There wasn’t even a near-miss in this one. Felix Hernandez dominated the Rays from top to bottom on Wednesday, striking out 12 in a perfect game to beat Tampa Bay 1-0. It was his first career no-hitter and the first perfect game in Mariners history.
As for the Rays, this is becoming old hat for them. Although they’re only been around since 1998, they’re now the first franchise in major league history to be on the losing side in three perfect games. They also had perfect games thrown against them by Mark Buehrle in 2009 and by Dallas Braden in 2010.
Hernandez simply cruised today, even after Rays manager Joe Maddon took the field in the middle of a Matt Joyce at-bat in the seventh to lodge complaints about Rob Drake’s strike zone. And, make no mistake, it was a big strike zone. However, even a small one might not have prevented Hernandez from making history. Besides some fantastic fastball command, he had probably the best changeup I’ve ever seen from him today. He threw B.J. Upton several in a row in the seventh, and Upton still never had a chance.
Hernandez pitched himself right into the think of the AL Cy Young race with today’s performance. Rebounding from a rough patch in May and early June, he’s now won his last seven decisions and is 11-5 with a 2.60 ERA for the season. He’s fifth in the AL in ERA, tied for second in strikeouts (174) and first in innings (180). He now has four shutouts. With one more, he’d be the first AL pitcher to get to five since David Wells in 1998.
“Work fast and throw strikes” has long been the top conventional wisdom for those preaching pitching success. The “work fast” part of that has increasingly gone by the wayside, however, as pitchers take more and more time to throw pitches in an effort to max out their effort and, thus, their velocity with each pitch.
Now, as Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer reports, the “throw strikes” part of it is going out of style too:
Pitchers are throwing fewer pitches inside the strike zone than ever previously recorded . . . A decade ago, more than half of all pitches ended up in the strike zone. Today, that rate has fallen below 47 percent.
There are a couple of reasons for this. Most notable among them, Lindbergh says, being pitchers’ increasing reliance on curves, sliders and splitters as primary pitches, with said pitches not being in the zone by design. Lindbergh doesn’t mention it, but I’d guess that an increased emphasis on catchers’ framing plays a role too, with teams increasingly selecting for catchers who can turn balls that are actually out of the zone into strikes. If you have one of those beasts, why bother throwing something directly over the plate?
There is an unintended downside to all of this: a lack of action. As Lindbergh notes — and as you’ve not doubt noticed while watching games — there are more walks and strikeouts, there is more weak contact from guys chasing bad pitches and, as a result, games and at bats are going longer.
As always, such insights are interesting. As is so often the case these days, however, such insights serve as an unpleasant reminder of why the on-field product is so unsatisfying in so many ways in recent years.