About all those no-hitters . . .

Corey Kluber

Corey Kluber reaches for the sky after finishing his no-hitter last Thursday—the sixth no-no of the year.

Before the present season began, there were over 220,000 Show games played and 1.6 percent of those involved no-hitters. As of this morning, there have been 693 games played this year, and less than one full percent have been the season’s six no-hitters.

To listen to enough people, you’d think there must never again be a no-hitter this year, because it’ll mean that most difficult pitching feat will be de-valued, no longer special, adding further dilution to the Great and Glorious Game in this apparent New Year of the Pitcher, this apparent New Dead Ball Era.

ESPN’s Jeff Passan says, essentially, not so fast. “For all of the consternation about the deluge of no-hitters in 2021,” he wrote Monday morning, “the act itself—recording 27 outs without allowing a single hit—remains a miracle.”

Even when the league-wide batting average is .237, the worst in MLB’s 150 years of recorded history. Even as pitchers enter seemingly every game with an overwhelming advantage against hitters. Even with the ball deadened and the fielding slick and our senses now conditioned to expect something that, entering this season, had been accomplished only 305 times in more than 220,000 games played. Six no-hitters in 693 games means no-hitters in 2021 are happening about 6ΒΌ times as often as they have in years past.

Even so, the binary among players remains true as it ever did: As much elation as finishing a no-hitter brings, being on the receiving end is awful. The frequency of no-hitters has done nothing to lessen the embarrassment of being on the wrong side of one.

“If you finish a game with one hit and you lose 3-0,” says Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager, “it stings a whole lot less. You try to look at it like you’re playing to win the game and we lost. If you look at it from that perspective, you’re going to play 162 and lose some, then it’s more tolerable. That’s the line you want to use. But [a no-hitter’s] not just losing. You got dominated. Nobody wants that. And this year it’s happened a lot.”

Six in 693 games isn’t the epidemic you think it is when you crunch the percentage. Really and truly. So what do you think .001 percent of 220,000 games is? Even if there might be six more no-hitters to come before this season finishes, it would mean a measly .004 percent of this year’s regular-season games involved no-hitters. So everybody relax.

This year’s no-hit survey begins with Joe Musgrove, erstwhile Astro turned Pirate turned Padre. 9 April, his second start of the season: he no-hit the Rangers, 3-0. Five days later, White Sox pitcher Carlos Rodon no-hit the Indians, 8-0. Twenty-one days following Rodon, John Means of the Orioles struck, no-hitting Seager’s Mariners, 6-0. Two days after that, Wade Miley in his second Cincinnati season kept the Indians hitless in a 3-0 win. Eleven days later came Spencer Turnbull of the Tigers (of all people), keeping the Mariners hitless in a 5-0 win. The following day, the Rangers learned they weren’t quite off the no-hit hook for the year, either, when Yankee pitcher (and erstwhile Ranger) Corey Kluber did it to them, 2-0.

The irrepressible Jayson Stark dedicated a considerable volume of his weekly “Weird and Wild” series in The Athletic last Friday to determine that the Rangers and the Mariners made 2021 the first year in which two particular teams were no-hit a) in their own playpens; and, b) in the same week. It could have been much worse: Stark also exhumed that the Shoeless Joe Jackson White Sox got no-hit in back-to-back 1917. By the St. Louis Browns, of all people.

You may also have noticed, as Stark did, that all six no-hit victims so far this year are American League teams, but two of the no-nos got thrown by National League pitchers. Stark noticed something else while he was at it: Turnbull now has on his resume both a no-hitter and a streak of eighteen starts without getting credit for a win.

That kind of resume item is even more rare than the no-hitter itself. Turnbull is one of only six pitchers in major league history to claim eighteen or more straight winless starts and a no-hitter. The others:

* Bob Groom—Nineteen straight starts without credit for a win for the 1909 Washington Senators . . . but pitched a no-hitter for the Cardinals against the Cubs in 1917.

* Don Larsen—The million-to-one-shot who pitched a perfect game in Game Five of the 1956 World Series went on to achieve a nineteen-start winless streak between his last days as a Yankee and his first days as a Kansas City Athletic, 1959-60.

* Vida Blue—Before his sensational 1971 and his eventual burnout from bitterness over a 1972 contract negotiation, overwork by age 28 (averaging 265 innings a year), and drug issues, Blue pitched a no-hitter at 20 in 1970. Over a decade later, as a Royal: eighteen-start winless streak, 1982-83.

* Fernando Valenzuela—1988-89, when he was considered all washed up from unconscionable overwork (262 innings a year, average, from ages 20-25) from the moment he first kicked off Fernandomania: nineteen-start winless streak. 1990: pitched a no-hitter in Dodger Stadium. On the same day his former Dodger teammate Dave Stewart pitched one in Toronto.

* Jonathan Sanchez—July 2009: no-hitter. 2012-13: eighteen-start winless streak.

Spencer Turnbull probably didn’t know it in the moment, but he helped make baseball’s arguable most controversial umpire make a little history of his own. Sixty-five umpires not named Angel Hernandez got to call the balls and strikes for no-hitters over Hernandez’s 31 seasons as a major league umpire—before the Angel of Doom finally got to be behind the plate for Turnbull’s no-no. In that circumstance, there may be six calling it karma to half a dozen suggesting Turnbull escaped with his life.

