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September 8, 2006

You Could Look It Up

No Hits For You

by Steven Goldman

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Some thoughts on no-hitters, inspired by Anibal Sanchez:

Sanchez's no-hitter broke a long drought in the no-hit department. Much was made of this, though the drought itself wasn't particularly special. When the ball got rabbit feet in the 1920s and 30s, no-hitters became an endangered species. No-nos by decade, including perfect games, 1900-present, with assorted observations:

1901-1910: 21
Christy Mathewson pitched two no-hitters during the decade. The first of these, a 5-0 win at St. Louis on July 15, 1901, later served to kick-start the plot of The Celebrant, one of the few great baseball novels. A young jeweler crafts a ring to honor Mathewson's accomplishment, and a lifelong relationship is formed, one that will change both the pitcher and his fan, and not for the best.

Addie Joss of the Indians had two as well: a perfect game on October 2, 1908, and a run of the mill no-no on April 20, 1910. The 1908 game was something like a Pedro Martinez-Roger Clemens match-up, with Joss, who would finish the year with a 1.16 ERA, taking on spitballer Ed Walsh of the White Sox. Walsh had a 1.42 ERA that year and finished with a record of 40-15 (Walsh pitched 66 games, started 49, completed 42, and saved six). Walsh was 14.6 wins above replacement, Joss 9.0.

The AL was having a terrific race. With just under a week to go in the season, the Tigers led the Indians by half a game and the White Sox by a game and a half. Both the White Sox and the Indians had three games left to play. Walsh pitched a terrific game, allowing just four hits and one run while striking out 15--and lost.

Frank Smith of the White Sox pitched the most lopsided no-hitter to date on September 6, 1905 when he beat the Tigers 15-0. Those Tigers had one great hitter in Wahoo Sam Crawford, and a future great hitter in 18-year-old rookie Ty Cobb, who batted just .240/.288/.300 in a difficult 41 games. Most of the Tigers were more like Cobb than Crawford that year. Smith was a spitballer who was a two-time 20-game winner for the White Sox who was mostly a roughly league-average pitcher who had one terrific season-pitching 365 innings with a 1.80 ERA (league average, 2.47) in 1909.

He pitched a second no-hitter in 1908, beating the A's 1-0 on September 20, 1908. Ironically, that was a difficult year for Smith, who walked out on the Sox amidst accusations of poor conditioning and drinking problems from owner Charles Comiskey and a beef with manager Fielder Jones about Smith "wasting a couple of pitches when there seemed to be no reason for it." Smith acquired the nickname "Piano Mover" that year, either because it was though that his slack weight control program left him looking like one--apparently your average turn of the century piano mover looked like David Wells--or because he took up the job of moving pianos when he jumped the team. Smith missed between two and five starts and the White Sox lost the pennant by 1.5 games--but Smith learned discipline, by gum!

Most obscure pitcher to throw a no-hitter during the decade: probably Mal Eason of the Dodgers, who shut down the Cardinals on July 20, 1906. Eason was a journeyman pitcher who was in his last season in the majors at 27. He was really, really bad that year, putting up a 3.25 ERA in a league where the average pitcher's ERA was 2.63. His 1905 was a bit worse than that, with a 4.30 ERA in a 2.99 league. Our Davenport-o-Matic translates these ERAs as being in the mid-fives in a modern context. Eason went on to be a National League umpire after hurting his arm. Runner-up: Weldon Henley.

1911-1920: 24
Two pitchers during this period had two no-hitters, Dutch Leonard of the Red Sox and Tom Hughes of the Yankees and Braves. Sort of. Hughes was a journeyman righty who first made it to New York at 22 in 1906 but never really established himself. 1910 was a year in which the Yankees went 88-63 despite everything going wrong--imagine a replay of the John Gibbons-Shea Hillenbrand conflict in which J.P. Ricciardi fired Gibbons and made Hillenbrand the manager. That's what Yankees ownership did in 1910 when manager George Stallings accused first baseman Hal Chase of throwing games-Hughes faced the Indians on August 30 and was perfect for nine innings. The Yankees couldn't score. Hughes gave up a hit in the tenth, then fell apart in the eleventh, giving up six more hits and five runs. The game went into the books as a 5-0 loss. Hughes disappeared for a few years after that but resurfaced with the Braves in 1914 and stayed with them for five years. On June 16, 1916 he no-hit the Pirates 2-0, striking out Honus Wagner for the game's final out. In fairness to Honus, he was 42 years old at the time.

Guy with the best name to pitch a no hitter during this period: it's a tie between Jimmy Lavender and Ernie Koob.

