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.

No-hit Joe from El Cajon

Joe Musgrove

Joe Musgrove, about to end the Padres’ 8,205-game no-hitter drought.

Right off, what does Joe Musgrove have in common with Cy Young? You can look it up: they both threw their first no-hitters for their hometown teams. More or less.

Musgrove grew up in El Cajon, California, a twenty-minute drive to San Diego if traffic behaves, rooting for the Padres. As a Padre he wears the uniform number of his favourite Padre growing up, Jake Peavy. Young’s first of three no-hitters was for the Cleveland Spiders; he’d grown up in Canton, Ohio, about an hour’s drive from Cleveland.

Breaking out to start 2021 with a distinct resemblance to a Cy Young Award winner in his first Padres start is nothing compared to what Musgrove did Friday night in Arlington.

He not only broke the Padres’ record-setting stretch of 8,205 regular season games without a single no-hitter on the ledger, but if he hadn’t plunked Joey Gallo in the fourth inning he’d have had a perfect game. If Musgrove has any regret from a night allowing none, he might be thinking he’d like to have that one pitch back.

Because, otherwise, he didn’t walk a batter and nobody reached on an error. He threw 112 pitches (average 12 pitches per inning), he’d retired the first eleven Rangers in order before catching Gallo with his first pitch and two outs, then retired the next sixteen he faced in order.

He struck out ten and benefited from ten ground outs and seven outs in the air including three line outs. Making him responsible directly for 59 percent of the game’s outs and thus more responsible for the outcome than his teammates. This no-no was more the real deal than many prove to be.

It also means that the end of the Padres’ no-hit drought means every Show franchise has had at least one no-hitter on its resume. Who better to nail it than the kid from Grossmont High in El Cajon?

Musgrove had only four full counts all night, each the only such heavy count of its inning, and only the third inning was truly work for him, going 2-2 on each batter before getting them out with a called strikeout (Jose Trevino), a fly out to the back of right center field (Eli White), and a ground out (Leody Taveras) to shortstop playing in short right in a shift.

I’ll resist the temptation to ask why Rangers manager Chris Woodward didn’t entertain a thought about ordering Taveras to think about bunting into that delicious open real estate left prone by the defensive shift. Uh, no, I won’t.

It’s not as though the third inning is a definite sign of something like a no-hitter brewing. And if it was, so what? They give you a gift like that, you say thank you, accept it, and unwrap it. If it was the later innings, so what again? Unwritten rules be damned, you need baserunners, you get them by hook, crook, and anything else you can think of. Especially if the other guys are foolish enough to lead you into overwhelming temptation.

As it happens, the Padres were already the proud possessors of a 3-0 lead in the third inning. They hung two up in the second, courtesy of Wil Myers’s RBI double and Tommy Pham’s sacrifice fly; they posted the third in the third when Manny Machado sent an RBI double to the rear of left center field.

That proved all Musgrove needed to work with. And when the ninth inning came around, Musgrove would have had an immaculate inning if he’d struck out all three Rangers he faced. Sort of. He had to settle for getting pinch-hitter David Dahl to line out to second on 1-1, for getting Taveras to ground out right back to the box on 0-2 with a foul off before the grounder, and for getting Isiah Kiner-Falefa to ground out to shortstop on 0-1.

The Globe Life Hangar audience roared approval. And Chris Young, the former pitcher turned commissioner’s office executive turned Rangers general manager, and coincidentally the last Padre to take a no-no as far as the ninth (in 2006, when Joe Randa hit a one-out bomb over the center field fence), couldn’t help himself, either.

“It was obviously a special night for Padres baseball and San Diego fans . . . just unfortunately at the expense of the Texas Rangers,” said Young answering a telephoned question. “But that’s OK.”

If there’s one thing which remains universally true in baseball, it’s that the home crowd and sometimes even the home brass finds itself appreciative when the other guys’ pitcher threatens to finish a no-hitter, never mind up and doing it.

I’m old enough to remember the Shea Stadium crowd suddenly shifting their loyalty when Hall of Famer Jim Bunning took his perfect game into the seventh on Father’s Day 1964. The Mets suddenly became the enemy in their own brand-new playpen and Bunning became the hero they wanted to see finish what he started. To the point where he got a standing ovation from a packed park when he batted late in the game.

