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Cain Perfection

Matt Cain’s perfect game on Wednesday was
the first in Giants history. (Getty Images)

OK, so figure this one: From 1900 to 1980 — though many of those years were dominated by pitching — there were only seven perfect games thrown.

In 1904, the great Cy Young threw a perfecto against Philadelphia.

In 1908, Addie Joss — who would be elected to the Hall of Fame though he only pitched nine years — threw a perfect game against Chicago.

Charlie Robertson was not a great pitcher, but he was great on April 30, 1922 against Detroit. The Tigers would say after that perfect game that he was cutting the baseball, and they even turned in a few baseballs after the game to league president Ban Johnson. Of course, the perfect game stood.

The next perfect game was Don Larsen’s in the 1956 World Series, which inspired the classic line: “The imperfect man pitched a perfect game.”

And the next three perfect games — Jim Bunning, Sandy Koufax and Catfish Hunter — were all pitched by future Hall of Famers.

The point is, for 80 years, there was a certain easy-to-follow rhythm about perfect games. You might see one a decade. And the value of these perfect games would be reinforced by the near misses surrounding them. Billy Pierce had his perfecto broken up by the 27th batter; Milt Pappas’ 27th batter walked on a borderline pitch; Rick Wise gave up a run and then retired 32 straight batters; Curt Simmons, Robin Roberts and Woodie Fryman all gave up leadoff hits and then retired 27 in a row, Ernie Shore retired 27 straight (including a caught stealing) in relief of Babe Ruth (who was thrown out of the game after one batter), and, of course, most famously, Harvey Haddix threw 12 perfect innings only to have it all come to a sad ending in the 13th. The perfect game wasn’t just a wonderful achievement, there was an aura about it. I once compared it to the four-minute mile. I’ll get back to that.


First, as you might know, since 1980 (starting with Len Barker’s perfect game) there have been 13 perfect games — five of those in the last three years. And, not to belabor this point, it would be six in the last three years if the right call had made at the end of the Armando Galarraga game. It is obviously an unprecedented storm of perfectos. Wednesday night, Matt Cain threw a perfect game against Houston, and coupled with Phillip Humber’s perfecto earlier this year, that makes this the first season in baseball history that we have had a perfect game in each league. And we are only in June.

A few words about Cain: He is only 27 years old. This seems almost impossible to believe. It feels like he has been pitching for the Giants at least since Marichal. He was called to the big leagues when he was 20, and he has pitched at least 190 innings every year since. He has been the perfect antithesis to his pitching partner Tim Lincecum: While Lincecum has been spectacular, Cain has been steady; while Lincecum has been been quirky, Cain has been steady; while Lincecum has been mercurial, Cain has been steady; while Lincecum has led the league in strikeouts three times and won two Cy Young Awards, Cain has been steady; while Lincecum has been goofy and quotable and out there, Cain has been steady.

Cain never seems to make things complicated. This is what they used to say about Catfish Hunter, too. One friend who has written at length about the Giants, Ann Killion, calls Cain “a mensch,” which is a great word for him. A mensch is the sort of person who, if he or she borrows your car, will return it with the gas tank full. A mensch is the sort of person who will sit in the middle seat to allow a family to sit together on a plane. A mensch is the sort of person who will spend time at a party talking to the host’s parents to make them feel a part of things. A mensch doesn’t look for excuses or escapes and doesn’t make life more difficult than it should be.

Cain’s record is barely above .500, but he doesn’t complain. Cain’s excellence has often been explained away, but he doesn’t complain about that either. My favorite Cain quote — not that there are many contenders — happened after the he pitched Game 2 of the World Series in 2010. Someone asked him how he was able to sleep the night before his first World Series start. We reporters often ask this, “How do you sleep?” question before big moments like the final rounds of major championships or Olympic finals or Super Bowls. It’s kind of a staple for us.

Cain’s answer was pure Cain: “Close your eyes.”

