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Why Are Baseball's No-Hitters No Longer Rare?


Finally this hour, perfection. Earlier this week, Matt Cain of the San Francisco Giants pitched a perfect game. Not a single member of the Houston Astros reached base in the Giants' 10-to-nothing victory. And that has sports commentators debating whether Cain's performance was one of the greatest ever and why no-hitters seem to be more commonplace in baseball these days. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now as he does most Fridays. And, Stefan, just as a favor to those non-baseball people out there, explain what a no-hitter is versus a perfect game.

STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: All right. No-hitter, no hits. You can walk someone. Someone can get on base. Runs are scored in no-hitters, not frequently, but it does happen. Perfect game, nobody gets to first base: 27 batters up, 27 batters down.

CORNISH: So then put Matt Cain's big game in context. In the pantheon of perfect games, how good was this one?

FATSIS: Well, there have been 22 perfect games in baseball history, and this arguably was one of the best. Matt Cain struck out 14 batters, which tied the record for the most strikeouts in a perfect game by the Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax in 1965. And then you add in six ground ball outs, and you get 20 of the 27 Houston Astros batters didn't get the ball out of the infield, which shows how much Matt Cain was in command of the game. There's another pitching metric that's being cited a lot, and it's called game score, was devised by the analytics guru Bill James. And according to that metric, Cain tied Koufax among the perfect games, and they trail only a 20-strikeout, one-hitter thrown by Kerry Wood of the Chicago Cubs in 1998 for pitching greatness.

CORNISH: Now, this is a terrible thing to say, but when this came up, my first reaction was another one, right? I know it's a big deal, but give me a sense - I mean, it seems like this happens more often these days.

FATSIS: Yeah. There have been five no-hitters this year in Major League Baseball. And the most no-hitters in a season is seven. That happened in 1990 and 1991. We might not see another one all year, but it certainly doesn't look that way. Historically, there have been clusters of no-hitters. The most in a three-year stretch is 16 from 1915 to 1917. We had 15 of them from '67 to '69. And then 15 also from 1990 to 1992. After Cain's perfect game, there have been 14 no-hitters since the start of the 2010 season. And everything seems to be conspiring to see more great pitching performances.

CORNISH: So is this rash of no-hitters a fluke or there are actual reasons behind it?

FATSIS: Well, all of those no-hitter heavy periods I've just cited have something in common: low batting averages. In the 19-teens, it was the end of what was called the dead-ball era. Pitching was so dominant in the late 1960s that baseball had to lower the pitcher's mound to even things out. And the last two of these eras are right before and right after the steroids era. The batting average in the major leagues has fallen for six straight seasons. It's at levels now not seen since the early 1970s.

And players are striking out at record levels, which doesn't necessarily mean that hitters are worse, but that strikeouts are accepted more readily as part of the sport. And it means that when it comes to no-hitters, fewer batted balls are getting into play, and that means there are fewer chances for a hit or an error.

CORNISH: So I guess the big question, then, is why are pitchers dominant?

FATSIS: There a number of factors, and Tom Verducci at Sports Illustrated compiled, I think, the most thorough list that I've read for why no-hitters are more common. A big reason is the way pitchers pitch. There's more emphasis among coaches on the movement of the ball rather than speed - velocity. You've got scouting advances, which means better positioning by the defensive players against individual hitters. There's specialization and better care for young pitching prospects, and there are some new larger ballparks that favor pitchers.

And finally, there is this crackdown on drug use, not just steroids but amphetamines, which were common, and the absence of them might be making players more fatigued on a day-to-day basis.

CORNISH: Stefan, thank you.

FATSIS: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: Stefan Fatsis joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. He's also a panelist on slate.com's sports podcast "Hang Up and Listen." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.