BY DENNIS RICHARDSON
02 June 2021
ORLANDO, FL – To all those baseball fans who look at the four no-hitters that were pitched in a 15-day span in the major leagues last month and think that the feat has lost a lot of its luster, Spencer Turnbull would like to have a word.
“It is by far the best night of my life,” the Detroit Tigers’ 28-year-old right-hander said moments after he no-hit the Seattle Mariners on May 18.
A no-hitter is no longer magical? Try telling that to Turnbull. Two years ago he led the majors in losses, with a 3-17 record. Before May 18, he had never pitched past the seventh inning in any of his 49 career starts, and he has struggled to secure a spot in the Tigers’ starting rotation.
When he struck out Seattle’s Mitch Haniger with a 95-mph fastball on his 117th pitch of the night, Turnbull let out a celebratory scream. “Probably three of the best pitches I made all night,” Turnbull beamed of the strikeout of Haniger that secured his no-hitter.
Turnbull is one of six pitchers to throw an official no-hitter in the first quarter of the 2021 Major League Baseball season. It is the first time in league history that there has been that many recorded before June. That total also is just one shy of the modern-day record for most no-hitters in an entire season. Seven were thrown in 1990, 1991, 2012, and 2015 (the all-time record is eight no-hitters, in 1884).
Already, with five months still remaining in the season, 2021 has been branded as “The Year of the No-Hitter.”
Six no-hitters in a span of 42 days tend to get one’s attention. As a result, there’s been a lot of talk around baseball lately about how so many no-hitters (I refuse to refer to them in the silly “no-no” slang) recorded in such a short period of time has devalued the achievement, much as a glut of gasoline or a bumper crop of corn drives down the price of those products, and has taken away much of its glamour. A number of people are saying that it’s not the pitching feat that it used to be. Their view is that this surge of no-hitters is similar to a chocolate aficionado working in a candy store. At first, the aroma of all those chocolates and being around all those sweets is a wonderful. But after awhile, it loses its appeal. In this case, Major League Baseball is the chocolate aficionado, and no-hitters are the sweets.
‘No-hitters are Cool’
Here’s what Los Angeles Dodgers’ left-hander Clayton Kershaw has to say about the topic. “No-hitters are cool, and I have all the respect in the world for …all those guys that have thrown no-hitters,” said Kershaw, who tossed one himself in 2014. “But, to have one happen every night…it’s probably not good for the game.”
With all due respect to the three-time Cy Young Award winner Kershaw and other naysayers, I whole-heartedly disagree. No-hitters are good for the game. Whether there are one, two, five, seven, or 10 in a season, pitching a no-hitter still is special. Doesn’t matter if it’s Little League, high school, college, minor leagues, or the majors, a no-hitter is a notable achievement. Pitching one is a magical moment that potentially can happen in any game. “A no-hitter is a no-hitter,” Arizona Diamondbacks’ manager Tony Luvullo said. “It’s an unbelievable feat. You’ve got to have a lot of things go your way.”
A lot of fans automatically associate no-hitters with great pitchers. For instance, Nolan Ryan accumulated a record seven during his Hall of Fame career, legendary left-hander Sandy Koufax pitched four, and Cy Young, Bob Feller, and Justin Verlander recorded three each.
But, there have been unlikely candidates as well through the years. For instance, Bud Smith pitched one on Sept, 3, 2001 for the St. Louis Cardinals; it was his only complete game and one of his seven wins in two years in the majors. Los Angeles Angels’ southpaw Bo Belinsky, known more for his love life and nightlife, pitched a no-hitter in his fourth career start on May 5, 1962; he finished with a 28-51 career mark. And, almost nine years earlier to the day, St. Louis Browns’ Bobo Holloman pitched a no-hitter; he won only two more games in his only year in the majors.
Pedigree is neither a guarantee nor requirement for pitching a no-hitter. In fact, of the six pitchers (San Diego Padres’ Joe Musgrove, Chicago White Sox’s Carlos Rodon, Baltimore Orioles’ John Means, Cincinnati Reds’ Wade Miley, Turnbull, and New York Yankees’ Corey Kluber) to toss a no-hitter thus far this season, only Means, Miley, and Kluber have been all-stars – and Miley was an all-star nine years ago.