Now, Lincecum can’t get anybody out — at least for the moment — and Cain emerges as a dominant pitcher: He has more strikeouts than innings pitched, a 96-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio, a 2.18 ERA and, yes, a perfect game. Cain just keeps getting better — his strikeouts are up, his walks are down, his homers are down, and he continues to pitch with a simple but powerful assortment of fastball, slider, change-up and curveball. He’s always had this knack — a knack that goes against statistical history — of having allowed a low batting average on balls put into to play. Many stats people will tell you, and I generally agree with them, that this is often a function of luck. Over his eight-year career, hitters have hit a stunningly low .267 on balls in play against Cain, far and away the lowest for any pitcher with 1,000 innings pitched*

*How about this, from 2000 on, that’s about: 10 points lower than Johan Santana, 15 points lower than Pedro Martinez, 20 points lower than Justin Verlander, 25 points lower than Josh Beckett, 30 points lower than Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, 35 points lower than his counterpart Tim Lincecum, 40 points lower than Curt Schilling.

This has led so many to believe that someday his ball-in-play luck will run out. But you know what? It might not. I’ve always liked that line that opens “The Color of Money”: “But for some players, luck itself is an art.” Cain’s luck certainly didn’t run out Wednesday night, when he struck out 14 in a perfect game, something only Koufax has done.

And that brings us back to the perfect game and how common it has become. Five (or six) in the last three years — it seems insane. Of course, there are some variables to consider. One, there are about twice as many teams in baseball as there were pre-1960. That means twice as many chances to get perfect games. That’s simple math. Also, the strikeout has gone way up, which affects a lot of things.

But I suggested something about the four-minute mile when Halladay threw his perfect game, and we’ve had two more since then. I wrote at the time: On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile, and it has been called the greatest athletic achievement of the 20th Century. Six weeks later, John Landy not only broke the four-minute mile but broke Bannister’s record. They both broke the four-minute mile later in the same year. A year later, three runners broke the four-minute mile in the same race. By 1956, the four-minute mile was simply the standard — you could not expect to win a big race unless you could break four minutes.

The perfect game is an amazing achievement, but I suspect much of its rarity has been a mental block, like the four-minute mile. So much has built around the idea of a perfect game. You know: Announcers aren’t supposed to mention it on air, teammates are supposed to stay away from the pitcher, all that hype and superstition and mysticism and whatever. Well, I don’t think it’s like that anymore. It’s still extremely hard to throw a perfect game, but I don’t think anyone buys into the barrier now. You don’t have to be Randy Johnson or Halladay to do it — you can be an very good pitcher like Dennis Martinez or David Wells or David Cone or Mark Buehrle or Mike Witt, but you can also be a pitcher who just has it all working on a single day, like Phillp Humber.

Cain’s career is, of course, still an open question. His won-loss record of 77-75 leaves people shrugging. But his 126 ERA+, his staggering excellence in his only postseason appearance (three starts, zero earned runs allowed), and his brilliant start in 2012 suggest he might be one of the best pitchers in baseball for a good while. We’ll see about that. What we know for sure is that he was perfect on Wednesday night. That might not be the rarity it once was. Heck, the way things are going, it might not be the last perfect game we see this year. But it was one of the best games ever pitched, and a nice reminder that Cain is only 27. I’d certainly take his future.


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45 Responses to Cain Perfection

  1. Hsquared2 says:

    Just a thought. It would be interesting to look at the correlation between Starting Pitchers K/9 and the likelihood of a no-hitter. The natural intuition is that an increased amount of K’s limits the chances of lucky hits. With strikeouts pushing upper limits, you’d expect no-hitters to become much more common.

  2. Pete says:

    I was a bit surprised you didn’t mention his post-game comment where he said he starts thinking about a no-hitter as soon as he gets through the first inning without giving up a hit. My initial thought was “Wow, that’s exactly what JoePoz said when he was writing about all of the no hitters last year.”

  3. Richard says:

    “Wednesday night, Matt Cain threw a perfect game against Houston, and coupled with Phillip Humber’s perfecto earlier this year that makes this the first season in baseball history that we have had a perfect game in each league.”

    Other than 2010, when Halladay and Dallas Braden pitched theirs.

  4. nightflyblog says:

    And if not for David Wright in the first and then ninth innings, R A Dickey very well could have made it two perfectos on the same day. That would have been completely unreal – not to mention giving two no-nos to the Mets in two weeks after none in 51 years. Baseball really is something else.

  5. David in NYC says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. David in NYC says:

    @Pete —

    I remember reading an interview with Sandy Koufax during his playing days where he said that when he went out to the mound in the 1st inning, his goal in every game was to pitch a perfect game. If he gave up a walk, his goal was a no-hitter; if he gave up a hit, his goal was a shutout, etc.