Bunning’s fellow Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax had that experience only once: he pitched his 4 June 1964 no-no against the Phillies in Connie Mack Stadium. He pitched his three other no-nos—against the Original Mets (1962, which some wags said was doing it the too-easy way), the Giants (1963), and the Cubs (practise makes perfect, 1965)—in front of the home audience.

So did Hall of Famer Bob Feller. His first two no-nos: on the road in Chicago and New York. The third: At home. Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan was also a no-hit road rat: of his seven, he pitched four on the road: two as an Angel (against the Royals and the Tigers), and two as a Ranger. (Against the A’s and the Blue Jays.) Cue up the Creedence Clearwater Revival classic “Travelin’ Band.”

Musgrove would have to pitch a second no-hitter against the Rangers on the road to equal one unusual feat: Justin Verlander’s three no-hitters include two against the Jays, both of which were pitched in Toronto. Verlander isn’t the only pitcher to no-hit the same team twice (hello, Addie Joss and Tim Lincecum), but he’s the only one to do it in their sandbox.

“For him to do it growing up in San Diego and this being his team,” said Padres manager Jayce Tingler after Musgrove’s jewel, “it’s about the perfect story written.” Well, it might have been even more so if it happened in the home yard, but the Padres will take what they can get.

They had an inkling Musgrove would prove just the number three man they’d need while they spent much of the off-season overhauling their starting rotation. They dealt for Blake Snell and Yu Darvish so swiftly you almost missed the Darvish deal. A few weeks later, they had Musgrove coming aboard. He rewarded their faith by throwing six shutout innings at the Diamondbacks en route a 7-1 Padres win.

Who knew it was just a warmup for the Big One so far? Musgrove, too, will take it where he can get it. Especially since he’s gone from a World Series champion (with the 2017 Astros, a Series now considered tainted, though the pitchers aren’t exactly to blame for the Astro Intelligence Agency sign-stealing shenanigans) to a Pirate (the Astros traded him in the January 2018 deal that brought them Gerrit Cole) and, now, back home to San Diego.

“I think a no-hitter, regardless of where you’re playing, is really special,” he said after the game. “But it almost seems like this was meant to be . . . The city of San Diego has shown me so much love, even before I came to the Padres, just a San Diego kid who made it to the big leagues. So it feels even better to be able to do it in a Padres uniform and selfishly be able to do it for my city and have everyone know that the kid from Grossmont High threw the first no-hitter.”

The Padres won’t be home again until 16 April, when they host the Dodgers and the Pirates in succession. Bet on it. When Musgrove takes the mound during that homestand, the racket of love will be one of the noisiest rackets in San Diego baseball history. The man from nearby El Cajon will drink every drop appreciatively.

A method to Donaldson’s madness?

2019-06-11 JoshDonaldson

If Josh Donaldson was really furious over his jersey being brushed by an inside pitch, rather than the pitch actually hitting him, he’s baseball’s biggest crybaby. But if he was trying to rattle the Pirates into a starter’s ejection and an unexpected bullpen game when their pitching staff is already addled, he might be a genius . . . might . . .

Next to the question of former Red Sox bombardier David Ortiz’s prognosis following his being shot in a Santo Domingo ambush Sunday, baseball’s number one question Monday night just might have been, “Who whacked Josh Donaldson and Joe Musgrove with the stupid stick?” Don’t be sure anyone’s in a big hurry to claim responsibility for the deed.

Musgrove pitched to Donaldson in the bottom of the first with Dansby Swanson on third following a one-out double and a ground out advance. The Pirates righthander started Donaldson with a four-seam fastball inside. The ball grazed Donaldson’s jersey so obviously you could see it flap like a flag in the high wind.

It never touched the Braves’ third baseman.

Donaldson and Musgrove shared some glares as Donaldson began walking to first base. Pirates catcher Elmer Diaz stepped forward to try urging Donaldson toward first and Donaldson all but threw him to one side as if hoisting a sack of feed from a warehouse pallet.

Out came the benches. And out of the game went Donaldson and Musgrove, not to mention Pirates manager Clint Hurdle after he hustled to the umps to argue against Musgrove’s ejection.

Some thought Donaldson smirked at Musgrove as he stepped away from the batter’s box. Some thought Donaldson hollered words along the line of, “What the [fornicate] are you looking at, [female dog]?”

I can’t help wondering whether there wasn’t a little mischievious gamesmanship involved in the whole thing to begin with. Leo Durocher, Billy Martin, pick up the house phones. As a Pirates beat writer, Adam Berry, noted aboard Twitter, the Pirates at the moment didn’t have an actual starting pitcher to use for Wednesday’s and Thursday’s games against the Braves. The last thing they needed Monday night was an unanticipated bullpen game to open the set.

