Archive for the ‘no-hitters’ Category

Most unlikely thing ever?

July 24, 2009

Okay, so, I have a particular (and probably, at this late date, irrational) dislike for Mark Buehrle, I dislike the White Sox even more than I do the Yankees, and I don’t think Hawk Harrelson should ever get to be happy about anything (though only for as long as he continues to hold a job he’s almost uniquely unqualified for).

But even I have to admit that this was pretty special. And if you haven’t seen THE CATCH, then…well, then you probably don’t like sports very much, or you’re on vacation or something, because it’s been everywhere. But in either case, watch it anyway.

Matthew Pouliot pointed out one thing about Buehrle’s feat that I thought was just extraordinary:

Mark Buehrle has led the AL in [most] hits allowed three times and finished in the top five a total of six times, yet he now has two no-hitters to his credit. . . .

I knew Buehrle gave up kind of a lot of hits, but I hadn’t put it together yet. That floored me. Common sense dictates that a likely candidate to throw a no-hitter is one that gets a lot of strikeouts and thus keeps hits down. Buehrle doesn’t do that at all and generally has had a pretty poor defense behind him, leading to a lot of hits, most days…and yet he’s now gone completely without twice. How rare is it that a contact-and-control pitcher like Buehrle throws two no-hitters?

The answer to that is surprising in weird and wonderful ways (okay, that may be overselling it, but it’s interesting). Here are the sixteen pitchers to have thrown two or more no-hitters since 1940 ranked by career hits per nine innings, alongside their strikeouts per nine innings:

Nolan Ryan: 6.6 H/9; 9.5 K/9
Sandy Koufax: 6.8; 9.3
Randy Johnson: 7.3; 10.6
Jim Maloney: 7.4; 7.8
Don Wilson: 7.6; 6.6
Bob Feller: 7.7; 6.1*
Hideo Nomo: 8.1; 8.7
Virgil Trucks: 8.1; 5.1
Jim Bunning: 8.2; 6.8
Warren Spahn: 8.3; 4.4
Steve Busby: 8.5; 5.6
Carl Erskine: 8.6; 5.1
Bill Stoneman: 8.6; 6.8
Ken Holtzman: 8.7; 5.0*
Bob Forsch: 8.9; 3.6
Mark Buehrle: 9.3; 5.3

I think that’s everybody. Don’t read a lot into the raw strikeout rates; in the 1940s and 50s, Trucks, Spahn, Feller and Erskine all regularly finished in the top 10 in K rate with numbers around (or below) 5, and Feller and Holtzman both saw their rates decline sharply late in their careers.

So, Buehrle obviously isn’t the worst pitcher on this list (in fact, I have to admit he’s much closer to the best than the worst). Buehrle is the only pitcher ever to do it with a career average of more than a hit per inning, and in context, in an era in which virtually every hitter in the lineup strikes out a hundred or more times a year, you could argue that his 5.3 strikeouts per nine is even less impressive than Bob Forsch’s 3.6.

The most impressive thing might be that Bob and his brother Ken Forsch–who had stats roughly equivalent to Bob’s–combined for three no-hitters. But anyway, if you’re going to pick the most surprising pitcher to throw two no-hitters based on actual pitching talent, you’d probably go with Busby, Stoneman or Forsch. And Busby, Stoneman and Wilson all had pretty short careers, so maybe they’re the most unlikely based on the number of opportunities to do it. But if you’re looking for the most unlikely guy to do it based on those criteria above — hits down, strikeouts up — I think Buehrle has a good case.

So I have no idea what to make of the rest of this, but here is one long and kind of rambling random thought:

Nolan Ryan, of course, threw a record seven no-hitters. He’s also the all-time career leader in fewest hits per nine innings. Sandy Koufax threw a second-place four, and is also second all-time in H/9.

Ryan and Koufax would clearly be the most likely to hold the all-time #1 and #2 positions for no-hitters — to my eyes, anyway — but how “likely” do you think it actually is that these exact two guys would hold those exact two spots?

I’d bet that if you restarted baseball history from the beginning and checked back 150 years later, there would be a very, very small chance (maybe 0.5% or so, as a totally random and worthless guess?) that the two all-time leaders in H/9 would also be the two all-time leaders in no-hitters pitched. Consider: Sid Fernandez, J.R. Richard, Andy Messersmith, Kerry Wood, Pedro Martinez, Sudden Sam McDowell, Bob Turley, and Dave Boswell are numbers three through ten on the H/9 list among modern starting pitchers, with 2,128 starts among them, and those eight guys combined for a grand total of zero no-hitters. And then consider Bob Forsch and Mark Buehrle and Johnny Vander Meer.

Not that I think Buehrle or Forsch would be likely to throw seven no-hitters in any universe, but they did get two, and Pedro zero, and it strikes me as more likely that any one of dozens of guys who get a lot of strikeouts (but not the most) and consequently are pretty good at suppressing hits (but not the best) would have five to seven really great games than it is that the very most unhittable pitcher ever would hold that record too. Ryan and Koufax having the most no-hitters is like the odds that the next two guys you run into on the street are named Mike and John. Maybe it’s more likely than any other combination, but it’s still not likely.

So here’s what that all comes down to, in my little head: I think that throwing one no-hitter is mostly luck (see Bud Smith, Eric Milton, Jose Jimenez), and that throwing two no-hitters is about 80% luck and 20% having the right sort of skill set, with the balance continuing to shift gradually toward “skill” as you go on from there. It’s certainly no coincidence that the three modern guys with more than two no-hitters — Nolan, Sandy and Bob Feller — are three of the most unhittable pitchers in history, but how is it that Pedro, Maddux and the Rocket never had even one? Isn’t it pretty easy to imagine a world in which Roger Clemens or Randy Johnson threw five or six and Ryan had maybe one or two (with like fifty one-hitters)?

This got really off-track, but I guess there’s only so long that I can talk about Mark Buehrle. Conclusion: Buehrle, while I have to admit he’s a very good or even great pitcher, is the most unlikely pitcher of the last seventy seasons, based on his skill set and environment, to have pitched two no-hitters. And hey, he’s still only thirty, which means (a) his K rate probably only goes down and his hit rate probably only goes up from here, making him look even more out of place on this list; and (b) wouldn’t it be amazing if he threw another one sometime in the next ten years or so?