When The New Yorker Attacked The 1980s' Best Pitcher

Matt Cain of the San Francisco Giants celebrates after pitching a perfect game against the Houston Astros at AT&T Park in San Francisco, California. The San Francisco Giants defeated the Houston Astros 10-0. Matt Cain struck out a career-high 14 batters, and pitched a perfect game in what was the first in Giants franchise history. (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)

Maybe perfect games are happening too often and maybe young hitters are just too lazy these days and maybe Dave Stieb's anonymous. Or maybe they're not.

I'm crazy about The New Yorker. I mean, to the point where it's practically become an affectation. My dog looks just like the dog in the Booth cartoons. I refuse to see any movie that hasn't been reviewed by Pauline Kael. The last time I was in New York, I tried to visit the magazine's offices, but collapsed in a pool of tears and sweat on the sidewalk outside.

That said, when I read this piece in The New Yorker about perfect games (etc.) I canceled my lifetime subscription.

Here's the passage that knocked me over, from someone named Nick Traverse:

Commentators are right to herald this as a new "Age of the Pitcher." But the harbinger isn’t the glut of perfect games we’ve had recently. A streak like this isn’t unprecedented. From 1988 to 1991, a time not particularly notable for pitching prowess, two perfectos were thrown, by names you probably don’t recall—Tom Browning and Dennis Martinez. In that same span, another three mostly anonymous pitchers—Ron Robinson, Dave Stieb, and Brian Holman—lost their perfect games on the last batter. That three-year period was just a few strokes of dumb luck away from being as prolific a streak of perfection as today.

Why, I do indeed recall Tom Browning and Dennis Martinez. Tom Browning threw a perfect game! And Dennis Martinez won 245 games; give him a couple of postseason shutouts and he'd have the same Hall of Fame case as Jack Morris.

But you know what really got me?

Dave Stieb.

Mostly anonymous? I know The New Yorker is famously parochial and Stieb never pitched for the Bronx Yankees or the Flushing Mets or the Coney Island Cyclones. But Dave Stieb was a seven-time All-Star, and led all major-league pitchers in Wins Above Replacement during the 1980s.*

* By the way, Jack Morris is well down that list. Meanwhile, Bert Blyleven is second on the 1980s list and fourth on the 1970s list. Wasn't it hilarious that he had to wait for a million years to get into the Hall of Fame? Answer: Yes! But not as hilarious as Ron Santo having to have to until he was dead!


Wendy Thurm: Perfect Games Still Rare Enough to Celebrate


Okay, so far all of this has been just a bunch of good clean fun. You can actually have my New Yorker subscription when you pry it from my cold dead hands. The bigger question is this:

What's going on with all these no-hitters and perfect games?

and of course its corollary:

What's going on with all these pitchers and their strikeouts and whatnot?

With Matt Cain's perfect game last week, we began to hear some complaints ... complaints that no-hitters and perfect games have been cheapened. Cheapened to the point where, gosh, maybe we shouldn't get all that excited about them. We're seeing more of those fancy games than ever, it seems. Why, it's gotten to be a regular occurrence!

We're also seeing more strikeouts, and lower ERA's.

Why, though? That was the subject of Jayson Stark's ESPN.com column last week. My Reader's Digest Condensed Version of Stark's considered theories:

  • steroids aren't what they used to be;
  • pitchers are throwing harder than before;
  • pitchers are throwing fewer fastballs, and more baffling other pitches;
  • pitchers have immediate access to hitters' tendencies, on their laptops and Zunes and stuff;
  • young hitters don't work hard enough as youngsters, any more.

I'm simplifying The Five Theories, of course. You should read Stark's whole piece, if you haven't already. And in his defense, he's got quotes from notable baseball men to back up all of them.

But I'm skeptical. Really skeptical. About most of it, anyway.

Yes, pitchers are throwing harder. The average major-league fastball has gotten about one mile an hour faster since 2005. If you believe the numbers we've got, anyway. Is one mile an hour faster meaningful? Yeah, probably. Some.

Do pitchers have easy access to hitters' tendencies? Yup.
Do hitters have easy access to pitchers' tendencies? Yup.

Do young hitters work as hard as they used to? I don't have the slightest idea. But whenever there's any sort of trend in baseball, it's invariably attributed by old men to young men not giving a shit. It's just what we old men do. These young kids these days just don't work hard enough. That's what they said when there weren't any good young catchers in the late 1980s, right before a big crop of good young catchers came along.

Leaving that subjective opinion of mine aside, though, why would young hitters stop caring, but young pitchers wouldn't? Why wouldn't the Information Explosion help the hitters just as much as it helps the pitchers?

My personal opinion is that fluctuations in statistics are both natural, inevitable, and sometimes unexplainable until well after the fact. Another personal opinion: Jayson's right about the drugs. In the absence of a better explanation, Occam's Razor would seem to apply here. Stark:

Run totals have dropped in every full season since 2006. Home runs have dropped in every full season but one (2009). And we've seen a massive plummet in homers of 450 feet or more, from 144 in 2006 to just 89 last year. Is anyone surprised by any of this?

Then again, as Jayson does point out, the pitchers were on the drugs, too. Which does make all this a bit trickier, don't you think? I had a long conversation a few months ago with some really smart dudes, and we never really did come to any sort of meaningful consensus regarding the hitting downturn these last few years. Funny, isn't it? All these Doctors of Thinkology on the case, and yet we still seem to be doing a whole lot of guessing.

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