By BEN WALKER, Associated Press
A day after Matt Cain's perfect game, some fans actually suggested that no-hitters are becoming almost, well, commonplace.
Perish that thought. The thrill of will-he-or-won't-he always makes for great drama. Be it a future Hall of Famer or a .500 pitcher, the sight of a man on the mound with those big zeros posted on the scoreboard starts to create a buzz, even in the fourth inning.
That said, there have already been five no-hitters this season. Year of the Pitcher? More like Decade of the Pitcher. A quick look at this recent run:
— WHAT IS THE RECORD FOR NO-HITTERS IN A SEASON?
Seven is the modern mark since 1900. That happened in 1990 and again in 1991, with Nolan Ryan throwing two in those days. There were six in 2010, including two by Roy Halladay. The perfect games by Cain and Philip Humber this season match the most in any year.
— HOW DOES THIS RASH OF GEMS RANK WITH OTHER ERAS?
It's a great time to be a fan of pitching. Of baseball's 22 perfect games, five have come in the last two-plus seasons. Consider this: When Don Larsen threw his perfecto in the 1956 World Series, it was the first one in the majors in more than 34 years. Plus, we've now had 14 no-hitters since Ubaldo Jimenez got the ball rolling — or stopped it, rather — in 2010. An amazing three during a 13-day span by Cain, Johan Santana and the Seattle staff.
— THE BIG QUESTION: WHY SO MANY?
The short answer — better pitchers, worse hitters, fancier fielders, bigger ballparks, fewer drugs. Let's break that down:
PITCHING: Not that every team has a Justin Verlander or Stephen Strasburg, but watch a night of baseball and you'll see pitchers making hitters look plain silly with an arsenal of fastballs and a variety of breaking balls. Better technique and better training as teams put more emphasis than ever on developing pitchers and keeping them healthy.
Maybe more on the way, too, says Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, who threw a no-hitter for San Francisco. He lives in the mountains of North Carolina, and took a break from painting his horse barn Thursday to talk about the trend.
"It makes you awfully proud. All the people down at the hardware store and at lunch today were talking about Cain's perfect game. I was proud and had my chest pushed out.
"I'll tell you what, every college team has about 12 pitchers, high schools have about four and most schools are playing baseball. So there are a lot of players out there," he said. "Because of all the football concussions you're going to see a lot more kids go to baseball."
HITTING: The rate for runs and homers dropped last year to its lowest level in two decades. Nothing indicates those numbers will swing the other way anytime soon, not with hitters reaching all-time high levels in strikeouts. The last season there wasn't a no-hitter was 2005. Are batters overmatched?
"There's definitely more talent," Tigers slugger Prince Fielder said. "Everybody that's starting is definitely getting better. I definitely think pitching is getting better."
FIELDING: As sabermetrics have become a bigger part of the game, the methods of measuring glovework are growing. Teams want players who can pick it. Gregor Blanco, whose diving catch in the right-center alley saved Cain, is a good example. He's far from a behemoth, but a spray hitter who can track down balls is plenty valuable these days. Add in the extra shifts teams now employ, led by master Joe Maddon, and fewer balls fall in, a key ingredient for any no-hitter.
DRUGS: The beastly hitting totals of the Steroids Era have dwindled, and so have ERAs. Batters weren't the only players using performance-enhancing drugs, of course, but the numbers appear to have affected them more. Many people in the game say the crackdown on amphetamines has had an even bigger effect, particularly on hitters who wear down more easily. Position players are on the field every day. Starting pitchers, of course, only play every five days or so.
Colorado Rockies manager Jim Tracy is among those who see a correlation between cleaning up the game and better pitching.
"Yeah. I do," he said Thursday. "What they've done is they've completely leveled the playing field, however you want to look at it. From the pitcher's perspective, in relation to where the hitters are at now."
"You hear talk about the fact that there are clubs that are looking to become more pitching, defense and speed, like it was in the '70s, when they built all those cookie-cutter type stadiums, because balls aren't flying out of the ballpark the way they have in the last few years. It just seems the playing surface is a lot fairer," he said. "Has it made a difference? I have to say yes. When you eliminate cheating like that, absolutely. Absolutely you're going to see a difference."
BALLPARKS: For sure, it can be fun to watch balls pop into the seats on a summer night at Camden Yards, Citizens Bank Park and Yankee Stadium. No good for pitchers, though, especially when a broken-bat fly somehow flies just far enough to land in the front row. After a period in which new ballparks seemed to shrink, the pendulum is shifting. Nationals Park, Citi Field, Petco Park and others aren't exactly hitter-friendly. More room means more balls can end up in gloves — witness Mike Baxter running into the wall, injuring himself and preserving Santana's no-hitter earlier this month.
REPLAY: OK, not a major factor. Still, if MLB had gone ahead with its plan to add video review for balls down the lines this year, Carlos Beltran winds up with a double and spoils Santana's bid. And clearly replay showed that Armando Galarraga should've had a perfect game in 2010. It's a separate question, but if there's a missed call, which would you rather see: A mistake that helps a pitcher get a no-hitter, or one that takes it away?
LUCK: Pure and simple. Cain and Sandy Koufax struck out more than half the batters in their perfect games, each fanning 14. Even so, getting 27 outs against a major league team takes some good fortune. Maybe a ball that hooks foul by an inch or a bang-bang play at first base or a hard grounder that bounces the right way. Tigers manager Jim Leyland has spent more than half his life in baseball, and he has a thought on why there have been so many no-hitters lately.
"Guys are pretty good, but I think it's a coincidence," he said.
AP Baseball Writer Janie McCauley and AP Sports Writers Jay Cohen and Pat Graham contributed to this report.
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