The Guards win an Óscar

Óscar González

Óscar Gonzáles about to send the Guardians to an AL division series . . . but did it have to be against a former Cleveland pitcher who’d served them long and well?

A Guardian kid leading off the longest scoreless game in the bottom of the fifteenth. Facing a former Guardian pitcher. The second pitch of the plate appearance disappearing and taking the Rays’ season with it.

One of seventeen to make major league debuts with the Guards this season, Óscar González hit eleven home runs on the way here. Now, he hit the most important one of his 24-year-old life Saturday afternoon to finish the Guardians’ shove of the Rays to one side in a two-game American League wild card sweep of opposites.

The whippersnappers upended their elders (the Rays’ average starting lineup age : 27; the Guards: 24) without caring how long it might take. If they could do it in a comparative Game One blink, sure. If they needed fifteen innings and shy of five hours to do it, neither they nor the sellout Progressive Field home crowd cared, either.

They made very short work (as in two hours and change) of the Rays in Game One. Then, they and the Rays threw the pitching kitchen sink at each other, just about, before Game Two reached the bottom of the fifteenth and Corey Kluber, former Guardian when they were still the Indians, went to work for a second inning’s relief.

It was his first relief gig in nine years. It turned out to be his last, thus far. And it wouldn’t be unfair to ponder whether Kluber might be beginning to think that someone, somewhere, placed a postseason hex upon his 36-year-old head. This was his fourth postseason tour that ended with him on the wrong side in elimination games in which he either started or appeared at all.

The last time Kluber turned up in the postseason, he wore Cleveland fatigues in 2018 and was bushwhacked by the Astros in the first of a three-game Houston division series sweep then, thanks to a fourth-inning leadoff bomb (Alex Bregman) and an RBI single, then back-to-back fifth inning-opening bombs (George Springer, Jose Altuve).

A year before that, Kluber faced the Yankees to decide another AL division series. The Yankees made shorter work of him then, with a third-inning two-run homer (Didi Gregorius) and four straight singles the final two of which plated a run each with one out in the fifth, en route the Yankees taking it in five.

A year before that, Kluber’s and the Indians’ World Series ended dramatically in that 8-7, late-rain disrupted Cubs win after a back and forth that might have tempted God Himself to proclaim a tie for the two then-longest World Series title droughts in the Show. And yet again Kluber started but was stripped of four runs that only began with Dexter Fowler sending the first-ever Game Seven-opening home run over the center field fence.

The two-time American League Cy Young Award winner has since struggled through injury-disrupted seasons in stops with the Rangers and the Yankees before spending 2022 working his way back to respectability with a respectable-enough 3.57 fielding-independent pitching rate.

But with one swing on a slightly-hanging cutter on 1-0, González sent Kluber’s newfound respectability and the end of the Rays’ fourth annual postseason trip in a row into the left field seats. He also sent Progressive Field nuclear while sending his young Guards to a division series date with the Yankees.

All season long the Guards’ rookie guard lifted heaviest carrying them to the American League Central title. The only question entering the wild card set was whether it’d be one of the kids or one of the few elders who’d get the big job done for them. Not that manager Terry Francona cared less, of courseI don’t think by that point we cared,” manager Terry Francona said.

“It could have been one of the old guys,” Francona said postgame after González’s blast. “We didn’t care. We’re not biased. I was happy that he hit it.”

“I flipped on the Guardians and game,” tweeted MLB Network researche Jessica Brand, “and first pitch Óscar González goes deep. I’m not sure I want that kind of power. Was kind of secretly relishing the goose egg farm.”

Well, somebody had to scramble those eggs sooner or later. For the longest time it looked as though neither side was necessarily that anxious to do anything other than pin the opposing lineups’ ears behind their heads and become human Electroluxes in the field.

Guardians pitching kept the Rays to six hits and Rays pitching kept the Guards to five. The Rays and the Guards used eight pitchers each, and the Guards blew a shot at smashing the scoreless tie a full game’s worth before González finally struck.

Myles Straw (who promptly stole second) and Rookie of the Year candidate Steven Kwan were handed back-to-back walks by Rays reliever Pete Fairbanks—relieving starter Tyler Glasnow—to open the bottom of the sixth. Somewhat tough on the Guards this year, Fairbanks unintentionally handed them a break when he called Rays manager Kevin Cash and a team trainer out to the mound.

“I can’t feel my hand,” Fairbanks is said to have told Cash. The team subsequently said the righthander’s index finger went numb for unknown reasons in the moment. Exit Fairbanks, enter Jason Adam, and ducks on the pond at once when Adam plunked last year’s Atlanta postseason hero Eddie Rosario on the first pitch.

Enter José Ramírez, the Guards’ All-Star third baseman. Exit Ramírez on strikes almost at once. And exit the Guards for the side when Josh Naylor grounded into a step-and-throw double play.