Spreading ‘Magical Moon Dust’
That’s part of the fascination. Even in this “Year of the No-Hitter” you never know when the stars might align just right. As Minnesota Twins’ manager Ron Gardenhire explained of all the no-hitters this season, “They’re putting a magical moon dust on the ball this year and it’s taking all the hits out of the bats.”
I don’t care whether it’s “magical moon dust” or an overpowering performance by a great pitcher, I still get that edge-of-the-seat excitement, that sense of anticipation, that nervous tension watching a game as a pitcher moves into the eighth and ninth innings without having surrendered a hit. I cringe a little each time a hitter makes contact with a pitch in the final innings, rooting against a batter bouncing a grounder through the infield or hitting a line drive into the gaps in the outfield. And, when it’s over, I still get a sense of awe and satisfaction in having watched baseball history being made.
A no-hitter is a feat to be marveled at and feted, a performance just a few pitches away from perfection. In fact, the only blemish on the no-hitters by Musgrove and Rodon was a hit batter. And, Means became the first pitcher in MLB history to lose a perfect game when a hitter reached base after striking out on a wild pitch; so, in essence, he pitched a 28-out, no-hitter.
With the surge in no-hitters this season, there is more fretting than feting around the league, turning a reason for celebration into a cause for consternation over lack of offense. Is it troubling that pitchers are so dominant and hitters are struggling mightily? Yes. But that doesn’t, or shouldn’t, diminish the no-hitter. It’s still one of the game’s signature achievements.
From an historical perspective, it remains a rare event. Consider that more than 220,000 games have been played in the 150-plus years in MLB history. In all that time there have been just 311 official no-hitters. (Only 23 of those have been perfect games, the last one in 2012.) That would seem to qualify as being elite. Tossing one in an MLB game puts a pitcher in a special club. Roger Clemens never pitched one. Nor did Greg Maddux, or Pedro Martinez, or Grover Cleveland Alexander, or Steve Carlton, or Ferguson Jenkins, or Lefty Grove, or Whitey Ford, or Don Drysdale. Except for Clemens, all are in the Hall of Fame.
“I think it’s still really hard,” Texas Rangers’ manager Chris Woodward said of the no-hitter. “It’s one of the hardest things to do in sports.”
Said Kansas City Royals’ manager Mike Matheny, “Every time you get close, that excitement, you can feel it in the dugout – I hope that never leaves. There’s some excitement when you see, you know, that this is tracking really well, we’ve had some really great plays, the innings are going by, maybe this could happen. I really hope fans don’t start to think it’s common.”
With three-quarters of the season remaining, it seems reasonable that we may see more. One general manager suggested to ESPN’s Buster Olney that based on the current rate, we may see as many as 20. That seems a little far-fetched. But 10? Possibly.
Unofficially, there have been seven no-hitters this year. Arizona Diamondbacks’ left-hander Madison Bumgarner pitched seven no-hit innings in the second game of a doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves on April 25, but it wasn’t officially recognized because Bumgarner didn’t pitch nine innings.
In 1991, then-baseball commissioner Fay Vincent ruled that in order to qualify as a no-hitter, a game must be at least nine innings ending without a base hit. The problem is, Bumgarner never got a chance to go nine innings because of a rule MLB adopted last year that limits games in doubleheaders to seven innings, unless the score is tied.
How can the league schedule and certify a seven-inning game as “official”, yet not recognize a no-hitter when the pitcher completed that game?
A Favorable Environment
So, what’s behind this surge? Hits are down. The average MLB team is getting just 7.8 hits per game, the second lowest rate in history, behind only the 7.75 average in 1908. The batting average across baseball is just .236, which would be the lowest in MLB history if it holds. Plus, strikeouts are up for the 14th consecutive season – hitters are striking out a record 24.3 percent of the time.
