Yes, Yusmeiro, one can have too much perfection

Colby Cosh explains why he’s started to cheer for hitters to break up perfect games
San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Yusmeiro Petit throws against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the sixth inning of their baseball game Friday, Sept. 6, 2013, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
(AP photo)

Fantasy baseball tip: Yusmeiro Petit’s probably available for the home stretch of your season, but I say stay away. The 28-year-old Venezuelan hurler for the San Francisco Giants came within one out of a perfect game last night. Looked at another way, he came within one strike, since he had a 3-and-2 count on the 27th batter, Eric Chavez. Looked at yet another way, he came within about eighteen inches, which is how close Giants outfielder Hunter Pence came to making a sliding catch on Chavez’s bloop single.

Petit, who has a big-league won-lost record of 12-20 collected over scraps of six seasons, spent most of this one with the AAA Fresno Grizzlies. As recently as 2011 he was playing for Oaxaca of the Mexican League, well out of range of the average North American fan’s radar. Just looking at the roster of those 2011 Guerreros, without knowing any of the players at all, makes me warm a little to Yusmeiro Petit. So why was I so peevishly delighted when Pence skidded just short trying to collect that precious 27th out?

My Twitter feed is baseball-heavy, and when a pitcher makes a serious bid for a perfect game, the social media universe rallies all sports fans to the nearest radio or to MLB.TV to watch. The sparks usually begin to flash in about the sixth inning: “So-and-so has allowed no baserunners…”. By the start of the ninth, with the bottom of the batting order coming up against the hero of the hour, everybody is pouring it on. If the pitcher closes the deal there is jubilation; if not, disappointment. This is true of even the most massive cynics, the sort of fan, if that’s the word, who can’t sit through a Super Bowl without muttering about peewee players getting concussions. It is also true of fans who ordinarily root for the opposing team being blanked. There is a strong and mysterious cultural norm here: if you have a chance to Witness Perfection, you set your everyday allegiance aside, no matter what.

Something is beginning to bug me about it, and I am starting to instinctively cheer for the hitters to break up these perfect games. For a baseball fan this is a confession that one belongs to the devil’s party. In the long-gone days of haphazard record-keeping, perfect games provided a special token of superiority, an important Hall of Fame credential unto themselves: you had to be pretty good to get 27 consecutive outs. Only three perfect games were thrown between 1904 and 1964. Almost every pitcher who threw one in the 20th century could safely be described as excellent. We have now had seven perfect games thrown in the 21st, with the roll of honour featuring such names as Dallas Braden, who is watching games from the stands at 30, and Philip Humber, who is currently toiling in long relief for the Houston Astros. For the non-fan, the last part of that sentence translates to “has the least important job on what is by far the crappiest team”.

The changing rates at which perfect games are thrown hints that they are influenced by offensive environments: plenty of great pitchers never had a realistic chance to throw one because they had the wrong birthdate. It is not your imagination: perfect games really are coming pretty easy now. Major-league hitters are on pace this season to reach base at their lowest rate since 1972. They strike out more often than at any time in baseball’s past—12% more often than they did as recently as 2000. Run-scoring is about where it was before the “steroid” explosion of the ’90s—a phenomenon also driven by non-drug factors such as maple bats and protective armour allowing hitters to crowd the plate—but the home runs and doubles, the whopping big hits, have stayed in the game at the expense of fewer singles and a lot more whiffs. High-average low-power hitters of the Tony Gwynn or Wade Boggs type have all but vanished. The art of the bunt, sometimes used as an alternate means of getting a hit off of a pitcher with dominant stuff, is in fearful decline.

In other words, the “game” of baseball is becoming more and more of a one-on-one challenge concentrated exclusively at home plate, a fight between a hitter swinging for the seats and a pitcher trying to make him miss. This will tend to create more perfect games. If you build a brute statistical model of a baseball game, with all hitters reaching base randomly at a particular rate, you’ll see that adjusting the on-base rate slightly creates startlingly huge changes in the number of times you can expect zero hitters out of 27 to reach base. The major league on-base percentage was .345 in the year 2000; plugging that rate into (what is called) a (Poisson) model gives you perfect games about one time in 11,000, or every four-and-a-half major league seasons. Plug in this year’s average OBP, .318, and perfect games emerge about twice as often—one time in 5,400. This isn’t quite how the math actually works, since neither pitchers nor hitters are armies of dueling clones or robots, but perhaps you get the general (true) idea: a relatively modest shift in the middle of a bell-shaped curve creates havoc in the tails.

Yusmeiro Petit probably belongs in the major leagues, but he will never be anybody’s staff ace. For such a journeyman to approach so near to perfection should indicate on its own that perfection is not what it used to be. And once you suspect this, it is easy to become annoyed at the idea of the “perfect” game being one in which nobody on one side reaches base and there aren’t even all that many balls in play. If I were to specify my own idea of a perfect baseball game, it would certainly include a few beautiful double plays, which you can’t have without baserunners, and some of those thrilling “stolen base” thingies they had when I was a kid. It would have pickoffs and triples and, yes, maybe a bunt mixed in for variety’s sake. Is this just old-fart nostalgia? I think not, for if anything is eternally true of baseball, it is surely that it takes place on, and makes use of, a field. It is not meant to be a test of strength conducted in a sixty-foot corridor.

Yet it is precisely this corridor aspect of the game, so rapidly swelling out of proportion like a gangrenous limb, that the notion of the “perfect game” effectively glorifies. I have had enough of them for a while. It does not help that the concept of the perfect game carries a slight whiff of camphor and cobwebs: over the course of my lifetime baseball has, in most respects, walked the wrong side of the fine line between a living form of entertainment and a dead religion.

The high level of strikeouts in the game is, in part, a consequence of large pitching staffs and frequent pitching changes, both of which are pretty obnoxious in themselves. Baseball has done nothing to alter the rules to mitigate the excruciating number of late-inning pitching changes. To do so by simple fiat is unthinkable, and even indirect measures—how about banning time-consuming warmups for substitute pitchers who were already supposed to be warming up in the bullpen?—occur to almost nobody.

Some of the home runs should probably be ratcheted incrementally out of the game, too, but when you suggest this, some wiseacre is always there to remark that “Chicks dig the long ball.” Do they? I for one do not believe that even ultra-cuddly Prince Fielder is engaged in an epic battle with Justin Bieber for poster space on the bedroom walls of young girls, but perhaps I am misinformed. Too much of the long ball makes sitting anywhere but around home plate at a ballgame somewhat enervating: one notices that most of the big-league clubs have hastened to surround their diamonds with shopping malls and pubs, as if the obscure display of silliness in the middle of it all were not capable of holding its own as a source of amusement.

These perfect and near-perfect games are a symptom of ill health. I won’t cheer for them anymore, any more than I would cheer for my grandmother to get a racking cough. Somebody has to root for the poor hitters, don’t they?