Ramirez more than made up for it in the twelfth, when he backhanded Manuel Margot’s hard hopper behind the pad, the momentum pulling him into foul territory, then whipped a long, low throw for which Naylor at first had to stretch to scoop, and he kept just enough of his foot on the pad to secure the out. The Rays challenged the play but lost.

Heavy sigh of relief from one end of Progressive to the other.

González might have had the most privately embarrassing moment of the night when his belt broke while sliding in the seventh. Lucky for him that first base coach Sandy Alomar, Jr. had a belt to spare. And lucky for the Guardians that González had a belt to spare opening the fifteenth inning.

But did it have to be against a Kluber who’d pitched long enough and well enough for Cleveland and its long-enough-deprived fans? A Kluber who’d given them everything he’d had, came up short, then came up injured enough to put paid to his Lake Erie days?

This is the guy who missed all 2019 after an arm fracture plus an abdomninal injury, had his 2020 option exercised by the then-Indians on Halloween 2019, then was traded to the Rangers a month and a half later in a delayed but somewhat shameful trick-or-treat. Then, Kluber returned in July 2020 as the pan-damn-ically delayed season began and lasted on inning before shoulder tightness proved a torn teres major muscle.

That sent him to the injured list and, in due course, to free agency, where he signed for a year with the Yankees for 2021, started a return to respectability including a no-hitter against the Rangers themselves, then lost another two months with another shoulder injury.

Kluber became a free agent again, signed with the Rays this year, and all seemed as right in his 36-year-old pitching world as he and anyone had a right to expect. He’s hardly the first to return to a postseason against one of his former teams, but he may be close to the top three for heartbreaks in such returns.

Those two Cy Young awards can’t help heal this one. And Cleveland cynics might amuse themselves thinking Kluber sent their team forward in their first year under a new name.

To such cynics, say only, “Don’t go there.” A franchise riddled with its own actual or alleged curses doesn’t need a Kluber Curse to throttle their exuberant and talented kid corps now. It would only destroy the magnitude of what González did Saturday afternoon, whether he did it against Corey Kluber or Clark Kent.

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.

The shifts aren’t as shifty as you think

2018-12-24 JoseBerriosChanceSisco

Chance Sicso (bunting) making Jose Berrios (pitching) and the Twins very, very angry that he exploited their foolish shift while his Orioles were seven runs down.

Hark back to April Fool’s Day, and a game between the Twins and the Orioles, in which the Orioles were in the hole 7-0 in the ninth and their catcher, Chance Sisco, came to the plate against the Twins’ Jose Berrios, who was two outs from a one-hitter. The hit belonged to Sisco himself, in fact, a third-inning double. Now, with one out, and the Twins smothering the right side of the infield while leaving the left side unoccupied, in a defensive shift, Sisco bunted the first pitch toward third base.

He was as safe at first as a baby in its mother’s arms. Berrios walked Chris Davis unintentionally to follow, and Manny Machado lined one to center for a followup hit to load the bases, but Jonathan Schoop popped out foul to catcher Mitch Garver ambling toward first base before Berrios struck Adam Jones out swinging to end the game with the 7-0 win and settle for a mere 2-hitter. And Berrios was distinctly unamused over the denouement when talking to reporters after the game.

“I don’t care if he’s bunting,” the right-hander began, before exposing that promptly as a lie. “I just know it’s not good for baseball in that situation. That’s it.”

The exact situation was the Orioles seven runs down, their catcher at the plate, facing a defensive overshift the logic behind which was obscure enough, in light of a pitcher two outs from a shutout, against a team doomed to a season of sub-mediocrity. Sisco ended up with a .288 on-base percentage for the season and a batting average for the year seven points below his playing weight. Writing elsewhere, I wondered at the time whether the Twins thought Sisco was supposed to take it as an April Fool’s Day joke and then thank the nice Twins for the laugh by hitting it right into their packed right side making his out like a good boy.

Twins second baseman Brian Dozier, subsequently traded to the Dodgers mid-season, was a little more blunt than his pitcher. “Obviously, we’re not a fan of it. He’s a young kid. I could’ve said something at second base but they have tremendous veteran leadership over there.” I thought then and still believe that it’s to wonder whether the Twins’ tremendous veteran leadership thought for a moment that overshifting with a 7-0 lead against a sub-mediocre hitter was less criminal than the kid seeing a big fat hole into which to hit and doing just that.

There are those who think that way even as they join the argument now animating against baseball’s defensive shifting trend on the grounds that it’s choking offense in a generation where nobody seems to teach anyone about hitting the opposite way. If Sisco did as the Twins ordered, instead, and hit right into that packed first base side of the field, I’d have hoped as I also wrote at the time, that the Orioles’ tremendous veteran leadership would take him aside afterward, convene a kangaroo court, convict him for not making the Twins pay for such a foolish overshift, and fine him carfare, dinner, and drinks for the entire team.

