Pitchers better prepared for perfection

Giants starter Matt Cain threw the 22nd perfect game in MLB history on Wednesday, the fifth in the...

Giants starter Matt Cain threw the 22nd perfect game in MLB history on Wednesday, the fifth in the past three calendar years. (ROBERT GALBRAITH/Reuters file photo)

KEN FIDLIN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:57 PM ET

The 2012 baseball season is rapidly developing as the year of the no-hitter.

Already there have been five no-no's tossed, including a pair of perfect games. If the New York Mets had their way, R.A. Dickey would have made it six. He tossed a one-hitter this week, but the Mets appeal to have the hit ruled an error was denied Friday by Major League Baseball.

In the modern era, the record for no-hit games in a season is seven, which happened in back-to-back seasons in 1990 and 1991. In 2010, there were six, and should have been seven if umpire Jim Joyce hadn't erred in calling Cleveland's Jason Donald safe at first with two outs in the ninth inning of what had been, to that point, a perfect game pitched by Detroit's Armando Galarraga.

With well more than half the season to be played, there's a good chance there will be a record established for no-hit games in 2012. As far as perfect games go, there have only been 22 in MLB history, yet five of them have occurred in the last three calendar years.

So what's going on? Have hitters lost their mojo? Or is the art of pitching advancing at a faster rate than the art of hitting? Or is it just a normal swing of the ever-changing pendulum between offence and defence?

There is absolutely no doubt that modern training, instruction and the introduction of extensive video coverage has led to more preparedness by pitchers. In the year 2000, MLB pitching staffs averaged about 600 walks issued. In 2011 that average had been reduced to 501.

Theoretically, that preparedness should be offset by hitters' access to video in their pursuit of finding opponents' weaknesses as well, but you can't argue the hard fact that offence is at a 20-year low.

The suspicion here is that the difference, if there really is a difference, is neither associated with pitching nor with hitting, but in the way teams stress defence. Teams such as the Brewers, the Rays, the Blue Jays and many others are incorporating accurate hitting spray charts into their defensive alignments, taking advantage of hitters' tendencies, taking hits away by moving defenders around the diamond.

Another aspect of the move toward greater awareness on defence is that teams value good defenders more than they used to. One of the influences in that trend is the fact that in the post-steroid era, offence is not what it once was.

Years ago, if a manager had to choose between a good hitter and a good defender, that manager always took the good hitter and put him out on the field, hoping he would do more good with his bat than harm with his glove. Now it's not so certain because the metrics associated with fielding have gained credence in front offices all over baseball.

Whether that has an influence on something as fluky as a no-hitter is hard to say, but it is a very real part of the game as it is being played today.

HAZARDS OF PERFECTION

Matt Cain's perfecto against the Astros on Wednesday is, naturally enough, being compared with some of the greatest games ever pitched. He matched Sandy Koufax's 14 strikeouts, accomplished in his 1965 perfect game win over the Cubs, but we'll give the nod to Koufax over Cain by virtue of the fact Koufax struck out the last six men he faced, including Ron Santo, Ernie Banks and Harvey Kuenn.

Beyond that, as far as we know, no Dodger was injured in Koufax's post-perfecto celebration. That can't be said of Cain's gem.

Aubrey Huff has the dubious distinction of being the second player in the last two weeks to be injured in celebrating a no-hitter. Huff bruised his left knee trying to hurdle the dugout railing to go onto the field and congratulate Cain and will not be available to DH this weekend during interleague action in Seattle. Pitcher Ramon Ramirez was put on the 15-day DL by the Mets with a hamstring he tore while running from the bullpen to celebrate Johann Santana's no-hitter on June 1.

SHORT HOPS

On April 21, just 14 games into the season, the Texas Rangers were 12-2 and 10 games over .500. In the 50 games since (through Thursday), the mighty Rangers have been a .500 team at 25-25 .... Twice, left fielder Brett Gardner has tried to come back to the Yankees after being put on the DL in early April, and twice he has had to be shut down again. He's not expected to be back from a muscle strain in his throwing elbow for another month ... Third baseman Evan Longoria, out since April 30 with a partially torn hamstring, began a rehab assignment this weekend and is expected back in the Rays lineup shortly. In his absence, the Rays have played .500 baseball (20-20).

DEMPSTER"S FUTURE WITH CUBS UP IN THE AIR

Speculation surrounding the Chicago Cubs' Canadian-born pitcher Ryan Dempster heated up this week when he and team president Theo Epstein met on Wednesday to explore each others' outlook on Dempster's future with the Cubs.

With the Cubs obviously in rebuilding mode and Dempster, 35, in the final year of his four-year contract, making him a free agent next winter, the Gibsons, B.C., native becomes a primary trade candidate. But as a 10 and five player (10 years service, five with the same team), Dempster has veto rights.

