Friday, August 21, 2009

Immaculate innings

Baseball is a vast chamber of oddities, and among them is the "immaculate inning," which I first stumbled upon recently as I read about Cubs pitcher Rich Harden. An immaculate inning occurs when a pitcher strikes out three batters in nine pitches. It is a surprisingly rare occurrence in the history of professional baseball. Only three pitchers have done it twice, and no pitcher has done it three times. It happened once earlier this year, when AJ Burnett faced the Marlins, and a number of other times this decade, as the phenomenon has become increasingly common.

To demonstrate the change in frequency over time, I made this chart showing immaculate innings pitched in the MLB by decade since 1880:

As one friend pointed out, the best explanation for the increase in recent decades appears to be the advent of the modern reliever, especially the flame-throwing, one inning closer (more immaculate innings have been thrown in the 9th inning* (eight) than in any other inning), though starters--such as Burnett--have also been throwing them with impressive frequency. Additionally, a lot more teams play today, meaning more innings pitched and more opportunities for immaculate innings.

* To be sure, two of those eight innings were thrown by starters who threw complete games--talk about an impressive way to finish the day.


mattenat said...

Your theory about flame throwing relievers doesn't work when the majority guys having done it are above average starters:

Randy Johnson
Pedro Martinez
Ben Sheets
Rich Helling
Rich Harden
Felix Hernandez
AJ Burnett

Anonymous said...

This is interesting, but wouldn't you have to normalize it by making the stat immaculate innings per total innings of baseball in the year? Couldn't some of the increase simply be that more teams are playing more games now than 80 years ago?

jess said...

Could be argued, too, it's easier (relatively speaking) for pitchers to get strikeouts in an era where more hitters are swinging for the fences: There are more opportunities for strikeouts when hitters are going for power instead of average.

Colin Wyers said...

Perhaps the most salient fact is that we have more data for more recent years. For some years in the 1950s, IIRC the only team for which we have pitch count data is the Dodgers (and their opponents, of course).

Anonymous said...

Do you mean professional baseball, or just Major League Baseball?

David Archer said...

Thanks for reading.
Everyone here makes good points. I'll respond in full if I have some time to delve a little deeper into the data.
As for the last question, it's just MLB, and its late 19th Century predecessor.

Erik_Simpson said...

Apologies for coming late to the party. I wonder if there's another, cultural factor at play: the idea that a pitcher should not throw a strike on an 0-2 count. I don't buy this idea (strictly applied, anyway), but it appeals to a lot of "baseball men," including coaches. I know one lifelong fan who thinks managers should fine their pitchers for hitting the strike zone when up 0-2, even if the pitch gets an out. I wonder whether the recent increase in immaculate innings is a symptom of the new statistical rationalism in baseball, with its emphasis on pitch counts and defiance of old-school conventional wisdom.

Dan Kaempff said...

Given that an out is an out is an out, wouldn't a three pitch inning be the ne plus ultra of pitching? Is there data on that?

The ultimate perfect game would be 27 pitches, 27 outs.

Dan Kaempff said...

Ah, never mind. I missed this:

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