    Probably part of what made him *the* Sandy Koufax.

  7. David in NYC says:

    Larsen’s perfect game also inspired one of the great opening lede grafs in sports journalism history, from Shirley Povich (yes, Maury’s father) at the Washington Post:

    “The million-to-one shot came in. Hell froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar. Don Larsen today pitched a no-hit, no-run, no-man-reach-first game in a World Series.”

    I have always thought Rick Wise’s “almost” game was about as perfect a game as one could have as a player: on the mound, only the one baserunner (walk); at the plate, 2 HRs (perfection for a batter) in 4 ABs. If I had been Rick Wise, I would have retired after that game, knowing I would never, ever top it.

    And speaking of luck, I’ve always like Branch Rickey’s observation: “Luck is the residue of design.”

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Another reason there could be more no hitters and perfect games is all of the attention given to defensive positioning. Watching the Blue Jays, it seems like not an inning goes by where Brett Lawrie isn’t playing in shallow right, and at least once or twice a game throws somebody out at first on what would normally be at least a single. Outfielders shading more, infielders moving around more, all depending on hitters’ spray charts. It makes it much harder to get a hit.

  10. Devon Young says:

    Awesome thoughts as always. Don’t forget the Jonathan Sanchez game (July 10, 2009) that was nearly an official perfect game. It was spoiled by a lone fielding error. If not for that error and the umpire error in the Galarraga game, we would had 7 perfect games in the past 3 years. Did you mention Dallas Braden? His came before Halladay’s.

  11. Cain also became the first pitcher ever to score a run in his perfect game. Catfish Hunter collected 3 hits in his, and also drove in 3 runs, giving him certainly the finest hitting performance by a perfect game pitcher.

  12. Peter says:

    Was really hoping for some RA Dickey love here. Has everyone seen the replay of David Wright trying to barehand the grounder? How is that not an error?

  13. Xerxes III says:

    “Hitters have hit a stunningly low .267 on balls in play against Cain, far and away the lowest for any pitcher with 1,000 innings pitched*”

    Mariano Rivera has a .264 BAbip against in 1219.2 IP (and a .220 BAbip in 141 IP in the playoffs).

  14. Dinky says:

    I think I’d have to pay somebody to find career BABIP numbers for Greg Maddux, but most of his career his BABIP was below the league average.

    @Peter, it won’t bother me if they give Wright an error, because I’m a big Dickey (and knuckleball) fan, but I don’t recall a barehand pickup attempt ever being given an error. If Wright really wanted to protect the nono (and why would he? he was just trying to make a play) he should have fielded it and thrown it straight up, to get a throwing error.

    • Erick says:

      The only thing I can think of that prevented that from being scored an error is that he went barehanded and that isn’t “ordinary effort,” but if a SS or 2B (I’m a Rangers fan and I’ve seen this happen to both Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus) can get an error for a grounder bouncing off their glove while they’re diving for it in CF well behind second base can be considered an error, I think reaching down with your bare hand and booting the ball away should also be considered one.

    • Rob says:

      Maddux had four years below .267 BABIP. He was below the league average all but five years

  15. i have no idea if the numbers would bear it out, but it’d also be interesting to see how many no-hitters in previous eras were prevented from being perfectos only because of an error and not a walk. i think defense has generally tended to improve as the years have gone on.

    • Nathan Yan says:

      Wikipedia has a nice section describing each of the near-misses:

    • More so than an improvement in the players’ physical ability to field, I would bet that the quality of the infield surface conditions has improved dramatically over the last century. And poor infield quality doesn’t just lead to fielding errors but also to bad-hop basehits. Hypothetically speaking I’d say Joe nailed the top reasons for the rise of perfectos [the increase in Ks and corresponding decrease in balls in play over time (as an example, the strikeout rate per PA has increased by 0.20% per year over the past 30 years, and the balls in play rate has decreased by 0.23% per year over the same span), expansion of the number of teams] and then there’s the improved quality of the infields as a third variable. That there were more balls in play back in the first part of the 20th century probably made the infield conditions even more important.

  16. Xerxes III says:

    “I think I’d have to pay somebody to find career BABIP numbers for Greg Maddux, but most of his career his BABIP was below the league average.”

    Maddux’s BAbip was .286 – league average for his career was .295.

    According to baseball-reference, Andy Messersmith actually has the best BAbip for any pitcher with more than 1000 IP, .243. Cain is 59th.

