Pitching this afternoon before 21,889 fans in Safeco, Felix Hernandez was staggeringly dominant against the visiting Rays, throwing the third perfect game of the 2012 season (Philip Humber, Matt Cain). Of the 113 pitches he hurled, 77 were strikes, with a mind-blowing 45.8 swing-and-miss percentage. Going by the Game Score statistic, King Felix’s 99 puts him in a tie for eleventh place all-time.
Lookout Landing’s Jeff Sullivan explains what helped make Hernandez’s performance so extraordinary:
We have to look at the numbers, because I’m most comfortable looking at the numbers. Through five innings, the Rays had made 15 outs. Four of those outs had been strikeouts, and four of those outs had been groundouts. There had been 28 attempted swings, and seven of them were whiffs.
Over the final four innings, the Rays made 12 outs. Eight of those outs were strikeouts, and four of those outs were groundouts. There were 31 attempted swings, and 19 of them were whiffs. Felix went through the entire order and a third, and no one could do anything. The four grounders were routine. The Rays were fortunate that there were four grounders. Felix amped it up and took his defense almost completely out of the equation. Felix decided that he was going to throw a perfect game, and Felix decided he wasn’t going to let his teammates jeopardize the opportunity.
Just the other day I was reading a blog post critical of a manager’s strategy. The details don’t matter. The post talked about how pitchers wear down as games go on, and about how the hitters are far more successful the third time through the lineup. One of several things that makes Justin Verlander remarkable is the way that he ramps up his velocity as he works deeper and deeper. Most pitchers, even when they pace themselves, lose velocity and lose effectiveness as they work. Verlander frequently does the opposite. Felix did the opposite. Felix, at the beginning, was throwing a fine, generic Felix game. Felix, at the end, was the very best that Felix has ever been in his life.
What I found amazing was how Hernandez (2.60 ERA, 3.24 xFIP) pitched to the 27th and final batter, Sean Rodriguez. Falling behind 2–0 on a fastball and curve, everyone in the ballpark other than King Felix and his batterymate, John Jaso, probably assumed a 95-mph heater was coming.
The next three pitches were a slider (swinging strike), curve (taken strike), and 92-mph changeup (taken strike).
So why have there been five perfect games in MLB over the past three years — six if we overlook umpire Jim Joyce’s epic facepalm in 2010 — compared to two in the previous decade, four in the Nineties, three in the Eighties, zero in the Seventies, and three in the offense-starved Sixties? If I had to guess, I’d say today’s higher strikeout rate is likely most responsible, as more Ks mean fewer balls are being put in play.