A whiff of perfection

The last time baseball saw two perfect games in the same month, a 20-year-old rookie named Larry Corcoran was dominating the National League. The NL consisted of eight teams, including one in, of all places, Troy, N.Y., and Corcoran reportedly stood 5-foot-3 and weighed 120 pounds, so understand that dominance is a far different animal today than it was 130 years ago.

Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay, center, celebrates after throwing a perfect game on Saturday.
(Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo)

Still, Corcoran led baseball with 268 strikeouts that season – a number impressive for any height until the proper context is provided: Corcoran threw 536 1/3 innings. During the 1880 season, when Lee Richmond and Monte Ward were perfect within five June days of each other, the game’s best strikeout artist K’d fewer than one hitter every two innings.

So as much as we want to appreciate the improbability of Dallas Braden(notes) and Roy Halladay(notes) tossing perfectos this month, what happened in 1880 is beyond imagination. Richmond played for a team called the Worcester Ruby Legs. In 85 games, they committed 355 errors, according to numbers at Baseball Reference. Ward’s Providence Grays weren’t much better: 357 errors in 87 games. Neither’s strikeouts-per-nine ratio exceeded 3.7.

Of the 135 pitchers who have thrown at least 40 innings this season, only six have lower strikeout rates than Richmond and Ward did. One of them is Mark Buehrle(notes), who threw a perfect game last season, the start of what seems like a fortuitous trend, one that begs for an explanation.

Though none seems apparent, the most logical is that the likelihood of historic games increased with baseball’s passive acceptance of strikeouts. Think about it: The fewer balls in play, the less likely a ball is to drop. Or a fielder is to boot a ball. Strikes and walks don’t correlate strongly, meaning a strikeout pitcher won’t necessarily walk his way out of a perfect game.

In all likelihood, the Buehrle-Dallas Braden-Roy Halladay troika is nothing more than happenstance. After all, there have been just 17 no-hitters and perfect games in the last 10 years, with each team approaching seven strikeouts per game (6.99 entering Sunday’s games). In the 1970s, a relatively barren strikeout era, pitchers threw 29 no-hitters and perfect games.

It’s worth considering, though, when 38 hitters are striking out in 25 percent or more of their at-bats. The number in 2000 was 16, and in 1990 it was 10, and in 1980, Gorman Thomas was the only player who ended the season with such a dishonor. Today, it’s more like a baseline.

So here’s to Richmond and Ward’s perfect games, to Corcoran’s three no-hitters, to all of the old-time ballplayers whose perfection wasn’t perfunctory like …

1. That of Roy Halladay, pitching machine. In the middle of his career, Halladay managed to dominate with a middling strikeout rate, a throwback to the days of yore and a testament to his abilities. Since he mastered the cut fastball in 2008, Halladay’s uptick in strikeouts while maintaining his efficiency is among his greatest tricks.

It’s surprising, and yet it’s not, that Halladay’s 11 strikeouts in his perfect game Saturday against Florida were the second most of his career. While he isn’t a strikeout pitcher, you’d imagine he’d have backed into a 12- or 13-punchout performance every now and again. High strikeout rates are almost expected of pitchers en route to the Hall of Fame today …

Stephen Strasburg
(Kevin Rivoli/AP Photo)

2. Such as Stephen Strasburg(notes). Kidding. Sorta.

The Strasburg Watch should end this week when the Washington Nationals announce his first start in the major leagues is imminent, likely June 8 against Pittsburgh. By now, you know the drill. Best pitching prospect ever. Can’t-miss arm. Throws 100 mph. Great head on his shoulders. Bound to strike out 300.

Just know that a doubter exists. It is not a person, of course, but a computer, Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA forecasting system, which before the season predicted the following for Strasburg: 102 innings, 118 strikeouts, 4.68 earned-run average. Not exactly Halladay. Not even …

3. Jon Lester(notes), who is staking his claim as the best pitcher in the American League, a title Halladay abandoned upon being traded to the Phillies. Even after his typically terrible April, Lester is holding opposing hitters to an AL-low .195 batting average. His 77 strikeouts rank second in the league behind another young left-hander, Ricky Romero(notes), and since April 23, nobody in the AL has a better ERA than Lester’s 1.24.