"We talked about being on the same page and trying to do what is best for our team," said Dempster, who is having an outstanding season, despite a 2-3 record. He has a 2.31 ERA and has pitched at least seven innings in six of his 11 starts.

It is believed that multiple contending teams would be in the bidding for Dempster, who could then jump into the free-agent pool at season's end and sell himself to the highest bidder. That could also lead to a return to Chicago, where he has been a fixture for nine seasons. After three seasons and 87 saves as the Cubs closer, Dempster moved to the starting rotation in 2008, where he has had four consecutive seasons of 200-plus innings in which he has compiled an average ERA of 3.51.

Seven four-hit shutout innings Friday against the Red Sox in a 3-0 win shouldn't hurt his trade value much, either.

EPSTEIN SEEKS TO END ANOTHER CURSE

The Cubs and the Red Sox are two of baseball's iconic franchises, cultivating intensely loyal fan bases despite generation upon generation of losing. Theo Epstein, who departed as Boston's general manager after last September's cataclysmic collapse to become president of the Cubs, has a unique perspective on both teams.

Epstein presided over Boston's first World Series win in 86 years in 2004 and is now trying to build a team on the north side of Chicago to end an even longer drought. The Cubs last won the World Series in 1908 and have lost seven Fall Classics since then, most recently in 1945.

"There's sort of an inherent optimism about Cubs fans," Epstein told the Chicago Tribune Thursday, on the eve of the Cubs-Red Sox series. "They'll seize onto things that go well and they enjoy and celebrate them, which is a great quality to have. It helps check the mood around the ballpark, and the team in general.

"It's a great characteristic because those of us from Boston, with our Puritan roots, we sometimes seize on the opposite. We sometimes cling to the negative stuff and get cynical and beat ourselves up over it. We always look for the other shoe to drop. There's a little bit of difference in the natural outlook of the two fan bases. Not that one is better or worse. I really love them both and respect them both, but that's one distinction you could draw."

The Cubs have the worst record in baseball at 21-42. They have won just six of their last 27 games.

"There have already been a lot of potholes along the way," Epstein said. "There will be more. It's a very competitive landscape out there. Hopefully, a couple years from now, we'll look back on it and say some of the things we did helped us get to where we wanted to be."

WHO NEEDS RIVERA?

When the greatest closer in history ruined his knee falling on the warning track in Kansas City on May 3, it was suggested that suddenly the New York Yankees would have to learn how the other half lives. Two months later, the Yanks are wondering, "What's the big deal?"

Not only did they lose Mariano Rivera that month, but they lost David Robertson shortly thereafter, leaving two gaping holes in the bullpen. Robertson was scheduled to return to the Yankee roster Friday night in Washington, but they've been doing just fine without him, getting more than they imagined from a largely no-name collection of relievers.

Rafael Soriano has saved 11 games in 12 chances and the bullpen as a whole has a 6-4 record with a 2.70 ERA. In the absences of Robertson and Rivera, people named Clay Rapada, Cody Eppley, Corey Wade and Boone Logan have been setting things up for Soriano.

During their recent run to the top of the American League East standings, the Yankees have been getting some outstanding work from their starters. In this current 11-2 run, the starters have gone 10-1 with a 2.46 ERA.

In those 13 games, the Yankees have outhomered their opposition 22-8 and outscored them 67-35. Now they take on the Nationals, who have emerged as the next big thing in baseball this season. They went into the series on a six-game win streak and winners of nine of their previous 11. Should be an interesting weekend in the shadow of the Capitol dome.

TIGERS LACK CLAWS

When this baseball season began, there were question-mark teams all over the majors. One team that nobody questioned were the Detroit Tigers, the odds-on people's choice to make a mockery of the American League Central race.

Well, some funny things happened on the way to the coronation. In a division that was just asking to be blown away, the Tigers have come up small. They came out of the gate with nine wins in their first 12 games then ... nothing. Since that hot start, they are nine games under .500, now at 30-33 and firmly planted in third place.

The most shocking aspect of the Tigers' start is their tepid offence. With Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder at the heart of the order, they were supposed to score at will. Instead they are middle of the pack in runs.

Both Cabrera and Fielder have done their part. They have combined for 23 home runs and 92 RBI, with almost identical OPS numbers of .888 and .886. Austin Jackson has been good when healthy with a .957 OPS, but he's missed more than 20 games.

The rest of the key players in the lineup -- Delmon Young, Alex Avila, Brennan Boesch and Jhonny Peralta -- have been disappointments. Avila has missed some time, but is expected back within the week. As a whole, they are seriously underachieving.

Nobody expected a reprise of Justin Verlander's dream season of a year ago, but he's been far and away the Tigers' best pitcher with a 2.66 ERA and a WHIP under 1.00. Doug Fister has been injured while Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer have been getting lit up more often than not.

Still, the Tigers are in touch, four games back of the White Sox even though they've squandered 63 games of the schedule. With more than half their games remaining, expect the Tigers to get it in gear.


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