Why so many perfect games in baseball?

by on May 23, 2004 at 2:47 am in Sports | Permalink

…in the first 60 years of the 20th century, there were 4 perfect games in baseball, a game where a pitcher pitches a complete game and no one on the other team reaches first base. In the next 45 years, there have been 11, so the rate of perfection has roughly quadrupled.

Of course Randy Johnson just pitched a perfect game this last week.

Michael Coffey, of The New York Times, claims that higher returns to celebrity have increased the returns to extraordinary performances. But the more general fact is one of declining variance across athletic performances. Wilt Chamberlain dominated his contemporaries (one year he averaged fifty points and twenty-eight rebounds per game), but now basketball talent is more tightly clustered. Many runners can do a four-minute mile, and so on. So I doubt the Coffey explanation. It is now harder to stand out from the crowd, especially as we consider longer time frames of achievement.

Nor can you argue that pitchers are gaining on hitters across the board. Home run totals have skyrocketed. Russ Roberts makes a good point; he cites better fielding, which boosts the chance for a perfect game but doesn’t stop home runs. And of course we are simply playing more games of professional baseball [Richard Squire tells me about twice as many].

Or consider a statistical explanation. Yes, more excellent performers will mean that overall achievement is more tightly bunched. But at the same time, the flow of one-time “outlier performances” can rise. You have more “perfect game capable” pitchers trying to pitch perfect games than ever before. No one of them will achieve the lifetime dominance of Cy Young, but today’s best pitch or best pitched inning is better than Cy Young’s. This holds, even though batters have improved as well. We are dealing with the extremes of the distributions, not the bunching of the means as calculated across lifetime achievement. So we get more perfect pitches today than we did eighty years ago. Now just inch up the temporal unit from “pitch” to “game” and you can get to the required result…

What really impresses me:

A perfect game, nah. A sherpa just made it up Mount Everest in less than thirteen hours; even very good climbers can require at least four days.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: