“Some no-hitters are simply games that go your way”

Tyler Gilbert

Tyler Gilbert gets the congratulatory Gatorade shower . . . that he should have given his teammates, instead.

Tyler Gilbert had a night to remember Saturday, all right. He became only the fourth pitcher in National/American League/American Association history to pitch a no-hitter in his first major league starting assignment.

The company Gilbert joins includes Theodore Breitenstein (1891 St. Louis Browns, AA; the league folded at season’s end), Bumpus Jones (1892 Reds; he surrendered one run in a game in which he walked four), and Bobo Holloman. (1951 Browns, AL, and not the same franchise as the 1891 Browns.)

It took 62 years between Jones and Holloman, then 68 years between Holloman and Gilbert. Pitching a no-hitter is tough enough as it is. Pitching one in your first big-league start seems somewhere between finding the pillar of salt known as Lot’s wife and swimming the full Pacific solo. Right?

“Some no-hitters are pure dominance,” writes ESPN’s David Schoenfield, “and some are simply games that go your way and you get your name in the record books alongside two guys named Bumpus and Bobo.”

Let’s be real. On Saturday night, Gilbert had a game that went his way to get his name in the record books next to a couple of guys named Bumpus and Bobo. I’m not going to say Gilbert did bupkis to leave the Padres with bupkis, but he had more than a little help from his friends.

(He also had a lot of un-premeditated help from the Padres: Fernando Tatis, Jr. was still a day from leaving the injured list where that shoulder dislocation landed him. Gilbert didn’t even have to think about the biggest stick in the Padres’ lumberyard.)

Considering he was responsible for 23 percent of the outs directly, Gilbert had a lot of help from his friends. He faced 28 batters, struck five batters out, but walked three of them, the direct opposite of Holloman’s direct game performance. “[The Padres] a couple hard-hit balls, but I was glad somebody was there to catch them,” Gilbert admitted post-game.

A couple? Gilbert’s fielders took care of 77 percent of the outs (nine ground outs including a pair of double plays; thirteen fly outs); Holloman walked five, struck out three, and his fielders were responsible for 85 percent of the outs. (Twelve ground outs, eleven fly outs.)

And, since this was a National League game, with no designated hitter in the Diamondbacks lineup, Gilbert had to make four plate appearances in the game. He grounded out to the hole at shortstop once, struck out once, and dropped a pair of sacrifice bunts.

The first bunt set up second and third to be followed by a walk and an inning-ending double play. The second pushed Nick Ahmed to third after Ahmed opened the inning with a double. Ahmed scored the seventh Arizona run in due course on a long single down the left field line. That’s one wasted out, one push of a man to third to come home on a long single, and thus direct responsibility for a quarter of a run.

The Snakes did the bulk of their scoring early enough and often enough with a five-run first: an RBI double (Ketel Marte); an RBI single (David Peralta); and, a three-run homer (Drew Ellis). They added the sixth run with a leadoff single (Pavin Smith) and an immediate RBI triple (Josh Rojas) in the fifth.

All on the dollar of Joe Musgrove, who became the twelfth pitcher in Show history to pitch a no-hitter and have a no-hitter against him in the same season. Musgrove’s in pretty intriguing company himself that way—three of those twelve pitchers (Pud Galvin, 1880; Bob Feller, 1951; Juan Marichal, 1963) are Hall of Famers.

But are you really going to call a pitcher who takes care of only 23 percent of the other guys’ outs and does nothing other than a sacrifice bunt that pushed a runner to third base the guy most responsible for the triumph?

“For all of the consternation about the deluge of no-hitters in 2021,” wrote ESPN’S Jeff Passan after Corey Kluber nailed the season’s sixth no-hitter in late May, “the act itself—recording 27 outs without allowing a single hit—remains a miracle.”

In Gilbert’s case, just as in Holloman’s case, it also remains a testament to the efficiency of his defense and the evening potency of the Diamondbacks lineup. Kluber, Musgrove, Carlos Rodon, John Means, Wade Miley, and Spencer Turnbull did more to earn their no-hitters earlier this year than Gilbert did.

I recorded that after Kluber’s no-no, in May, but it’s worth seeing again, adding Gilbert for the full context. I include the fielding-independent pitching rates of each of those pitchers at the time they threw their no-hitters, indicating whom among them was the most likely to turn the trick. I also assign a Win Factor based on their strikeouts divided by the sum of the ground and fly outs in the game. Here they are:

Pitcher Game Score K GO FO 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
Tyler Gilbert 7-0 5 9 13 .227 2.79

Gilbert had the least direct responsibility for his no-hit performance among the seven, while Means had the most with Musgrove the second-most. Gilbert by FIP was more likely to pitch a no-hitter than four among the seven but less likely to do it than Rodon and Turnbull. On the other hand, Means lived almost as dangerously as Gilbert with those twelve fly outs in his game.

There are no game logs available to analyse Theodore Breitenstein’s and Bumpus Jones’s no-hitters, but we do have one to analyse Bobo Holloman’s. His yields a .125 win factor—three strikeouts, as noted earlier, but the Browns managed to divide the field labour evenly otherwise: twelve ground outs and twelve fly outs. Holloman’s 4.57 FIP also made him the least likely of any of the four rooks to throw a no-hitter in his first Show start. By far.

Gilbert on earth and Holloman in the Elysian Fields can still take heart that they did at least something on their own to produce no-hitters. They didn’t pitch no-nos in which they did nothing to earn them.

Ken Holtzman did, once, in 1969. Four years to the day after Cincinnati legend Jim Maloney’s oddity (a no-hitter with eleven strikeouts and ten walks), Holtzman’s Cubs beat the Braves, 3-0 . . . with Holtzman striking nobody out, walking three, and needing twelve ground outs and fifteen fly outs to get out alive, never mind with no hits against him.

Essentially, Holtzman did nothing direct to contribute to that win. (He didn’t even do anything at the plate to, ahem, pitch in, either: he went 0-for-3 with a pop fly out to the infield and a pair of ground outs.) But Holtzman took the headlines regardless, and his teammates congratulated him heartily when it should have been the other way around.

Congratulate Gilbert regardless. But once the ball left his hand and those bats, the job was out of his hands entirely. Gilbert should also thank God his fielders knew what they were doing out there to do the most at keeping the Padres off the bases.

There’s only one thing more weird than declaring a pitcher a “winner” in a game where he had little enough to do with his team’s scoring and the other guys’ lack of it. That’s declaring him a “loser” when a) he wasn’t responsible for his team’s lack of scoring; b) he didn’t throw the fat pitch that turned into a game-losing hit; c) he wasn’t in the game when the guy who reached base against him scored what proved the winning run; or, d) or his defense could have been tried by jury for criminal neglect in the field.

But there’s Gilbert with a no-hitter and a win on his record. A no-hitter and a win for which he did only 23 percent of the work needed to deliver without factoring his team’s batting on the night. A win toward which he contributed—without scoring or driving it in—to one fourth (it takes four bases to make a run, remember?) of fourteen percent of his team’s seven runs on the night when he showed up at the plate.

If that’s a “winner,” I’m the headless man in the topless bar.

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 6¼ 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.