  17. Scott says:

    Thanks, Joe. I hoped and figured you would write about this. I had the game on the radio and figured out that Cain had no hits against in the third. I didn’t realize he was perfect until the fifth, as I was putting my eight year old to bed. He knows my favorite player of all time is Will Clark but asked who my favorite pitcher is. I wasn’t sure.

    I kept listening on the radio and when he was 10 outs away, felt like the finish line was so far off. In the seventh, a good friend texted me from the game. Even though he is a Cubs fan first, he is a huge baseball fan and I wanted him to experience it (On April 20, 1990, another friend was at an Oakland A’s game when Brian Holman of the Mariners was one out away from perfection. The hometown fans booed when Ken Phelps hit a homerun to ruin a perfecto, no-no, shutout and win with one swing of the bat).

    Three times, I thought the Astros found their hit and I froze until I heard Dave Fleming amazingly call the out.

    I have certain criteria when picking favorite players. Will the Thrill fit them all. I think Cain does, too. Couldn’t have happened to a better guy.

    • ChipDavis says:

      I agree with you as far as Will Clark is concerned. He was a baller. A throw back player in my mind, to the early 1900’s. To try to listen to that guy will a big chaw in his face was epic. He sounded like he just dropped off a farm from somewhere in Arkansas. He sounded so ignorant it belied his obvious skills. Favorite pitcher? If it ain’t Marichal, (fan bias) and it certainly can’t be a Dodger, it HAS to be Gibson.

  18. Gary says:

    Harold Reynolds made an interesting observation last night about the increase in no-hitters and near no-hitters. He said batters are being urged to work the counts deeper. But the deeper the count goes, the more likely the pitcher is to rely on his best pitch to get the out. His theory, as I understood it, is that batters then are trying to hit the pitcher’s best pitch, which means a lower chance of success. Not sure if it makes sense or not, but it’s something to think about.

    • Rob says:

      Harold Reynolds rarely makes sense. Deep counts mean more pitches. More pitches mean an increased liklihood that the batter will get at least one good pitch to hit. That’s the correct logic.

  19. Great correlation w/the 4 minute mile …

  20. Ted says:

    Worth noting, between 1900 and 1980 there were 223,844 games played and between 1981 and today 139,844 games have been played, so perfect games happened at a rate of 3 one-thousandth of a percent between 1900 and 1980 and about three times that rate between 1981 and today.

    This is still a pretty big difference, but not as big of a difference as is suggested by saying about one per decade between 1900-1980 and 4 per decade since then

  21. Mark Daniel says:

    Strikeouts have gone way up, if you start comparing today to the early 1900s. For example, in the AL in the 1920s, teams averaged 2.9 strikeouts per game. It rose to 5.7 in the 60s, before leveling off at around 5 in the 70s and 80s. But then it jumped to 6 in the 90s and 6.5 since 2000. This year it’s 7.2.

    I don’t know why this is. More types of pitches, more hitters swinging for the fences, less of a stigma on whiffing? Who knows.

  22. jtorrey13 says:

    The number of games and number of teams variables had me wondering, so I broke it down according to the number of teams in the league and the number of games played – and then the number of perfect games.

    G Tms Yrs Total Years Pf Gms
    154 16 60 147840 1901-1960 4
    162 18 1 2916 1961-1961 0
    162 20 7 22680 1962-1968 3
    68 173436 7

    BASEBALL LOWERS THE MOUND (and adds four teams)

    G Tms Yrs Total Years Pf Gms
    162 24 8 31104 1969-1976 0
    162 26 16 67392 1977-1992 4
    162 28 5 22680 1993-1997 1
    162 30 14 69900 1998-2012* 8
    43 191076 13

    * 2012 added to the total the approx total games played 62*30 or 1860

    Where G is games played in a season, Tms is the number of teams in the Major Leagues, Yrs is the number of years in the segment, Total is the number of games (G*Tms*Yrs) and Years shows the span of years.

    The change in segments happen whenever new teams are added to the league, which gives a nice breakout that also corresponds with the lowering of the mound.

    The highest number of perfect games per game happened between 1962 and 1968 (0.000132) followed by 1998 to 2012 (0.000114).

  23. Jay says:

    Your comment about Cain’s W/L record underscores the absurdity of using the statistic to measure a pitcher’s value in the modern game. How can we make it better? Use team W/l record instead?