Those who think the defensive shifts threaten to put baseball on life support should be counseled that, in the big picture, the shifts really aren’t as shifty as you fear. Overall, teams put those shifts on 17 percent of the time in 2018. When they did, the hitters got a lot smarter about them than when the shifts began crawling back into the game. FanGraphs conjugated that the five teams who shifted the most averaged 11.9 shifts a game and surrendered 3.3 hits against those shifts for a .277 batting average against them. The five teams who shifted the least, FanGraphs says, averaged five shifts a game and surrendered an average hit and a half against those shifts for a .300 average against them.

But Commissioner Rob Manfred talks yet again about limiting or banning shifts, and Major League Baseball Players’ Association executive director Tony Clark talks about players having no known position (his words) one or the other way about the shifts, though they’re “willing to talk about it as part of a much broader conversation.” How about letting some facts get in the way? Baseball’s .244 batting average for 2018 had far less to do with defensive shifts and far more to do with hitters trying to hit six-run homers most trips to the plate. Or hadn’t you noticed or remembered the yammering about metastasizing strikeouts, of which there were more than there were hits last season?

Now, let’s be a little more real: a strikeout is only one out, and I don’t think you’d prefer to see hitters grounding into more double plays, but it wasn’t the shifts suppressing hitting in 2018. And there isn’t a shift on earth that can prevent walks, of which there were about three per game in 2018.

Which takes us back to another early April game, in which Cleveland’s Corey Kluber, who may yet find new employers for 2019, had a no-hitter in the making against the Angels as he opened the fifth with one out, a 2-0 lead, and Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons coming to the plate. The Indians didn’t put a full shift on against Simmons, but third baseman Jose Ramirez played so deep in the infield there might as well have been a blue plate special sign sitting around his neck. And Simmons accepted the gift heartily, dropping a bunt right up the third base line.

All the hustle on the planet wasn’t going to get Simmons out at first. Kluber struck out Luis Valbuena to follow up, though not without a little hiccup when he wild pitched Simmons to second before nailing the strikeout. The next Angel hitter was American League Rookie of the Year-to-be Shohei Ohtani. On 1-1, Ohtani caught hold of Kluber’s up-and-away fastball and drove it over the left center field fence. The purists to whom the Sacred Unwritten Rules are as canonical as defensive shifts seem to be blasphemous screamed bloody murder, never mind that the game a) wasn’t even close to the ninth inning at the time of Simmons’s bunt and b) the game needed thirteen innings before the Angels’ Zack Cozart hit the game-ending home run.

Simmons committed no crime other than spotting a big defensive hole, something that should be second nature to him considering his own prowess playing shortstop, where he’s one of the best and the smartest in the business. If he’s at the plate with a chance to help his team get on the scoreboard in the fifth inning, neither he, nor you, should give two that the other guy may have a no-hitter in the making that isn’t as close to being consummated as it would be in the eighth or the ninth.

If Kluber’s defense made a mistake and gave Simmons a little too open a place to reach, whether it’s a complete overshift to one side or a big fat infield alley up the third base line, they should have spent less time raging against that rat bastard at the plate than getting it into their heads that — forget that good hitting beats good pitching, smart hitting beats it a little more often. With a lifetime .269 hitter at the plate, who doesn’t earn half the living with his bat that he does with his glove, but who gets what extra base hits he gets with his legs as much as his bat, Kluber should have wondered instead why Ramirez played Simmons as though that .269 lifetime average suggested the prospect of (lifetime .267-hitting) Mike Schmidt-style destruction.

Nobody but a purist or a Yankee fan feels terribly sorry for Joe DiMaggio losing so many home runs to Yankee Stadium’s cavernous left center field, when the right-handed-swinging DiMaggio rejected opposite-field hitting where he might have parked quite a lot of those lost bombs otherwise. “I could piss those over that wall,” DiMaggio huffed, when someone suggested he try going with more outside pitches. “That’s not hitting.” Tell that to Ted Williams, who finally got the a-ha! against what was then known as the Boudreau Shift.

If the shifts didn’t really suppress hitting in 2018, what on earth is the problem? Are Manfred and Clark trepidatious about encouraging organizations to teach batters how to go with the pitch again and quit just trying to pull everything whether or not it can be pulled? Are they, too, in thrall enough to the Sacred Unwritten Rules that they’re unwilling to say Sisco and Simmons showed what to do against the overshifts, so kiwtcherbeefin’ about smart hitters outsmarting smart defense?

They could also tell teams like the Twins and the Indians not to come crying when their guys lost one- or no-hitters regardless of the inning because they were fool enough to overshift with the chance of a smart hitter taking advantage of a big fat open spread. And they could throw in something about the courtesies due through the SUR rendered null and void when you leave a batter a hitting region large enough to send an earth mover unobstructed. But that would deprive Manfred and Clark of one of baseball’s older sub-professions, calling the repairman to fix what isn’t broken.

This essay was published in slightly different form by Sports Central.