Now comes the fun part, at least for me: Among this year’s no-no men so far, who really did the most to earn the no-no? Who really depended on more than a little help from his friends to do it?

Just as I did over two months ago when examining perfect games in another context, I’m going to assign a Win Factor (WF) to this year’s no-no men, based on their strikeouts divided by the sum of the ground-ball and fly-ball outs they got in their games. I’m also going to list their fielding-independent pitching rates (FIP) for this season thus far, which may suggest to you whom among the sextet was the most and least likely to pitch a no-hitter in the first place.

Pitcher Score K GB FB WF FIP
Joe Musgrove 3-0 10 10 7 .588 2.88
Carlos Rodon 8-0 7 10 10 .350 1.91
John Means 6-0 12 3 12 .800 3.25
Wade Miley 3-0 8 15 5 .400 3.24
Spencer Turnbull 5-0 9 12 6 .500 2.77
Corey Kluber 2-0 9 9 9 .500 3.57
Jim Maloney

Jim Maloney—his 1965 no-no against the Cubs was a jam session.

Based on their FIPs, Rodon was the most likely to pitch a no-hitter among the six–even though his .350 WF equals two of the weakest WFs among history’s perfect game pitchers. (Larsen and, in 1988, Tom Browning.) Based on the same number, Kluber was the least likely among the six to pitch a no-no—and his .500 WF equals that of Philip Humber’s 2012 perfect game while sitting higher than the perfect-game WFs of Kenny Rogers (.421); Larsen and Browning; the trio of Charlie Robertson (1922), Mark Buehrle (2009), and Dallas Braden (2010), with .286; and, Dennis Martinez (1991), with .227.

Kluber and Miley walked one batter each in their games. Turnbull walked two. Means walked nobody, but he was kept from perfection by the wild-pitch third strike allowing Mariners left fielder Sam Haggerty to take first base on the house. Rodon walked nobody, either, but he was unfortunate enough to hit Indians catcher Roberto Perez with a pitch. Musgrove didn’t walk anyone but he, too, plunked one (Rangers bomber Joey Gallo) to spoil the day otherwise.

If you’re looking for the arguable sloppiest no-hitter in baseball history, it was thrown in ten innings in August 1965, by a pitcher who had a sterling WF for the game otherwise and—based on his season’s FIP—was more likely to pitch a no-hitter that year than five of this year’s so-far six no-hit pitchers:

Pitcher Score K GB FB WF FIP
Jim Maloney (1965) 1-0 12 9 8 .706 2.62

So how does a pitcher with a .706 WF for a no-hitter throw the sloppiest of them all? Easy: Maloney walked ten batters. (He also hit Hall of Famer Ron Santo with a pitch during the game, matching him to Rodon and Musgrove for a plunk apiece in their games.)

“I wasn’t real sharp today,” Maloney said in a post-game field interview. “I made some good pitches when I had to, but when I had to come in there, they popped it up or something. I had a lot of walks . . .It seemed like I was in a jam most of the day, but somehow I come out of it.”

That still may not be the absolute weirdest example of no-hit pitching you can find. Some of the history-minded may suggest it was a Browns rookie curio/flake in 1953:

Pitcher Score K GB FB WF FIP
Bobo Holloman (1953) 6-0 3 12 12 .125 4.57

Even Holloman didn’t get as weird as three pitchers who threw no-hit, no-run, no-strikeout games: Earl Hamilton (Browns) against the Tigers, 1912; Sad Sam Jones (Yankees), against the Philadelphia Athletics, 1923; and, Ken Holtzman (Cubs), against the Atlanta Braves, 1969. We should call them the no-no-no-hitters, no?

Hamilton’s 1912 FIP (2.98) made him the most likely of that trio to pitch a no-hitter, even a no-no-no. Holtzman’s 1969 FIP (3.18) made him the second most likely of the three, with Jones bringing up the most-likely rear among them. (3.89.) Needless to say, the WFs for all three are . . . zero.

Having Holtzman’s game log available, I could table his game—which happened exactly four years to the day after Jim Maloney’s jam session:

Pitcher Score K GB FB WF FIP
Ken Holtzman (1969) 3-0 0 12 15 .000 3.18

Holtzman, Hamilton, and Jones threw a lot of pitches whacked for grounders. They threw a lot of pitches hit for fly outs. It may be a particular skill for pitchers to “throw grounders,” of course. But once that ball dives off that bat, there’s no absolute guarantee it’s going to find a fielder’s glove uninterrupted until or unless the fielder finds and snatches it to throw for the out. There’s likewise no absolute guarantee that, when the fielder throws the ball, the ball’s going to reach its intended destination without rude interruption or change in course.

Holtzman pitched his no-no-no on an afternoon during which the notorious Wrigley Field winds blew in his favour—as in, blowing in from the outfield. Keeping a few of those fifteen fly outs he got in the game, including three by Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, from disappearing into the bleachers.

In a baseball situation for which one man gets the big credit when he may not have done the majority of the work needed to get that credit in the first place, Earl Hamilton, Sad Sam Jones, and Ken Holtzman got credit for pitching no-hitters despite doing that little of the heaviest lifting to make them no-hitters in the first place.

As Stark likes to say, “Because . . . baseball!” As I like to say, because . . . in baseball, anything can happen. And, usually does.

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