Posted August 16, 2012

King Felix’s latest gem is a perfect game

Felix Hernandez, No-hitters, Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Rays

Felix Hernandez rejoiced after tossing the first perfect game in Mariners history but, ironically, the second this season at Safeco Field. (AP)

In a season that had already featured five no-hitters, including two perfect games, Felix Hernandez added another gem to the pile. On a sunny Wednesday afternoon in front of 21,889 fans at Seattle’s Safeco Field, the Mariners ace retired all 27 Rays he faced en route to the 23rd perfect game in major league history. The 26-year-old righty needed just 113 pitches to do so, the last of them a knee-buckling curveball that froze Tampa Bay’s Sean Rodriguez. It was Hernandez’s 12th strikeout of the game, and fifth over the final two innings.

The Rays were thoroughly dominated by Hernandez, hitting just five balls to the outfield, none of them after the fifth inning. Meanwhile, according to the data at BrooksBaseball.net, King Felix generated 26 swings-and-misses for the day, 10 via his curveball, nine via his changeup, five via his slider and one apiece via his four- and two-seam fastballs. The 26 whiffs are tied for third on the year with the White Sox’ Chris Sale (May 28 against these same Rays) and the Tigers’ Max Scherzer (May 20 against the Pirates), behind CC Sabathia (27 on June 7 against — surprise! — the Rays) and Francisco Liriano (30 on July 13 against the A’s). Among the no-hitters and perfect games this year, his total far outstrips those of Johan Santana (18), Kevin Millwood and five Mariner relievers (16, seven by Millwood), Matt Cain (14), Philip Humber (14) and Jered Weaver (10).

With “only” 12 strikeouts, Hernandez’s effort does take a backseat as measured by Game Score to Cain’s June 13 perfect game, in which the Giants righty struck out 14 Astros:

Rk Player Date Tm Opp IP H R ER BB SO GSc
1 Matt Cain 6/13/12 SFG HOU 9 0 0 0 0 14 101
2 Felix Hernandez 8/15/12 SEA TBR 9 0 0 0 0 12 99
3T R.A. Dickey 6/18/12 NYM BAL 9 1 0 0 2 13 96
Philip Humber 4/21/12 CHW SEA 9 0 0 0 0 9 96
Matt Cain 4/13/12 SFG PIT 9 1 0 0 0 11 96
6T R.A. Dickey 6/13/12 NYM TBR 9 1 1 0 0 12 95
Justin Verlander 5/18/12 DET PIT 9 1 0 0 2 12 95
Jered Weaver 5/2/12 LAA MIN 9 0 0 0 1 9 95
9T Felix Hernandez 7/14/12 SEA TEX 9 3 0 0 0 12 93
9 Dan Haren 5/24/12 LAA SEA 9 4 0 0 0 14 93
11 James Shields 7/31/12 TBR OAK 9 3 0 0 0 11 92
12T A.J. Burnett 7/31/12 PIT CHC 9 1 0 0 2 8 91
Madison Bumgarner 6/28/12 SFG CIN 9 1 0 0 2 8 91
Jason Hammel 6/16/12 BAL ATL 9 1 0 0 2 8 91
15 Johan Santana 6/1/12 NYM STL 9 0 0 0 5 8 90

Hernandez, who now ranks first in the American League in innings pitched (180), second in strikeouts (174) and fifth in ERA (2.60), has been on something of a roll lately. Over his last 10 turns, he has thrown four complete-game shutouts: a five-hit, 13-strikeout effort agains the Red Sox on June 28, a three-hit, 12-strikeout blanking of the Rangers on July 14, a two-hit, six-strikeout whitewashing of the Yankees on August 4 and now the perfecto. Those aren’t lightweights teams, either; the Rangers, Yankees and Red Sox are the league’s top three in scoring, though the Rays are just 12th. That quartet came into the day a combined 48 games above .500, with all but the Red Sox in position for a playoff spot. Yet the King has ruled them all, at least for a day.

This is Hernandez’s first career no-hitter, but if it feels like there’s an element of déjà vû to the proceedings, you’re correct. Of the previous 16 no-hitters since the beginning of the 2009 season, six had involved either the Rays or the Mariners, including three of the five perfect games:

• On July 23, 2009, Mark Buehrle of the White Sox tossed a perfect game against the Rays.
• On May 9, 2010, Dallas Braden of the A’s threw a perfect game against the Rays.
• On June 25, 2010, Edwin Jackson of the Diamondbacks threw a no-hitter against the Rays.
• On July 26, 2010, the Rays’ Matt Garza no-hit the Tigers.
• On April 21, 2012, Philip Humber of the White Sox threw a perfect game against the Mariners.
• On June 8, 2012, Kevin Millwood and five Mariner relievers combined for a no-hitter against the Dodgers.

The only other team involved in more than two no-hitters during that span has been the White Sox, who in addition to Buehrle and Humber were on the wrong end of Francisco Liriano’s no-hitter on May 3, 2011. For the Mariners, this marks the first time a team has ever been on both ends of a perfect game in the same season. For the Rays, this is the third perfect game they’ve been been on the wrong end of in four seasons, while all other AL teams have been victimized a combined three times since the beginning of 1985.

Why do these two teams keep popping up into the no-hit picture? Both play half their games in ballparks that do offenses no favors, which may help explain why Safeco and Tropicana Field have seen multiple such occurrences since 2009, with the former hosting three, and the latter two; then again, U.S. Cellular Field, the only other venue to host two, is a hitters’ park. Thanks in part to their home field, the Mariners have been the majors’ worst-hitting team since the beginning of 2009 in terms of batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage (.240/.300/.363 coming into the day). While the Rays are above the middle of the pack in the latter two categories because they possess more patience and more punch, they’re 27th in batting average themselves (.248/.329/.407). None of that perfectly answers the question, but it’s a start.

As to why we’ve seen so many no-hitters in recent years, after Cain’s effort in June, I noted four trends that have played a part: more games due to expansion, lower batting averages (the majors’ .255 mark coming into the day is equal to last year’s mark, which was the lowest since 1989), higher strikeout rates (the majors’ 7.49 per nine innings is a record, shattering the mark of 7.13 in each of the previous two seasons, and more than a full strikeout ahead of the 6.38 per nine from 2005), and better defense via a higher percentage of balls in play (of which there are fewer due to strikeouts) converted into outs, perhaps in part owing to the increased use of infield shifts.

On a day when Melky Cabrera drew a 50-game suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drug use, a cynic might add drug testing to that list. But given that testing began in 2004 and the first suspensions began in 2005, explaining why there were a fairly average number of no-hitters during the 2004-2009 span — nine, with years ranging between zero (2005) and three (2007) — and then a sudden flood starting in 2010 (15 since then) takes some serious contortions.

In the end, the real contortions to focus upon are those of the hapless Rays hitters, flailing away at Hernandez’s offspeed stuff and helping him craft a performance for the ages.

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