But now Musgrove is likely to get the Thursday start, since he only worked two-thirds of an inning before the jersey brush. Except that he was originally scheduled to make his next start against the Marlins come Saturday. There goes that start. And though the Marlins normally make the Pirates resemble the Yankees, this year’s Fish have become known for making a few tough times for a few actual or alleged contenders now and then.

And for better or worse the Pirates seem to be the National League’s leading mound dusters this season. But the last thing they needed Monday was another pitching issue after sending Jordan Lyle to the injured list with a tightened hamstring.

“We’ve had no beef in the past until now,” Musgrove told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after the game. “For him to act that way and I did nothing but stand my ground. I hit him with the pitch and he stared at me and tried to intimidate me and I’m not going to let that happen. I looked back at him and he had a few words to say. He crossed the line and came at me. I took my hat and glove off and got ready to fight. I don’t know what else you can do in that situation.”

Musgrove may have been ejected less for the pitch itself than for throwing his hat to the ground angrily as the teams began scrumming. Hurdle still wasn’t happy about his man getting the ho-heave. “The hard part is watching a man cross the line and push the catcher out of the way,” Hurdle said of Donaldson’s shoving Diaz. The pitcher drops his hat and glove and . . .

“Since the time we’ve been on the playground at six-year-old we’ve tried to find ways to stand our ground,” the skipper continued. “I understand that in a vacuum saying that you shouldn’t throw your hat down, but if you’ve played the game or been around sports there’s time when you drop your hat and glove. The hard part is if the batter goes to first none of this happens.”

Is it possible Donaldson was aware enough of that scenario that he was willing to take one for the team in order to leave the already-vulnerable Pirates staff completely at the potential mercy of the Braves’ swingers with their bullpen in earlier than hoped for? The 13-7 Braves win certainly makes it look that way.

Because even though the Braves ended up going calmly in the bottom of the first, and Braves starter Kevin Gausman kept it 1-0 after a leadoff base hit in the top of the second, the Braves broke out the cudgels in the bottom of the second: a leadoff hit batsman, a walk, a runner-advancing ground out, a strikeout that loaded the bases thanks to the passed ball on strike three, and Ronald Acuna, Jr. coming to the plate. Acuna turned on a hanging curve ball from Alex McRae and drove it halfway up the left field bleachers.

If only it was one of Gausman’s better nights. Starling Marte hit the first pitch he saw in the top of the third over the center field fence with Kevin Newman and Bryan Reynolds aboard and nobody out. Part of it was Gausman’s own fault, after he threw offline trying to force Newman (leadoff single) at second on Reynolds’s grounder back to the mound.

Now both teams were into each other’s bullpens. Ozzie Albies flattened McRae’s hanging changeup on 1-2 and sent it into the left center field bleachers in the bottom of the third. If McRae was trying to take one for his team, what he took was almost cruel and unusual punishment when he walked Swanson to open the Atlanta fourth and Freddie Freeman drove a 2-1 fastball not far from where Acuna’s salami landed.

Geoff Hartleib had the dubious pleasure of seeing the score swell to 9-4 when Nick Markakis drove home his 1,000th career run on a single up the pipe. His teammates toasted him after the game. “It just means I’m getting old,” Markakis cracked to reporters.

Albies made it 10-4 in the seventh with a solo over the center field fence. Marte saw him leading off the top of the eighth with a first pitch bomb off former Met Jerry Blevins. Later in the inning, with Dan Winkler having relieved Blevins, pinch hitter Corey Dickerson shot a two-run single to make it 10-7.

So, naturally, in the bottom of the eighth, Johan Comargo, who’d replaced Donaldson after the jersey brush, singled Swanson home before Markakis, apparently deciding he wasn’t getting that old, hit a two-run homer. And Jacob Webb shook off a two-out walk to sink the Pirates in the top of the ninth.

“Musgrove and Donaldson have no particular history, and these teams are not rivals,” wrote Deadspin‘s Chris Thompson, who called Musgrove and Donaldson steakheads for their trouble. “And the ball that ‘hit’ Donaldson didn’t actually hit him at all. There was no reason for anyone involved to feel proud or pissed or slighted or triumphant, at all.”

But maybe, just maybe, Donaldson wasn’t as much of a steakhead as he looked.