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April 24, 2012

Overthinking It

The No-Hitters That Almost Weren't

by Ben Lindbergh

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Since the start of the 2009 season, 12 nine-inning no-hitters have been pitched. Over the same span, 24 nine-inning one-hitters have been pitched. The former will be remembered. The latter will not, except by Anibal Sanchez, who threw three of them. (Don’t feel too bad for Anibal Sanchez, since he already had a no-hitter. Anibal Sanchez: pretty good at pitching.)

The difference between a no-hitter and a one-hitter is—wait for it—one hit. But it’s too simple to say that, really. A hit can be a long home run or a hard line drive that lands somewhere on the field. It can also be an infield dribbler, a well-placed pop-up, or a routine fly that would have been caught by literally anyone but Raul Ibanez. This is a hit:

This is also a hit:

I couldn’t even find that highlight at first, since MLB.com labeled it “Belt’s game-tying double,” when it seems like it should be called something like “Mets’ amusing failure to field.” The point is, it doesn’t always take a mistake by a pitcher to mess up a no-hit outing. Sometimes it just takes a mistake by someone else that isn’t scored a mistake. If a Mets pitcher had been going for a no-hitter in the game that second clip comes from, that Brandon Belt “double” would have ended his attempt. This is why the Mets can't have nice no-hitters.

A one-hitter is extremely improbable. A no-hitter is about four times more improbable than that. Both performances are points on the same sliding scale of improbability, but the way we celebrate one and dismiss the other, you'd think the outcome of each was divinely ordained: one historic, one non-historic, one worthy of some permanent space in our brains, one already slipping away soon after ‚ÄčSportsCenter‚Äč.

We remember no-hitters as great pitching performances, and most of the time, they are. But that's never all they are. There's always a play, like the controversial check swing that completed Phil Humber’s perfect game this past Saturday, that has more to do with another person or player on the field than the pitcher who gets all the glory. I wanted to see whether every no-hitter is actually saved by a spectacular play, so I watched every at-bat-ending pitch of every no-hitter from 2009-2011. These are the plays that almost, but not quite, took the fun out of each outing. (Note: if you can’t concentrate on the text while the GIFs are going, you can press ESC to stop them. Just remember that every time a GIF stops, an angel loses his wings.)

Ervin Santana: 7/27/11
Unsung No-Hitter Hero: Howie Kendrick

This start was pure dominance. Santana struck out 10 batters, seven of them swinging. He allowed 18 balls in play: 13 of them were on the ground, and one was a pop-up. He walked only one. Left fielder Mike Trout didn’t get a ball all day—he could have stayed in the dugout while Santana was on the mound, and the no-hitter still would’ve happened.* "He could have stayed in the dugout" is something you can often say about the Angels' left fielder when Peter Bourjos plays center. 

*At least until someone on the Indians noticed there was no one in left and tried to hit a ball there.

Still, even with Santana as firmly in control as a pitcher can be, one ball nearly snuck through the middle.

Nice snag by Kendrick, nice scoop by Trumbo. No-hitter preserved.

Justin Verlander: 5/7/11
Unsung No-Hitter Hero: Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera’s 
crotch

Verlander probably pitched his second career no-hitter without his best stuff. He had only four strikeouts, so much of his success depended on his defense. He lucked out with a liner off first that Miguel Cabrera, in full bloom of belly, left the ground to catch, and he got away with two “hit it hard, but right at him” balls in the outfield. Still, Verlander couldn’t have sealed his second no-hitter without one particularly fine defensive play of his own.

Verlander’s reaction time and presence of mind were impressive, but the play couldn’t have been completed had Cabrera, looking roughly twice the size he is this season, not cradled the throw in his crotch. After showing the umpire the ball, he gingerly walked off the field, no-hitter, pride, and presumably private parts intact.

Francisco Liriano: 5/3/11
Unsung No-Hitter Hero: Danny Valencia, Justin Morneau

This one was ugly. Liriano entered this start with a 9.13 ERA, threw a no-hitter, and somehow left everyone who saw it feeling even worse about his future. He walked six batters and struck out two. One of those two was Adam Dunn, whom it was almost as hard for a lefty not to strike out last season. It took him 123 pitches, almost none of which looked easy. It also took him a few fine defensive plays. Valencia’s glove-and-throw behind the third-base bag was the best.

Here's what Valencia had to say after the play:

"I've had plays like that in the past, it's either going to be a hit or it's a great play. Luckily tonight, we got the out, and luckily, we had a no-hitter tonight."

Honorable mention goes to Morneau for scooping a short throw on a tough play for Matt Tolbert that probably would have been ruled a hit.

And here's what Morneau said after his successful scoop:

"You've got to be ready for any kind of throw there. I saw it halfway in the air, and I said, 'I've got to catch it.' The thing was just sitting there. It was as close to falling out of my glove as it could be. I could feel it. It wasn't stuck in there. I could feel that it wasn't perfect. Just luckily enough it stayed in there."

When a no-hitter happens, there's always a "luckily." Liriano had more luckilys than most.

