No Hitters

The fact that pitchers are starting to dominate in Major League Baseball has certainly not gone unnoticed this season. The pitchers are enjoying their place in the sun with a bounty of no-hitters.

No-hitters are funny. You always go to the ballpark, hoping your team's pitcher will throw one. And while they're nowhere as rare as an unassisted triple play or four home runs by one player (both of which have happened less than 20 times), they're not especially common, even in 2010. There has been some discussion recently as to why there have been four no-hitters thrown this year prior to the Fourth of July, but that's still a pretty uncommon occurrence; four no-hitters in (roughly) 1200 games (each of 30 teams playing about 80 games at this point, divided by two). That's a little more than three-tenths of one percent of all games in 2010.

(OK, so if you want to be more accurate than a certain umpire, there actually have been five no-hitters so far in 2010, that's still just more than four-tenths of one percent.)

That's one reason why everyone wants to see one – they're so rare. The other reason is that we all thrive on the exceptional, the outstanding, the great… maybe in the quest for something to liven up our seemingly often mundane lives. My friend Jim Hardy had that chance on April 27, 2003, when he went to Veterans Stadium to see the Phillies take on the Giants. Sadly, he had to leave Kevin Millwood's no-hitter before the game ended because of a prior commitment (and then found his car had a flat in the parking lot.) Bummer.

It's probably no consolation to Jim that there have been just 210 (or maybe 211) no-hitters since baseball established its two-league format with the 1901 season. (BTW, that's only taking into account no-hitters by a single pitcher – none of that multi-pitcher stuff.) That's 1.91 no-hitters per year, or 0.95 no-hitters per league. What is interesting about this is the distribution of said no-hitters. It's almost safe to say there is no discernible pattern to how many no-hitters are thrown in a year.

First, since there have officially been four such gems in 2010 (not counting the two near-misses over the past weekend), it's worth noting that the record is six in one year, and that's happened just three times; in 1990, 1969 and 1908. There have also been four years when five no-hitters popped up; 1973, 1968, 1962 and 1917. Note that both 1968 and 1969 come up on these lists, and recall what happened between the 1968 and 1969 seasons… baseball, in response to the "Year of the Pitcher," lowered the pitcher's mound five inches, much to the dismay of the hurling fraternity. And yet what also happened? There were more no-hitters in '69 than in '68, with five of them coming in the National League. In case you've forgotten; they were by Bill Stoneman, Jim Maloney, Don Wilson, Ken Holtzman and Bob Moose. Jim Palmer threw the lone AL no-hitter that year.

While 1990 and 1969 were not as low-scoring years as 1968, the 1908 season was the precursor on the Year of the Pitcher… the deadest of the Deadball Era years. The National League hit for a collective average of .239 and scored a pitiful 3.33 runs per game. The American League wasn't much better… they also hit .239 and teams averaged 3.44 runs per game. Yes, it was the Deadball Era, and prime territory for no-hitters. But then, how do you explain the fact that there were exactly zero no-hitters thrown in major league baseball the very next year, in 1909? And then zero once again in 1913 – still a pretty deadball year?

Now what is true is that the highest concentration of no no-hitter years in the game's modern era (i.e., after 1900) did come in the high-scoring 1920s and 1930s. In all, there were nine seasons between 1921 and 1939 when, just like 1909, there wasn't a no-hitter to be found. (For the 110 seasons since 1901, there have been just 20 years without a no-hitter.) So, yes, there is pattern in the 1920s and 1930s. In almost half of the high-offense seasons (nine of 19) between 1921 and 1939, there were zero no-hitters. But… that pattern doesn't hold up to the same extent for the Juiced Era of say, 1994 to 2004. In those 11 seasons there was only one year, 2000, when there weren't any no-hitters. Look at it this way...

1921 to 1939

19 seasons
9 seasons without a no-hitter
16 no-hitters in those 19 seasons (.84 per season)

1994 to 2004

11 seasons
1 season without a no-hitter
19 no-hitters in those 11 seasons (1.73 per season)

In other words, no-hitters were almost exactly twice as common in the first high-scoring era, from 1921 to 1939, as they were in the second high-scoring era, from 1994 to 2004. Go figure.

(Rob Neyer has suggested that the current emphasis on batters taking a lot of pitches, the "Moneyball" theory of offense, if you will, may be responsible for the current decline in hitting and the increase in no-hitters. In other words, hitters are taking too many pitches and getting behind in the count too often. Could be, but the no-hitter trends over time still look like a pretty random distribution.)

That's a macro look at the timing of no-hitters (as the economists would say). What about a micro look? On three occasions there have been, despite the odds, two no-hitters thrown on the same day. Then there was May 5 and May 6, 1917, when the Ernie Koob and Bob Groom of the Browns no-hit the White Sox on consecutive days. (No-hitters on consecutive days has happened a couple of times since, but never to the same team on consecutive days.)

The first instance of two no-hitters on the same day was on June 16, 1916. In the National League, Tom Hughes of the Boston Braves no-hit the Pirates, 2-0. On that same day, in the American League, Rube Foster, also a Beantown pitcher, but with the Red Sox, no-hit the Yankees, also 2-0, One can only imagine what the notoriously parochial Boston papers (and there were a ton of them in that era) had to say the next day. The same rare conjunction of the planets (or something like that) took place on June 29, 1990, when the Dodgers Fernando Valenzuela no-hit the Cards 6-0 and the A's Dave Stewart no-hit the Blue Jays, 5-0.

If you know baseball history, you know that neither June 16, 1916 nor June 29, 1990 marked the epitome of no-hitters. That happened on May 2, 1917 in Chicago, when the Reds Fred Toney faced off against the Cubs Hippo Vaughn. After nine innings, a double no-hitter, (not surprisingly) the only one in major league history. (Minor league records are incomplete, but there appear to have been at least two such games in the minors, one in 1992 in the Florida State League and one in 1952 in the New York-Penn League.) In what could certainly be considered for the honor of the best-pitched game in major league history, Toney would go on to win his no-hitter 1-0 in 10 innings, after the Reds scored a run in the top of the 10th on two hits, the second and game winner being a swinging bunt single by, of all people, Jim Thorpe.

To once again quote that noted philosopher, Joaquin Andujar, "in baseball, you just never know."

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