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Senior Baseball Columnist

No-hitters, perfect games, no longer a rarity

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White Sox starter Philip Humber had the first perfect game this season on April 21 in Seattle. (Getty Images)  
White Sox starter Philip Humber had the first perfect game this season on April 21 in Seattle. (Getty Images)  

Suggested theme song for 2012? Easy. Ringo Starr's The No No Song.

Where's Nancy Reagan when we really need her? Just Say No. How about James Bond? Dr. No.

From New York to San Francisco, pitchers across the land are issuing the command: No, no, no. Already, they've thrown five no-hitters ... and we're not even close to tossing the first Fourth of July hot dog onto the grill. Last time there were five no-hitters through mid-June? Try World War I: 1917.

Matt Cain of the Giants and Philip Humber of the White Sox already have authored perfect games, hearkening back to the Athletics' Dallas Braden and the Phillies' Roy Halladay doing it just yesterday, in 2010.

There have been only 22 perfect games thrown in big-league history. Only three times have two been thrown in the same season -- and yes, it's now happened twice in the past three years.

Before that? You must go back to when Thomas Edison patented a little something called the electric incandescent lamp: 1880, for goodness sake.

Pure stuff has become so electric today that it seems as if somebody is taking a no-hitter deep into the night every night.

"It's unbelievable," Angels outfielder Torii Hunter says. "It's sick.

"I've never seen so many no-hitters being thrown as in the last two or three years."

The major league batting average today, .253, is the lowest since 1972. Home runs per game are up just a tick over last year's 0.94, which was the lowest since 1993.

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  • And perfect games are up.

    "Heck, there's only been 22 of them, and I've seen two in the last four years from our guys," White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper says of Humber and Mark Buehrle [2009]. "I can't put my finger on it. It is happening a lot more."

    Why are pitchers dominating? Several reasons:

    No more Vitamin S: The post-steroids market correction is obvious. As Angels manager Mike Scioscia says, there is plenty of "documentation" regarding the decline of home runs, runs per game and other offensive numbers. Yes, some pitchers were juiced, too. But hitters clearly had an advantage during the height of steroid use. Just look at their Bugs Bunny numbers.

    "I think pitching might be almost normalized, instead of being a little weakened," Scioscia says. "You're comparing it with eras where pitching might have been a little thinner, you definitely had some performance-enhancing drugs in the game, that was obviously helping players to perform at a higher level. There were some pitchers doing it, too. But mostly, it was in the batter's box."

    Beyond expansion: That the frequency of no-hitters and perfect games has risen makes sense simply because, thanks to both expansion and the 162-game season, there are more games on the schedule than ever before. There are roughly twice as many games being played each year in today's 30-team, 162-game schedule (2,430) as there were under the old 16-team, 154-game schedule (1,232). And though there have been five expansions since 1960, including twice (four teams added) in the 1990s, 15 years after the last expansion, the pitching pool isn't as diluted as it once was.

    Sophisticated starters: Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti, who threw a no-hitter for the Yankees on July 4, 1983, thinks one reason pitching has been more dominant in recent years is because starters are smarter than ever and have developed more weapons.

    "I believe starting pitchers have a little better repertoire in terms of the baby cutters and things like that," Righetti says. "They're not that hard to throw, pitchers can back-door them now, they can get a pitch over if they're behind in the count. And the curveball's coming back a little bit.

    "When I first got into coaching at the big-league level in 2000, balls were flying everywhere. It was a sinker-man's league. There were a lot of power sinkers. Everybody seemed to try to throw those to keep the ball down.

    "I think the art of the fastball and curveball, along with the changeup, kind of went by the wayside for a few years. I think if you look now at guys' pitching, you see better repertoire."

    Former big league pitcher Bud Black, now managing the Padres and once a highly successful pitching coach with the Angels, agrees.

    "Pitchers are trying to do more with the ball than ever before," Black says. "Pitch manipulation, creating different spins. The baby cutter turns into a slider, which turns into a slurve. There are different change-ups, from the circle-change on."

    Advanced defensive metrics: Spray charts have been available to coaches looking for a defensive edge for decades. But an avalanche of advanced material is available in the digital information age that can help position the defense. (Look at all the shifts being employed this year).

    "You're seeing more erratic defenses," Scioscia says. "You're seeing more triangles with left-handed hitters than ever before because the data is [recommending] it. You can shrink the field a little bit. There's no doubt that spray charts have gotten more specific. It's much easier to coordinate your defense with some pitchers who have command. You can shrink the field easier.

    "But it's not like we woke up on April 1 and said, 'Hey, we've got this new technology.' That is part of the equation, but it's been going on for awhile."

