“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.