Mix an all-time low in hitting with a record rate of strikeouts and it makes for a favorable environment for no-hitters. How we got to this point is, as they say, complicated. Basically it’s an unlikely alliance of a deadened baseball, what one manager recently called MLB’s “dirty little secret”, a defensive alignment that encourages a homer-or-bust approach by hitters, technology, and the information age.
Over the winter, the commissioner’s office notified teams that it would be “slightly” deadening the baseball by loosening one of the wool wrappings inside the ball. The idea was to have the ball fly shorter distances, thus reducing the number of home runs, while putting more balls in play and creating more excitement for fans.
So far, it’s worked – sort of. Home runs are down. According to FanGraphs, this season hard-hit balls (defined as having an exit velocity between 100 and 105 mph, and with a launch angle between 20 and 25 degrees) have been outs about 31 percent of time, and homers 21 percent; in 2019, they were homers about 34 percent of the time and outs about 19 percent. But strikeouts continue to soar, and run scoring is down six percent from last season and 10 percent below 2019. As a result, at least through the first quarter of the season, Major League Baseball has been left with a game that features fewer home runs, less offense, and more strikeouts.
Just two years after “The Year of the Home Run” in which batters slugged a record 6,776 homers, MLB finds itself in “The Year of the No-Hitter.” That falls under the Law of Unintended Consequences, which says that the actions of people have effects that are unanticipated. In this case, when the league “deadened” the baseball, it deadened offense as well.
“Fans want to see some hits, I get that, and some action and not many people striking out,” Kershaw said of the deadened ball. “So I appreciate the attempt that MLB has tried to do but I think it seems like they’ve missed the mark so far.”
Baseball’s ‘Dirty Little Secret’
Meanwhile, pitchers are doctoring baseballs with illegal foreign substances to improve their grip on the ball, and increase spin rates, which can help improve movement on breaking pitches and make them more difficult to hit.
The league likes to spin that touchy subject as helping pitchers improve their control and keep from plunking batters with wayward 98-mph fastballs. But, some pitchers are taking advantage of the situation by blatantly using illegal substances to help their pitches do “wiffle ball stuff,” what St. Louis Cardinals’ manager Mike Shildt recently called baseball’s “dirty little secret.” And what some pitchers are putting on the ball isn’t “magical moon dust.”
“Major League Baseball has got a very, very tough position here because there are people that are effectively — and not even trying to hide [it], essentially flipping the bird at the league with how they’re cheating in this game with concocted substances,” Shildt said.
The commissioner’s office sent a memo to all teams this offseason saying that it would be monitoring the use of foreign substances by pitchers, and that violators could be punished. As of this writing, none have.
“It’s pretty frustrating picking up a foul ball and seeing it covered with sticky stuff,” Miami Marlins outfielder Adam Duvall told The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Britt Ghiroli recently. “At the end of the day, you would like to know that you are on a level playing field with your opponent. That doesn’t seem to be the case at times.”
The Defense Never Rests
In 2020, according to Baseball Savant, MLB teams employed the infield shift 34.1 percent of the time, with 19 clubs shifting at least one-third of the time. That trend has continued this season, and shows no signs of abating any time soon.
The shift has made ground-ball singles increasingly rare. As a result, many hitters continue to tailor their swings to increase launch angle and exit velocity as they try to hit over the shifts. “Over the last few years, everybody’s trying to hit homers,” Houston Astros’ manager Dusty Baker told Associated Press baseball writer Noah Trister. “And if you hit homers you’re going to foul back pitches, you’re going to swing and miss on balls….”
The result is a lineup of one-dimensional hitters where slug is in and singles are out. “There’s not many singles left,” Oakland A’s third baseman Matt Chapman told Trister. “So I think that’s why you see guys trying to swing for more power because most of the hits are over the outfielder’s head or over the fence.”
The flip side of that homer-or-bust mentality, though, is more big swings and misses, and more strikeouts. The emphasis on hitting balls over the shift has resulted in more holes in batters’ swings, and pitchers are taking advantage. Plus, the deadened baseball is turning would-be home runs into long fly ball outs. The homerun rate is at its lowest since 2015.