    Post-steroids, Righetti says "the slap and run game is back", including, even, in the AL. And several people think there is a correlation between clubs re-emphasizing speed and defense with current players -- perhaps because of highlight videos in this TV age? -- taking more pride in their defense.

    "Before, people played defense because it was the greens fee for getting four at-bats," Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux says. "Now it's like, 'Hey, man, let me do something about this' and they take pride in their leather. And those guys are fun to watch."

    The Mets' Johan Santana was able to pitch a no-hitter partly because of Mike Baxter's fabulous catch against the left-field fence. When Gregor Blanco made his sensational running, diving catch in deep right-center field in the seventh inning to help save Cain's perfect game, Giants manager Bruce Bochy was stunned. That was more athleticism than metrics.

    "I haven't seen a right fielder catch a ball in that part of our park, ever, in all my years there," Bochy says. "I didn't think he had a chance."

    More gas: Not long after Black retired as a player and joined the Indians' front office as a special assistant to then-GM John Hart in the mid-1990s, Cleveland changed its scouting scale.

    "The average fastball used to be 89-91," Black said. "When I was there, we bumped it up to 90-92. A generation ago, 87-90 used to be an average fastball. Stuff is better now. And that might go hand-in-hand with the injury factor, whether the body is equipped to handle it."

    It seems strange that velocity would increase even in the eye of steroid testing. Flip side is, each generation gets bigger, faster and stronger.

    "Back in the day, 90 mph was hard, and kind of a benchmark for hard," Maddux says. "Now, more guys are throwing 95 than ever. You could take it that expectations are raised. The human element, what are our limits? We don't know our limits until we push them.

    "The bar's raised, I think, the same way it happened when John Daly and Tiger Woods came on the scene in golf, they hit the ball so much further than everybody else. Now, everybody hits it far. Now, maybe it's a new standard."

    Whiff kings: Today's hitters are striking out more than ever before. Hitters have broken the record for most strikeouts in a season four times since 2004 (Adam Dunn, Ryan Howard and Mark Reynolds, twice). Bobby Bonds held the single-season strikeout record from 1970-2003 with 189. That total now ranks 12th on the all-time single season list.

    "A lot of guys strike out a lot because they make no adjustments," Maddux says. "But that's just some guys. Others make adjustments throughout an at-bat, strike out less and think that if they put the ball in play something good may happen. So it just depends on which philosophy you want to go with. Reggie Jackson used to say if you make an out, who cares how you make it."

    One of Jackson's old teammates scoffs at the notion that pitching is regaining the upper hand today simply because hitters are striking out more.

    "I came up in the AL East, and everybody was swinging out of their rear ends," Righetti says. "There were tons of home runs. There were DHs. Butch Hobson hit 30 homers hitting ninth for the Red Sox."

    Steroids' dirty little nephew: Many managers and coaches notice a difference in the game with amphetamines now banned, too. Sometimes, particularly after an all-night flight or in a heat wave, reflexes just aren't as sharp. That hampers hitters more than pitchers.

    Sure, there's caffeine and energy drinks, but they're no replacement for, as one manager puts it, "truck-driver speed."

    Another manager wonders if players draining enormous amounts of caffeinated energy drinks leads to dehydration and muscle pulls.

    "Guys are trying," he says. "But I don't think the seven Red Bulls they pound from 3 p.m. until game time are the same as a Black Beauty back in the day."

    Medical marvels: Since baseball lowered the mound in 1969 and then instituted the designated hitter in 1973, almost all changes have favored hitters.

    "The parks are smaller, there's less foul territory, strike zones have shrunk to cookie cutter sizes," Cooper says. "I can't think of one change that's helped pitchers."

    Well, there is one: With the perfection of the Tommy John ligament transfer surgery, pitchers can return from elbow injuries just as strong as they were before. Sometimes, stronger.

    "It's like picking out a new car," the Angels' Hunter quips. "Hey, I'm going to get a new arm."

    Mix and match: Bullpens and specialization can make life hell on hitters. Though, aside from six Mariners no-hitting the Dodgers a couple of weeks ago, bullpens haven't factored into the recent spate of no-hitters.

    "It seems like the last two or three years, it's been all about how pitching is going to take over," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly says. "It's always been that way, good pitching stops good hitting, and there's more good pitching today. And bullpens."

    Maddux leans toward paraphrasing Texas manager Ron Washington: That's baseball.

    "That's the way it goes sometimes," Maddux says. "The talent level in our game is pretty good. A gifted player on a given night can be better than anybody else, and I think that's what's going on. And the guys throwing the no-hitters are guys with pretty good stuff. ...

    "Matt Cain, does that surprise you? No. You'd say if anybody's going to do it, Matt Cain is going to be one of the candidates. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, if they did it you'd say, 'About time.' Or, 'Again?'

    "Those guys are pretty good."

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