|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.