OPINION: Last week Venezuela's Felix Hernandez pitched his way into the history books when he threw the 23rd perfect game in major league baseball history.
It was the first for both the pitcher and the Seattle Mariners franchise but the third perfecto of the major league season.
A perfect game is one of the rarest events in baseball - a pitcher (or combination of pitchers) must go nine innings without an opposing batter reaching first base. No hits, no walks, through all 27 batters.
But, strangely, the perfect game is not as rare as it once was.
From 1922 to 1981 there were just five but there have been six in the past five years. That is more than a quarter of the total perfect games in a sport that has been played for more than 130 years.
Only twice before have there been two thrown in the same season, 1880 and 2010, and there was a 34-year gap between 1922 and 1956 when not one perfect game was thrown.
So what has changed for so many pitchers to suddenly attain perfection?
One theory is that batters are no longer juicing (using performance-enhancing drugs) so their bat speed is slower. However, some pitchers were also juicing, so that should have equalised the contest through the bad drug years.
The most likely reason is the spike in strikeouts.
Pitchers are on track for the highest rate of strikeouts in baseball history at 7.5 per nine innings. The strikeout rate had never exceeded seven before 2009 and has now for each of the past four seasons. The strikeout to walk rate is also at its highest ever.
For one thing, it shows that teams seem to have moved away from the Moneyball template, which revolved around signing undervalued players who could get on plate and wouldn't strike out. Striking out doesn't seem to have the stigma for today's batters.
In the past, a batter who had two strikes would try for a single to simply get on base but today's sluggers just keep on swinging for the fences. It seems similar to today's cricketers, raised on one-day games, who are not prepared to grind like batsmen of the past. Here, though, the blame could lie with ESPN and its sports highlights reels - a single isn't going to get you on SportsCenter but a blast over centrefield will.
Hernandez threw his perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays, the second time this season they have been on the receiving end.
Of course, for a pitcher to achieve a perfect game his fielders have to back him up, which they did. His catcher is also critical and Hernandez got a lot of help there.
As a former Ray, John Jaso was able to exploit the strategy Tampa Bay have employed against Hernandez of swinging at fast balls early in the count. Instead, Hernandez, with Jaso calling the shots, gave them a steady diet of curves, sliders and changeups, making them look silly. He struck out 12, including five of the last six batters.
Hernandez is also lucky to have Seattle's Safeco Field as his home base. It's a pitcher's paradise and ranks last among the major league ballparks for hits and home runs.
No pitcher has ever repeated the feat but, as long as he remains a Mariner, Hernandez at just 26 is well-placed for a chance to become the first man to pitch two perfect games.
That would make him the most perfect.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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