Roy Halladay: 10/6/10
Unsung No-Hitter Hero: Jimmy Rollins, Jonny Gomes

Halladay didn’t need much help en route to a no-hitter in his first post-season start. The biggest assist he got on the field was from Jimmy Rollins, who made a strong throw from deep in the hole that beat Joey Votto by a step.

Then there was Jonny Gomes:

And then there wasn’t Jonny Gomes. Those are two separate pitches, thrown three innings apart.

Matt Garza: 7/26/10
Unsung No-Hitter Hero: Ben Zobrist

This catch came in the third inning, before much anticipation had begun to build. Maybe that made it easier for Zobrist, who was playing right field with Reid Brignac at second. Or maybe this was just as hard as it looked. Either way, Garza wouldn't have a close call like this for the rest of his outing.

Garza, after the game: “It was one of those days where everything lined up. The defense made great plays."

If something like that hasn't been said after every no-hitter, it should have been.

Edwin Jackson: 6/25/10
Unsung No-Hitter Hero: Mark Reynolds, A.J. Hinch

With the possible exception of Cabrera's crotch, we haven't seen any awful fielders coming through to save a no-hitter so far. Cue Mark Reynolds. If someone asked you which was more likely in any given game, that Reynolds would make two great diving stops on defense or that the pitcher for his team would throw a no-hitter, you'd have to stop and think about it: he's been roughly 30 runs below average at third over the past few seasons. But Reynolds made two fine plays in this game to get Jackson out of jams. Generally, pitchers don't get into jams during no-hitters, but Jackson was following the A.J. Burnett approach to immortality: keep throwing balls until someone swings at something he shouldn't. Jackson walked eight batters and struck out nine. 

Jackson couldn't have finished off the no-hitter if A.J. Hinch hadn't been willing to let him throw 149 pitches. According to our Pitcher Abuse Points report, that was the most pitches any one arm had thrown in a game since 2002. Hinch was fired five games later.

Roy Halladay: 5/29/10
Unsung No-Hitter Hero: Castro

Halladay's perfect game had fewer anxiety-inducing moments than his no-hitter, but Jorge Cantu crushed this pitch.

Juan Castro hit .198/.237/.238 for the Phillies that season, but he did field one historic hot smash to third.

Dallas Braden: 5/9/10
Unsung No-Hitter Hero: Kevin Kouzmanoff

Kevin Kouzmanoff was everywhere during Dallas Braden's no-hitter. This was the first out of the game.

Kouzmanoff recorded an assist or a putout on six plays, which didn't leave much for the rest of the infield to do. Here are two more of them:

 

"I told him he needs to quit stealing my thunder," Braden said. "He makes ridiculous plays."

Ubaldo Jimenez: 4/17/10
Unsung No-Hitter Hero: Dexter Fowler

Jimenez was so good during the first half of 2010 that I’m almost surprised he threw only one no-hitter. He released his last pitch of the night at 97 mph.* But his start would have been a lot less memorable without this catch by Dexter Fowler, which might be the best no-hitter-saving play of the past few seasons.

 

*In 2010, Jimenez' fastball averaged 96.6. Last season, that fell to 94.2. So far this season, it's at 93.8. At this rate, he'll be throwing as hard as Jamie Moyer by 2020.

Mark Buehrle: 7/23/09
Unsung No-Hitter Hero: DeWayne Wise

This game’s no-hitter hero wasn’t actually unsung. His defensive play was so good it actually stole some of the spotlight from Buehrle:

That might be the best catch by DeWayne Wise, but this is my favorite catch by DeWayne Wise, for reasons that have almost nothing to do with DeWayne Wise:

What I wouldn't do for one glower from that guy.

Jonathan Sanchez: 7/10/09
Unsung No-Hitter Hero: Aaron Rowand

For Sanchez, a no-walker is almost as rare as a no-hitter. Sanchez has walked zero batters in a start on seven occasions. He's walked six or seven in a start on eight occasions. But on the night of his no-hitter, Sanchez struck out 11 Padres without walking anyone. It remains his only complete game and the only game in which he went more than seven without walking someone. If not for an error by Uribe in the eighth, it could have been a perfect game. It may have been the most overpowering performance of any on this list.

Sanchez' stuff was so nasty that night that Kouzmanoff struck out on a pitch that hit him. Then he hopped around a bit while he sorted out whether he was supposed to walk to first, run to first, or return to the dugout.

Sanchez was bailed out once, when Aaron Rowand tracked down a fly to deep center off the bat of Edgar Gonzalez for the penultimate out of the game.

Aaron Rowand remains a free agent. Right now, he's spending his days jumping into a practice wall while he waits for a call. Check out the dirt on that uniform.

The verdict? Over the past three seasons, at least, there hasn't been a pitcher who missed enough bats or induced enough weak contact to throw a no-hitter without considering himself lucky. I won't do it, since I've already used up half the internet's available bandwidth in this article, but I could go through a similar exercise for all the one-hitters. Some of those balls would have been outs if they'd been hit under slightly different circumstances. This article is mostly an excuse to relive some fine fielding. But it's also a reminder that there's no such thing as a defense- or umpire-independent no-hitter. Every one involves a play or three that easily could have gone the other way. In the end, all you can do is enjoy the improbability.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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