Deep Underground with Raul Groom

Thursday, May 20, 2004

I don't usually write about sports here, but today I noticed a very strange column in the New York Times by Michael Coffee. Coffee, an expert on perfect games, says that pitchers are more likely to pitch perfect games now than they once were because they can make millions and millions of dollars for being awesome.

This strikes me as lunacy on several levels. Far be it from me to dispute Coffee's knowledge of the game, but there is an element of Thomas Frank's "Free Market Faith" here. It's a good example of what easy propaganda does - it allows us to arrive at an emotionally satisfying (for someone who believes in the power of greed to produce greatness - a common faith in the U.S.) conclusion when we should probably keep looking deeper.

Coffee's argument, to me, makes one obvious mistake - it looks at a perfect game as a pure feat of pitching. Perfect games are incredibly rare precisely because this is not the case. For a perfect game to happen, several factors must converge. Obviously, the pitcher must have his very best stuff and near-perfect control. But that's true, really, for almost any complete-game shutout. The other factors are either completely or mostly beyond the pitchers control. First, the fielders must all be perfect as well. A runner reaching on an error spoils a perfect game, and there is absolutely nothing the pitcher can do about it. Second, almost no pitcher has such perfect control that he can get through an entire game without running the count to three balls at least a couple of times. Once the count gets to three balls, any pitch - even one right down the middle - has some chance of being called ball four. Umpires are human, and ball/strike calls are among the most difficult calls to make in sports (the reason that it is illegal to argue a ball/strike call is because if you could do it, games would last five hours, and the umpire would routinely be in a position to defend a call that was quite obviously wrong.)

The last factor is the "bloop factor" - many no-hitters are spoiled by hits that occur not because a batter finally made good contact, but because he happened to pop the ball up to a spot on the field where no one happened to be close enough to make a play.

Coffee's answer, no doubt, would be that better pitching merely creates more opportunities for the other factors to converge and create a perfect game. However, to determine whether this is the case, we need some more information. Are there more no-hitters now than before (a no-hitter being dependent only on the first and last factors and not the fielding or the ball/strike calls)? Coffee doesn't say. In fact, there are - about 50% more. Not as striking a discrepancy, but still, they do occur at a slightly higher rate now. But why? Here's a thought - maybe we should look at how many GAMES were played betweeen 1901 and 1960, and compare it to 1961-2004 on THAT basis. That would be something called CONTEXT, the enemy of propaganda.

In fact, the period that Coffee picks to analyze makes it downright humorous that he didn't think to include this piece of analysis - baseball first expanded in 1961. Before that year, there were and always had been (in the 20th century) only 16 teams. Also, in 1961 the season was extended to 162 games (from 154.) So between 1901 and 1960, there were about 140,000 major league games played. Between 1961 and 2004, over 176,000 were played. So one would expect there to be about 25% more ho-hitters thrown since 1961; in fact, there have been about 50% more. That's an interesting difference, and one that maybe merits some exploration, but the difference between the number of no-hitters you would have expected based on the rate at which they were occurring in the beginning of the 21st century and the number that actually happened is really quite small.

Also, picking pre-1961 and post-1961 as the cutoff time really doesn't make sense from a money perspective. Player salaries didn't really take off until the 1980's. Remember Jim Rice's big contract? So if Coffee's hypotehsis is correct, we should see a lot more no-hitters since 1980, as players are so much more motivated by the promise of enormous contracts. Whoops - between 1961 and 1980, there were 37 NL no-no's, and between 1981 and 2001 there were only 19 (I ignore the AL because I feel like it, but it doesn't change the overall picture much.) In fact, the 1960's account for by far the most no-hitters in a decade - 22 in the NL, as compared to 15 in the 1970's and a measly 7 in the 80's.

Why does all of this matter so much? It doesn't, really, except to demonstrate that if you sing a song that people like to hear - in this case, money makes the world go round - you don't have to put much time into supporting your argument. Imagine if Coffee had decided that the reason for more perfect games since 1961 was that in the 1960's, pitchers were doing a lot more acid, and that made them better pitchers. I doubt the Times would have rushed to print such a thing on such flimsy evidence as I have provided here, but as you can see, that hypothesis has a lot better empirical traction than Coffee's.

The most obvious (and I would say probably the correct) hypothesis is that pitchers throw more no-hitters (and therefore more percect games) when the overall hitting talent in the league is low. The more teams that lack truly "tough outs," the more no-hitters you're going to have. That's supported by the fact that in the 1960's and 1970's, batting averages were way down, and now they are back up again. Unfortunately for me, that analysis doesn't support any popular delusions, so it's unlikely to make it into a major U.S. paper.

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