Command, stuff, confidence and left-handedness: It is a tantalizing recipe …

4. And one once owned by Dontrelle Willis(notes) . His downfall remains a mystery, and when the Tigers designated him for assignment Sunday, it ended a tortuous descent from Rookie of the Year and Cy Young runner-up to unemployed 28-year-old.

Willis’ replacement, Max Scherzer(notes), struck out 14 in 5 2/3 shutout innings Sunday. The most hitters Willis struck out in a single game over his three seasons with Detroit was six. The likelihood Willis throws another major league pitch is iffy; there will be no team trying to salvage the remnants of a $29 million deal as Detroit was. And so forever will Willis be chased by the whatever-happened-to-him question …

David Wright
(Al Bello/Getty Images)

5. That David Wright(notes) is trying to shake. Not only has his defense lagged the last two seasons, his bat manufacturer seems to have replaced maple wood with Swiss cheese.

Wright has struck out in 36.3 percent of his at-bats this season, nearly double his 18.8 percent rate from two years ago. While last year’s jump in strikeouts was a problem, this year’s is calamitous: Wright’s batting average and slugging percentage are more than 50 points below his career average and his on-base percentage is 36 points lower. He’s still a good third baseman; he’s just not the great one he once was, because in order to sustain production with that sort of a strikeout rate …

6. You need to hit like Mark Reynolds(notes). Or at least like Reynolds did last season.

Because as of Sunday, when Reynolds retook the yearly strikeout lead from teammate Justin Upton(notes) with three whiffs – about time, Mark – his slugging is down 60 points from last season. And while an .816 OPS is certainly good, it doesn’t camouflage a 200-plus-strikeout season quite like his 44 home runs did in 2009. Along with Adam Dunn(notes), Reynolds made it OK to strike out an exorbitant number of times, paving the way for …

7. Mike Stanton(notes) to hit the major leagues sometime in the next week or two. For those who haven’t heard of Stanton, buy a bleacher seat when Florida comes to town. Of all the comparisons – Dave Winfield being the canniest, because of their massive size and outfield skills – one that hasn’t been thrown out is a right-handed Adam Dunn.

Specifically, the good side of Dunn, the one that trades strikeouts for unparalleled power. Stanton’s ability to sock 500-plus-foot home runs isn’t apocryphal, nor is his ability to swing and miss. In his first minor league season, Stanton struck out 153 times in 468 at-bats. Last year wasn’t much better: 144 in 479. While he’s still putting up a big number, this year is passable: 47 whiffs in 166 at-bats. Throw in the 18 home runs at Double-A, and Stanton exhibits the sort of power …

Miguel Cabrera
(Duane Burleson/AP Photo)

8. Miguel Cabrera(notes) displayed Saturday, when he mashed three home runs in a game for the first time in his career. Just as impressive as Cabrera’s power display – his 1.098 OPS is second in the big leagues behind that of Minnesota first baseman Justin Morneau(notes) – is his sudden allergy to striking out.

Over his career, Cabrera has struck out in 20.8 percent of his at-bats. He has just 27 in 182 at-bats this year, 14.8 percent. Another star transitioning away from strikeouts: Ryan Braun, whose career 20.6 rate has dropped to 13.8 percent. While their strikeouts plummet …

9. Dan Haren(notes) watches his go up and wonders: What, exactly, is going wrong?

It’s not like Haren is Brandon Morrow(notes) or Bud Norris(notes), pitchers with high strikeout rates who haven’t figured out how to harness their great stuff. Haren is a marksman whose strikeout-to-walk ratio is the envy of pitchers around the league. His 9.24 strikeouts per nine is the best rate of his career. And somehow it’s the cusp of June and his ERA is 5.35 – more than twice last year’s number and three times that of 2007, when Haren started the All-Star Game.

Some of it is bad luck. Batted balls are landing at a .345 clip instead of his .302 career average. More than 18 percent of his fly balls have been home runs, 7 percent above his usual. Just as fortune can make a great pitcher look downright mediocre …

10. It can spur someone like Roy Halladay to perfection. As anyone involved will attest, no matter how good a pitcher’s stuff during a no-hitter or perfect game, destiny is the overriding factor. Whether it’s from an amazing catch in center field (Buehrle), providence on Mother’s Day (Braden) or something as simple as batted balls going to men in Phillies uniforms (Halladay), every pitcher needs to kiss lady luck.

Even if, in Larry Corcoran’s case, it means standing on your tippy toes.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, May 31, 2010