Doc Halladay's Perfecto and Related Musings

Tom DubberkeCorrespondent IMay 30, 2010

As I’m sure you’ve heard, Roy Halladay threw the season’s second perfect game and third no-hitter of the season against the Marlins yesterday.

It’s certainly no surprise that if any pitcher in baseball were to throw a perfect game, Roy Halladay would have to be right at the top of the list in terms of the probabilities.  Halladay matches tremendous stuff with tremendous control, both of which are key factors in the likelihood of throwing a perfect game.

Of course, the biggest factor is just dumb luck — a day when the pitcher is making his pitches and the hitters are hitting the ball at the defense.

The first thought that comes into mind when you have two perfect games in the same month, and three no-hitters in the first two months of a season, is whether it is getting relatively easier to throw perfect games or no-hitters in today’s game.  I’d need to run a more thorough statistical survey, but I really doubt it.

In fact, two perfect games have been thrown in the same month before.  All the way back in 1880, Lee Richmond pitched a perfect game on June 12, leading the Worchester (Massachusetts) Ruby Legs to a 1-0 win over the Cleveland Blues. Only five days later, on June 17, 1880, John Montgomery Ward tossed a perfecto, as the Providence Grays beat the Buffalo Bisons 5-0.

Richmond was a 23 year old major league rookie in 1880. He went 32-32 that year with a 2.15 ERA as the Ruby Legs primary starter (the team went 40-43 for the season). He threw 590.2 innings that year, which was not uncommon for the time, and was never the same pitcher again, which was also not uncommon for the time (more top pitchers burned out fast then than today, even though the problem has never gone away). His career major league record was only 75-100, but he likely played professionally for many more years for various minor league or barnstorming teams.

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John Montgomery Ward was one of the great players and baseball personalities of the 19th Century. He started as an ace pitcher, finishing his career with a 164-102 record and a 2.10 career ERA. He then converted to shortstop and accumulated 2,104 major league hits.

In his spare time, Ward obtained a law degree from New York’s Columbia Law School in 1885, and led the players in forming the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, professional athletes’ first labor union, at least in the U.S. The Brotherhood fell apart after the failure of the Players’ League in 1890.

Interestingly, he was not black-listed, but instead an agreement was worked out that allowed him to return to the National League as a player. As a lawyer, he continued to represent players in disputes with the National League ,and later acted as President and part-owner of the Boston Braves. He was also involved as an official of the Brooklyn franchise (the Tip-Tops) in the short-lived Federal League.

The two perfect games in June of 1880 is much more amazing than the two perfect games in May 2010, due entirely to the changes in defense in the professional game in the interim. While there was greater diversity of talent in the major league (the NL was the only major league) in 1880 than today (i.e. the difference between the best major league players and the worst major league players was greater then than now), it does not compare to the differences in fielding percentages.

In 1880, it was still uncommon for defenders to wear leather gloves, and the gloves that were worn were more like handball gloves (padded gloves covering the palm but not the fingers) than baseball mitts. This meant that errors were much more common than they are now. In fact, it was still common then for players in the more challenging defensive positions to have fielding percentages well below .900.

You just don’t see that much any more. In his rookie year (2007), Ryan Braun had an .895 fielding percentage at 3B. He’s been exclusively a left-fielder since then.

In Monte Ward’s perfecto, he struck out only two batters, which meant that his defense must have converted 25 consecutive batted balls into outs. Under the circumstances, it was an amazing feat that tells me that even as early as 1880, when truly professional baseball had been around fewer than a dozen years, the best players were truly great at the game as it was then played.

Three no-hitters in a season is hardly unusual. At least three no-hitters were tossed in each of 2007, 2001, 1999, 1996, 1994, and 1993.  In 1990 and 1991, seven no-hitters were thrown each season.

No-hitters are probably more common on a per season basis now than in the era between 1920 to 1960, based solely on the fact that so many more major league games are played each season now compared to then. The number of teams has nearly doubled, and the teams play a 162 game schedule rather than 1954. More games played means more chances for no-hitters to be thrown.

In fact, it has almost always been more common to have multiple no-hitters thrown in a season, than no no-hitters thrown at all. Since 1893, when the pitcher’s mound was moved back to its current 60’6″, these are the years in which no no-hitters were thrown at all: 1894, 1895, 1896, 1909, 1913, 1921, 1927, 1928, 1930, 1932, 1933, 1936, 1939, 1942, 1943, 1949, 1959, 1982, 1985, 1989, 2000 and 2005.

The periods from 1894-1896 and 1927-1943 were extreme hitters’ eras when you would expect to see fewer no-hitters. The periods from 1900-1919 and from 1960-1985 were extreme pitchers’ eras when you would expect to see more no-hitters thrown. The list in the previous paragraph seems to confirm these expectations.

Even with the advent of another hitters’ era starting since around 1986, no hitters have been fairly common in the present era. That probably has to do with the increased number of games played due to expansion (four more teams added since 1993) and the relative increase in the gap between the major league game’s best and worst players, also caused by expansion.

One other possible factor is the fact that now more than ever, players swing for the fences and consequently strike out more than ever before (increased strikeout rates also probably have something to do with using more pitchers per game and larger bullpens, meaning hitters see fresher, stronger pitchers more often). More strikeouts means fewer balls put into play, which can only help increase no-hitter rates.

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