It has been more than a century since there have been at least four no-hitters thrown in Major League Baseball before the end of May. When Wade Miley of the Cincinnati Reds closed out his no-hitter of the Cleveland Indians Friday night, it marked just the second time in MLB history it ever has happened. Not since 1917, when there were five no-hitters through May 6 but just one the rest of the season, have there been this many hitless wonders this early.
It’s not difficult to figure out why there has been such a run of pitching dominance this season. The batting average in MLB is a collective .234, which would be the lowest of the live-ball era (since 1920). The last time the average fell this low was in 1968, the so-called Year of the Pitcher, and baseball responded by changing the diamond itself. Is the modern record of seven no-hitters in a season in danger? What about the all-time record of eight?
What’s behind the no-hitter flurry?
Miley’s gem was the fourth no-hitter this season and the second in three days. John Means of the Baltimore Orioles blanked the Seattle Mariners with a no-no on Wednesday. There are many reasons why hitters are coming up empty at the plate with such frequency this season.
For starters, it’s a lack of contact. Through Saturday’s games, major-league hitters have struck out 24.2% of the time this season, on pace to set a record for futility for the 14th consecutive season. Throw in defensive shifts that have changed the game, threatening to make the left-handed pull hitter go the way of the dinosaur and the pet rock, per SI.com, and baseball has a crisis.
Even the batting average on balls in play this season is .285, which would be the lowest in more than 30 years. Some of that is attributable to the shift. Some of that is likely due to poor contact on huge swings that don’t entirely miss but don’t precisely square the pitch up either.
Balls in play continue to diminish
At a broader level, the ball just isn’t being put into play with the regularity it once was. There is much more emphasis on the home run. The phrase “launch angle” from a hitting instructor would have been a foreign language 30 or 40 years ago. “Moneyball” inspired a generation of analytics experts who have risen to decision-making roles in the front office. The more walks, the better.
One of baseball’s biggest taboos for decades was the strikeout. It was a wasted out, according to conventional theory. No ball put into play to advance a baserunner, no chance for a fielder to mess something up and gift your team a run, just the walk of shame from the box to the dugout. Now? It’s as if John Daly is the inspiration for every hitter – grip it and rip it. Shorten up with two strikes? Like that’s going to happen anymore.
The strikeout rate, as mentioned earlier, is 24.2%. Batters walk 8.9% of the time while homering on 3.1% of their trips to the plate. Throw in 465 hit batsmen (1.2%), and the ball is only in play on 62.6% of all plate appearances. Considering only one of the above four outcomes results in a hit, that’s a lot of missed chances to break up a no-hitter.
A record no-hitter pace in 2021
In the modern era, there have been three seasons during which pitchers tossed seven no-hitters. It happened in 1990, again in 1991, then not until 2012. The most in any season were eight back in 1884 when three leagues were in operation (the National League, the American Association, and the Union Association).
Joe Musgrove of the San Diego Padres got the ball rolling on the 2021 no-hitter rush when he blanked the Texas Rangers on April 9. It was the first no-hitter in franchise history for the Padres, dating back to their inception in 1969. Carlos Rodon of the Chicago White Sox was next, shutting down the Indians on April 14. Last week, both Means and Miley turned the trick.
No-hitters can be incredibly random. White Sox right-hander Philip Humber threw a perfect game at the Mariners on April 21, 2012. Over parts of eight big-league seasons, it was Humber’s only shutout. Heck, it was his only complete game. The year he threw his perfecto, Humber’s ERA was a hefty 6.44 (7.06 in all imperfect games he pitched) for the season.
There’s roughly 80% of the schedule left. That is a lot of time for pitchers to keep blanking hitters and nothing in the statistics seems to indicate it can’t happen four or five more times in 2021.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference.