Sports

MLB Analysis: Giants' Matt Cain Latest Victim of Post-Perfection Syndrome

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On Monday night against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Matt Cain experienced post-perfection syndrome – PPS. He gave up six hits and three earned runs before being pulled after the fifth inning. Thanks to a lights-out San Francisco Giants bullpen, and a shaky performance by Angels starter Jerome Williams, Cain still earned the win as four relievers shut the Halos down the rest of the way.

Cain’s experience is not unusual. Chicago White Sox pitcher Philip Humber recorded four straight losses after his perfect game on April 21st. Working back from there, Roy Halladay’s perfect game during the 2011 NLDS for the Philadelphia Phillies was followed up by a loss to the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS. In that loss, Halladay gave up eight hits and four runs over seven innings. The Oakland Athletics’ Dallas Braden lost five games and had four no- decisions before finally winning again after his perfect game in May 2010.

Even dependable Mark Beuhrle lost four games and had four no-decisions before recording another win after his perfecto in July 2009. So, Cain beat the odds by picking up a win in spite of struggling.

Naturally, Cain’s first post-perfection start was the topic of national attention and discussion. Two starts removed from his perfect game, however, any detailed dissecting of Cain’s performances will again be limited to the local press. It takes perfection, or near perfection in the form of a no-hitter, to get the sort of national attention that last Wednesday generated. And even that attention fades quickly.

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It is a rare regular season event when a pitcher’s performance receives much note beyond the sports pages, radios talk shows, and websites focused on the two teams involved. The fact is that while Cain’s post-perfection syndrome will be temporary, the rest of us are chronically afflicted by non-perfection syndrome, an ailment that causes us to pay little attention to a performance we deem flawed. And that’s too bad, because year after year there are many tremendous, less-than-perfect efforts that go largely unnoticed beyond the local press and diehard fans.

For instance, on the same night that Cain was feeling the effects of PPS (see above), C.C. Sabathia was turning in a gritty, complete game performance for the New York Yankees against the Atlanta Braves. Sabathia surrendered a run in the first and a run in the fifth and that was it. He threw 116 pitches, gave up seven hits, and walked a batter. Even though the Yankee bullpen has been phenomenal of late, Manager Joe Girardi stuck with Sabathia for the complete game. I’m tempted to call it a throwback to a different era, but Sabathia pitches now, and Girardi manages now. Perhaps rather than being a throwback, it’s a harbinger. I hope so. Sabathia’s start was never close to perfect; he gave up a triple to Michael Bourn on the first pitch of the game. Whatever else it was, it sure was a pleasure to watch.

Nearly seven years ago I saw another incredible non-perfect performance that generated little more than some local buzz. On July 14, 2005, I was at the Oakland Coliseum, or whatever it was called that year. That night Rich Harden threw a complete game, 2-hit shutout against the Texas Rangers. Harden went 7 1/3 perfect innings before giving up a bloop single to Alfonso Soriano. What’s particularly remarkable about the game is that Harden threw a mere 81 pitches in 9 innings, 61 of which were strikes. When Harden was at his best he was unhittable. For a while during the 2005 season, he was arguably the best pitcher in MLB. Richie Sexson once struck out looking at a Harden pitch that seemed to disappear in the strike zone. Sexson, playing for the Seattle Mariners at the time, stood in the batter’s box for a moment shaking his and reportedly referred to Harden’s best pitch as a “ghost pitch.”

Sabathia’s performance on Monday and Harden’s performance seven years ago will be buried in a mountain of MLB statistics, the natural result of 162-game seasons played by 30 teams. Sabathia will probably take his numbers to the Hall of Fame. Harden will take his stats wherever he goes once his injury-plagued career is finally over. Fans lucky enough to have seen one or both of those performances will take them for what they were: slightly flawed yet unforgettable gems that, together with the rare perfect performances, make the game great year after year.

Jonathan Dyer has been a baseball fanatic since playing Little League in the 1960s, and he’s been following the Oakland A’s since moving to the Bay Area in the late 1970s when he watched Rickey Henderson play for Billy Martin. Dyer, the author of three novels, now brings his long-term perspective to writing about baseball, connecting the modern game to its historic context. You may email Jonathan directly at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dyer_jp. You can follow his progress on two new novels he’s writing at www.booksbyjonathandyer.webs.com