The Information Age and Baseball
We live in the Information Age, where facts, figures and details on virtually any topic are just a cellphone, laptop or personal computer away. That includes baseball.
Scouting reports have been around forever, but now they are more sophisticated and detailed, arming pitchers with data telling them when and how to use pitches in their repertoire, and how to attack each hitter.
“Pitchers dive deep into the numbers and are pitching to weaknesses way faster into the game than ever before,” Tigers’ manager A.J. Hinch told Molly Knight of The Athletic.
“Pitchers, more than ever, based on information, know exactly what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone told the New York Post. “They’re outfitted with the absolute right repertoire for their skill set.
“So you don’t have a lot of guys going out there throwing pitches that they probably shouldn’t throw, because you can analyze everything so much.”
That’s a lot different than 30 years ago, noted David Cone, who pitched a perfect game for the Yankees in 1999, and now serves as an analyst on Yankee games. “We just kind of relied on written scouting reports through the eighties and even the early nineties. I’ve really been amazed by some of the data that’s out there, especially with regards to tendencies of hitters, and certainly of pitchers as well. I would have loved to have gotten that data when I played.”
Pitchers Utilize Technology
And then there is the ever-present technology. Video that can be broken down into a thousand frames a second is helping pitchers improve their deliveries, enabling them to increase velocity and spin rates, and making fastballs faster and breaking pitches sharper.
New York Mets’ ace Jacob deGrom is a good example. At age 33, the right-hander this year is throwing 5 mph faster than he used to. He attributes that uptick to improved mechanics.
There was a time not long ago when fans “oohed” and “aahed” when a radar gun showed a pitch hitting 100 mph. With the average velocity in the league at 93.6 mph now, touching triple digits is almost commonplace, particularly among relievers. Bob Klapisch of NJ Advance Media noted that 13 pitchers threw 84 pitches of at least 100 mph in the first week of this season. Only one pitch reached triple digits in the same time period in 2014, he observed.
“In 40-plus years, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game where every fastball was over 95 miles an hour,” Colorado Rockies’ manager Bud Black said after his team’s series against the Mets. “That was, to say the least, impressive arm strength.”
But, it’s not just the increase in velocity. A major-league hitter can time a 100-mph fastball if he knows it’s coming. As a result, almost 43 percent of all pitches thrown thus far in 2021 have been breaking balls. Technology is helping pitchers boost spin rates on those pitches to create more movement.
“We’re maximizing everything these guys throw,” Rangers’ manager Woodward told Knight of The Athletic, “and then when you get guys that can execute on top of that it makes it really, really difficult to square up (hit the ball solidly).”
Could the key to throwing a no-hitter come down to a mathematical type equation: velocity+movement+location=no-hitter?
Playing Against a Stacked Deck
Put it all together, and the deck appears stacked against the hitter. The opposing team has a mountain of data that shows how to pitch to each batter, and suggests the best pitches for a particular situation. With teams striking out nine times a game, it leaves just 18 outs that a defense must cover. When the hitter does manage to put the ball in play, there’s an infield shift with a fielder in the spot where the batter’s most likely to hit the ball. Defenders are quicker and more athletic than in the past, meaning they can get to more balls for outs. Plus, if the batter tries to hit over the shift, the result is a fly ball out because the deadened ball doesn’t travel as far.
“My instincts tell me the pitching is getting better,” Reds’ manager David Bell told AP’s Trister. “The hitting is too, but I do think that the way the arms are, the velocity the pitchers are throwing, the ability to spin the ball incredibly well, it’s just a tough combination. And you get a guy on a good night when he’s locked in…and it can make for a tough night.”
Leave it to the late, great Satchel Paige, Hall of Fame pitcher and philosopher, who by his own estimates pitched 55 no-hitters during his storied barnstorming, Negro League, and MLB career, to put this season’s epidemic of no-hitters into proper perspective: “It’s funny what a few no-hitters do for a body.”
And, for Major League Baseball, too. Just ask Spencer Turnbull.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.