Why MLB pitchers are getting too good to throw perfect games

·6-min read

So far in a startlingly pitching-dominant 2021 season, MLB has witnessed three no-hitters without a walk on any of the stat lines. Usually, a zero in the BB column would indicate an even more hallowed achievement: the perfect game. But these performances have fallen just short of that peak for different reasons. 

Joe Musgrove and Carlos Rodon hit batters with pitches, and then on Wednesday, Baltimore Orioles lefty John Means tossed a no-no where the lone blemish came on … a strikeout, but one where the third strike was wild and allowed the hapless victim to reach first base.

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It’s the first game in major-league history where a wild third strike was the difference-maker between perfection and a no-hitter. However, the novelty — even MLB’s app seemed confused for a bit — actually highlights a reality of hitters’ impossible task in 2021. There are an ever-growing number of pitches who are simply too hot to handle, for batters and catchers and sometimes the pitchers themselves.

The league is on record-high trajectories for hit batters and wild pitches even as hurlers’ grip on the game grows stronger and extreme feats of pitching dominance proliferate.

The saying may go that perfect is the enemy of good, but this version of unbridled pitching dominance is breeding those formerly fluky barriers to history, and flipping the aphorism on its head.

The evolution of pitching dominance

No-hitters are a logical outcropping of baseball’s current brew. Strikeouts have been rising relentlessly for years — the last season that did not reset MLB’s all-time K rate mark was 2007 — and batting average has plummeted. Still, 2021 is proving to be a voyage into an unexplored void. The current league average — .233 — is four points below 1968’s Year of the Pitcher level that led to the lowering of the mound.

Part of the issue appears to be MLB’s attempt to “rectify” the abundance of home runs by tweaking the baseball. Whether that is actually the cause remains unclear — especially given the league’s track record of having any idea what its ball will do — but home runs are indeed markedly down from 2020 and especially from 2019, taking the wind out of the sails of lineups that have become more and more reliant on the homer. The walk rate, which had been rising at less historic levels since the home run surge began in 2015, is down. So pitchers have all the bat-missing momentum and less fear about what could happen when contact is made.

Fastballs are faster than ever, and breaking balls are more common than ever. Entering Wednesday’s action, 42.5 percent of all pitches in 2021 had been breaking balls (often engineered to create maximum movement), the highest rate on record save for 2020. 

Evidence of how this is creating game-changing wildness can, strangely, be found in the heart of the strike zone. Pitchers are piping in as many center-cut offerings as we’ve ever tracked (going back to 2008), and surrendering the fewest hits on record. The focus, you see, is on uncorking the most fearsome pitch possible, not worrying about where it’s going. Those are the forces that make the current overpowering of batters possible, but they also make once fluky events like hit batters and wild pitches a bigger part of the story.

The Mets lost an April game in which the only runs they allowed came on a strikeout pitch gone awry. Or take the Brewers’ Corbin Burnes. Before hitting the IL, he started his season with a mind-bending 49 strikeouts and no walks in 29 1/3 frames. He has, however, hit three batters — a bit of history undercut by an afterthought of a stat column. Musgrove, Rodon and Means can probably sympathize, even as they proudly collect their no-hitter memorabilia.

Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher John Means, right, celebrates with catcher Pedro Severino after Means threw a no-hitter baseball game against the Seattle Mariners, Wednesday, May 5, 2021, in Seattle. The Orioles won 6-0. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Orioles pitcher John Means celebrates with catcher Pedro Severino after no-hitting the Seattle Mariners. The only baserunner Means allowed came on a wild third strike. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

2021 no-hitters a sign of accelerating trends

It’s certainly dispiriting to lose the perfect game label on a single off-course pitch, but it can’t be removed from how the dominance came to be. 

Turbocharging velocity and movement — and placing a priority on whiffs — inherently pushes the limits of control.

That’s bearing out in the numbers. The combined number of hit batters, wild pitches and passed balls — which we’ll call out-of-control pitches — is at an all-time high in the modern game. It’s almost a given you’ll see one each time you tune in — MLB was averaging 0.962 per game entering Wednesday. That’s up 36.3 percent up since 2011, and 13.4 percent from 2019, even. (Left uncounted are the injury-to-insult style swinging strikes that hit the bamboozled batter — a smaller genre that, anecdotally, also seems to pop up more than ever.)

Uncaught pitches like the one that cost Means are at an all-time high on their own — up 24.4 percent since 2011 — but the biggest contributor here is the historic and dangerous level of pelted batsmen. Around the game, the surge in plunkings has been noticeable, and concerns are mounting as stars hit the IL or face scary situations with high 90s heat bearing down on them. Some executives even speculated before the season that MLB’s supposed crackdown on sticky substances could exacerbate the issue.

Pitching has always been a matter of trade-offs. We are used to the logic of nibbling at the edge of the zone to avoid loud contact vs. powering down the middle to ward off walks. It goes all the way to the root of how we understand pitching — and why we look first to strikeouts and walks to contextualize dominance. 

These trade-offs have usually been strategic and stylistic — rising and falling like ships on the tides of the game, a la base-stealing or the shift. This trade-off may not be so simple. Results incentivize pitchers to fire away, regardless of the ribs cracked along the way. Hit batsmen function like a walk, but remain far less common. Wild pitches can be harmful if men are on the bases, but super-fast, super-bendy arsenals are making that a rare occurrence — just ask Musgrove, Rodon and Means.

In other words, they didn't find odd ways to lose perfect games. They found the new normal ways of losing perfect games.

Baseball is already grappling with how to reset the balance between pitchers and hitters before it becomes untenable. And in this way, the spurt of 2021 no-hitters is more about clarity than novelty. The arc of the game — an unchecked buoy floating toward optimization — is especially obvious at the tip of the spear.

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