietly becoming more impressive. Of the 23 perfect games in MLB history, more than half have been within the last two decades. Six have come since 2009.
The paring back of performance-enhancing drugs' impact on baseball has further leveled the playing field (Giants’ slugger Melky Cabrera was suspended Wednesday for testing positive for testosterone). What’s more, hitters’ numbers are again trickling down. According to AP sportswriter Howie Rumberg, the league-wide batting average was .268 in 2009. This season, it’s down to .260.
Does this mean we’re in for an MLB where no-hitters are an everyday thing from here on out? It’s doubtful. The hitters will find a way to once again level the playing field, because a successful MLB is one where the balance between offense and defense is delicately maintained. Plus, if this keeps up much longer, fans will really start to miss their home runs.