  24. Scott says:

    That Hunter line, about not making it complicated, is straight from the Bill James Historical Abstract. James was comparing Hunter to one of his sons.

  25. gogigantos says:

    Of the many great pleasures of the game Joe, called by your buddy Kuip was one of the best. It was something you wrote about him years ago that brought me to your writing.
    I enjoyed him a bunch as a Giant when I was young, am about your age Joe. As a broadcaster with Kruk, he has grown under my skin and into my DNA, more so than Greenwald, Simmons or even Miller. For Kuip to be on the mike that night was surely a hilight of joy for him, as it was for me watching and listening.
    From Taiwan, you and all that is ‘ball, is loved.

  26. Dear Joe, love this piece. sorry to go off topic here; I am not a Mets fan, but can you write something on R.A. Dickey? I’m as baffled by Dickey as a guy trying to hit a knuckle ball.

  27. Dear Joe, love this piece. sorry to go off topic here; I am not a Mets fan, but can you write something on R.A. Dickey? I’m as baffled by Dickey as a guy trying to hit a knuckle ball.

    • Rob says:

      Joe wrote an article on the knuckleball recently, and get this…. he either didn’t mention Dickey or barely mentioned him. Amazing since there are no other knuckleballers of note today.

  28. Mikey says:

    The Mad Men / Wire poll results are screwy and here’s why. They aren’t making any more Wires. They ARE making more Mad Men. If you jump into Mad Men now you can easily be caught up by the time the next season rolls around and enjoy it in real time. You lose nothing by punting on The Wire for another year.

  29. J-Bar says:

    This is part of a larger discussion but . . . people don’t appreciate how qualitatively different the game is today when compared to the early to mid-parts of the 20th century. With regard to the recent perfect games, I suspect their increased frequency has much to do with the phenomenal improvement of fielding in the modern era. I don’t mean the ability to make routine plays but the sensational ones. The speed, athleticism and coordination of today’s fielders(and don’t forget those bigger gloves) is degrees of magnitude superior to the fielding ability of 75-100 years ago.

    Check out the baseball highlights on ESPN. On any given night, there are more sensational plays–diving stops behind third, sliding catches in the outfield, home runs stolen from over-the-fence grabs—than you’d see in a month in the older era. Disagree? How many great fielding plays pre-1950 have been engraved in baseball history? Ever see any pre-1950 fielding highlights in Ken Burns’ baseball documentary or similar footage that compares to the routine great plays today?

    The relevance here is that this qualitative leap in great fielding plays makes the perfect game that much more possible today. Take the perfect-game saving catch by Gregor Blanco in the Cain game. I doubt any big league player in the early era—I’m including you, Tris Speaker—could have covered as much ground on a ball in the gap and come up with such a sensational diving catch as Blanco did. The take home point: the modern ability to eliminate what would have been certain hits in the early era may explain away the statistical discrepancy between the number of perfect games and no-hitters today and those in the early 20th century era.

    • Rob says:

      Maybe, but it’s just as likely that with 24X7 sports today, we see EVERY highlight. Highlights from pre-1950 are extremely hard to find. When they show Willie Mays, there are about three shots they always use. That’s probably about all they have.

  30. Generation_K says:

    The Giants have been the best fielding team by fangraphs UZR from 2005-2011 Coincidentally Matt Cain’s rookie year through last year (,ts&rost=0&age=0&players=0) That might be a factor in his surprisingly low babip for those seven seasons.

  31. Gadfly says:

    Gotta bone to pick with Joe here.

    I disagree with him agreeing with MLB and its rule changes, the ones that eliminate Shore and Haddix from throwing perfect games.

  32. manimal0 says:

    I vote for Conrad Hunter’s North Dallas Forty speech on luck:

    There’s one thing I learned early on in life. The most important thing a man can have. Luck. Luck tells me something about a man. If my people are lucky, they tap into a big field. If not, they can have every geology degree in the world and drill one dry duster after another.

  33. megan says:

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


    Low Platelets Treatment

  34. I disagree with him agreeing with MLB and its rule changes, the ones that eliminate Shore and Haddix from throwing perfect games.
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  35. Awesome thoughts as always. Don’t forget the Jonathan Sanchez game (July 10, 2009) that was nearly an official perfect game. It was spoiled by a lone fielding error.


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