On June 13, San Francisco Giants’ starter Matt Cain threw the 22nd perfect game in major league history, the 277th no-hitter in major league history and the fifth no-no on this still-relatively-young season.
These days, it seems like we can barely go more than a month or two between no-hitters, and that got me thinking; what the hell is going on in baseball? Anybody who has even a vague understanding of basic math can figure out that with the game of baseball being played professionally for more than 150 years, and only 277 no-hitters having ever been recorded in major league history, having five in less than one half of one season is an obvious anomaly.
In fact, if you count from the very first no hitter ever recorded – thrown by Joe Borden of the Philadelphia White Stockings against the Chicago White Stockings (currently the Cubs – and yes, they were really creative with team names back then) on July 28, 1875 – you come up with what is now a 175-year span in which no-hitters have been a part of the game.
Over that time, as I said, 277 no-no’s have been thrown; averaging out to almost exactly two per year.
Honestly, that’s more frequent than I originally assumed, but it’s still far below the numbers we’ve seen over the past few years. In the past three years alone, 14 no-hitters have been recorded, or, nearly five per year. To put that in perspective, between opening day 1980 and the final game of the regular season in 1989, only 13 no hitters were thrown.
All of this got me thinking; are we entering a new era in baseball? Much was made of the “steroid era” and what it did to the leagues’ collective offensive numbers. Is it possible that we’re now not only coming back down to earth from those numbers, but potentially entering another dead-ball era?
If you’re using no-hitters as a metric, then the answer is no. Between 1900 and 1919, the dates commonly accepted as the “dead ball era,” 48 no-hitters were thrown, or, between two and three per year.
During the “steroid era,” which, for the sake of argument, we’ll call 1993-2003, there were 22 no-hitters thrown; which works out to just over two per year, or, almost exactly the same as the dead-ball era.
Based on those numbers alone, it would seem that if there is anything at all behind the recent surge of no-hitters and perfect games, it’s got a lot more to do with dumb luck than any real, league-wide shift in pitching prowess.
But, for the sake of fairness – and because I’m a giant nerd – I’ll look a little deeper.
One good indicator of how the league, as a whole, is doing from the mound is the league-average ERA. On that front, there has been some relatively significant movement. In 2011, for the first time since 1992, the league-average ERA dropped below 4, finishing the year at 3.94. So far this year, the league ERA sits at 3.99.
So, how close is that to the dead-ball era? Not even remotely.
Between 1904-1910, there were a string of seven straight years in which the league-average ERA was 2.82 or lower, bottoming out at 2.37 in 1908. Obviously, we’re nowhere near there yet, but there has been a steady decline in ERA over the last seven years.
League ERA by Year:
Clearly, the effects of the offensively robust 1990s and early 2000s have all but worn off; and the question now becomes how low will the numbers go before they bottom out and start on their way back up again?
Will the pitching become so dominant that we see another dead-ball era? Probably not. Even if the league’s ERA were to continue declining at it’s current rate, about a tenth of a point per year, it would take until approximately 2022 for us to see a league ERA in the 2 range.
And even considering the expected ups and downs in offense and pitching over the last 90 or so years, only once (in 1968) since 1918 has the league ERA fallen below 3. Chances are good that we’ll never see that again.
But, on the flip side, it may also be a few years before we see another league-wide 4-point ERA.
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