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Stephen Strasburg threw the fifth immaculate inning of 2019

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What’s behind the exponential rise of the once rare pitching feat?

Miami Marlins v Washington Nationals Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

In his Tuesday start against the Miami Marlins, Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg threw one of the best games of his injury-plagued career: 7.1 IP, 2 H, 2 BB, 14 K. He didn’t allow a runner past first base until the eighth inning. In 110 pitches, he threw 80 for strikes.

But his most impressive achievement came in the top of the fourth, when Strasburg did his best impression of Jiro Ono and carved up the Marlins with three strikeouts on nine pitches—his first career immaculate inning.

There really is nothing quite as satisfying as an immaculate inning. Nine pitches, nine strikes, three strikeouts. It’s the platonic ideal for every pitcher, flawless efficiency producing the statistically best possible result, contained in a single inning. It’s like coming across a perfectly preserved specimen in amber.

By any measurement, immaculate innings are incredibly rare. In more than 130 years, only 98 immaculate innings have been recorded. You’re more likely to throw a no-hitter than you are to toss nine pitches for three strikeouts.

But in recent years, an odd trend has taken hold. Between 1889 and 2009, pitchers threw a total of 64 immaculate innings, or about one every two seasons. Since 2010, there have been 34 such innings, or a little more than three per season. And that’s not even the most ridiculous part: 16 of those 34 innings have come in the last three seasons alone.

What in Mays’ name is going on? Have the pitchers been replaced by robots with laser sights? Has the league been bedeviled by the same baseball spirit that possesses Joey Gallo?

The answer is…maybe. (You won’t convince me that Max Scherzer isn’t a robot.) It’s common knowledge that strikeouts have gone up dramatically in the past decade as hitters have focused on barreling balls over making contact and pitchers’ average fastball velocity has increased.

However, that seems like an oversimplification of what’s happening. Strikeouts may be up, but it’s still really hard to record three strikeouts in a row, let alone do it in just nine pitches.

My speculation is that in addition to launch angle, more hitters are embracing the Brandon Belt approach—they’re more willing to wait for their pitch, even at the risk of looking like a doofus who doesn’t know he’s paid to hit, not to walk.

Let’s take a look at the video of Strasburg’s immaculate inning.

Strasburg has a nasty fastball, sure, but did any of the hitters look truly overmatched? Here’s the pitch FX for the first hitter, Garrett Cooper, who struck out looking:

Whatever you think of Strasburg’s stuff, it’s not like that last fastball is unhittable. However, if you’re not looking for a 95-mph fastball up and away, the best you’re going to do is roll over it for a weak groundout. It would be better just to take it and hope it’s called a ball.

And here’s the pitch FX for the third hitter, Starlin Castro:

Unlike the previous called third strike, the final strike here is absolutely mesmerizing—a 96-mph fastball with movement that just paints the black.

But look at that whopper of a second pitch—a hanging curveball that Castro juuuuuust missed sending to the moon. That is exactly the kind of pitch hitters today are looking to elevate. It just so happened that Castro whiffed.

And at the end of the day, an immaculate inning takes a whole heap of luck—that hitters swing at junk and whiff on the hittable stuff, that umpires call the borderline pitches in the pitcher’s favor, and that a pitcher has a good feel for his pitches. What’s changed is that this latest iteration of baseball grants pitchers a +5 bonus to their luck attribute.

That means we’ll see more immaculate innings before we see less. It seems like only yesterday that Santiago Casilla was etching his name into a very special section of the history books. Now, he’s just another guy in a list that’s growing exponentially.

The immaculate inning will always be impressive. It’s just sad to see it become a little less special.