Most obscure pitcher to throw a no-hitter during the decade: Probably Koob, who had a quick career with the Browns, notable only for the May 5, 1917 no-hitter he threw at the White Sox. On July 14 the year before he pitched a 17-inning scoreless tie with the Red Sox. He might have won it in 15, but Koob was called out for failing to touch third as he scored what would have been the go-ahead run.

1921-1930: 8
There was really only one fluke no-hitter during the decade. Seven of the eight no-hit pitchers were quite good. Jesse Barnes is probably the most obscure, but in the 1920s he had several good seasons for the Giants, posting a career 3.21 ERA in a high-scoring league. Jesse Haines, Dazzy Vance, Ted Lyons, and Carl Hubbell are in the Hall of Fame. Sad Sam Jones had a long and mostly successful career, pitching for both the Red Sox and Yankees in the World Series. Howard Ehmke was a solid pitcher for over a decade, and in 1929 had what was probably the most famous start in World Series history prior to Don Larsen.

That leaves Charlie Robertson, the one guy in the group who threw a perfect game. A White Sox righty, Robertson was average to not good in a short career. His ERA was 4.45 and his record was 49-80, which isn't quite fair considering how bad the Sox teams he played for were. Robertson got in one game with the great, corrupt, 1919 edition, then went back to the minors, rejoining the White Sox for the long, post-Black Sox fall. Robertson's perfect game came in his third major league start, on August 30, 1922. The White Sox had him throw 272 innings that year and 255 the next. His arm fell off. He carried the limp thing beside him for another five seasons with miserable results--a 5.23 ERA, more than a run above league average, in 475 innings.

1931-1940: 10
The ball continued to be lively and no-hitters remained rare events. As is often the case, some of the best pitchers of the decade failed to pitch one. Lon Warneke and Bob Feller did (the latter on opening day 1940), but Lefty Grove, Lefty Gomez, and Dizzy Dean did not. Dizzy's brother Paul did, beating the Dodgers in the second game of a doubleheader on September 21, 1934. Dizzy had won a 13-0 shutout in the first game. "Heck," Dizzy said after. "If I'd know Paul was going to pitch a no-hitter, I'd have pitched one too." He never did, though.

This period also saw Johnny Vander Meer throw his back-to-back no-hitters against the Braves and Dodgers on June 11 and June 15, 1938 respectively. Vander Meer's next start was against the Braves, and he held them hitless for the first few innings of that game as well. As Braves manager Casey Stengel was walking out to the third base coach's box for his team's next at bat, he cut across the mound. "We're not trying to beat you, John," he said to Vander Meer. "We're just trying to get a hit off of you." The no-hit streak ended directly thereafter.

Most obscure pitcher to throw a no-hitter during the decade: Lefty Burke, a swingman with the Senators, started just 88 games in his career but one of them was a no-hitter. On August 8, 1931, he faced a miserable Red Sox team, one in a long series, and no-hit them 5-0. The Red Sox had exactly one batter of worth that year. Earl Webb batted .333/.404/.428 with a record 67 doubles. His EqA was .320. After him it was a long fall to the next hitter-the club EqA was .239. It's surprising they weren't no-hit more often.

Another good choice for most obscure pitcher, or least likely to throw a no-hitter, was Bill Dietrich of the White Sox, who blanked the Browns 8-0 on June 1, 1937. Bullfrog Dietrich (so named because of the big glasses he wore), is another example of a pitcher who had a no-hitter despite not being very good. Dietrich had exceedingly poor control and never struck anyone out, a bad combination in any era. His career strikeout-walk ratio was .74, low even for an era when pitchers were so pathologically afraid of giving up the home run that they started every batter with a 3-0 count. The Davenport-o-matic translates Dietrich's career 4.48 to 4.60 in a neutral environment, which seems overly generous. Bullfrog had a 15 year career despite generally poor results, probably because his two main teams, the A's and White Sox, didn't have anything better to do from 1933 to 1948.

As I wrote in my YES blog on Thursday, the fact that pitchers like Dietrich have been able to throw no-hitters is good evidence for the truth of defense-independent pitching and its underpinning belief that pitchers have limited ability to control what happens in a game beyond walks, strikeouts, and home runs. When a pitcher like Dietrich throws a no-hitter, there's an element of luck involved. Line drives that found the gap in all of his other starts struck leather on his special day.

The relative rarity of no-hitters, and the fact that several great pitchers have failed to pitch one, also argues in favor of the defense's influence on pitching. If pitchers really could influence where batted balls go, on their best days they would pitch no-hitters--their powers of influence would be stronger. Instead, they pitch low-scoring games or shutouts. What good pitching really means is that batters have a difficult time putting walks and hits together to score runs. There are too many strikeouts interrupting the sequence. No-hitters are about luck and good fielding.

I'm out of space and time (in all kinds of ways). We'll continue with no-hit trivia through the decades in the next You Could Look It Up.

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

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