May 20, 2008
You Could Look It Up
Jon Lester, Meet Mel Parnell
As Will Carroll wrote last night in Unfiltered, sometimes a no-hitter is more than a no-hitter. Jon Lester's thorough blanking of the Kansas City Royals on Monday night certainly qualifies as such. No-hitters have achieved often enough by pitchers both distinguished and less so that it's safe to say that these events, as wonderful as they are, are governed by pure chance. Unless you're Ron Necciai pitching a 27-strikeout no-hitter (in the Appalachian League, alas), the pitcher is subject to the same laws on balls in play that affect every other ballgame: if the ball is hit near where someone happens to be standing, it's an out, and the pitcher looks brilliant. If it's hit three feet behind the pitcher's mound and the batter has some speed, bye-bye history.
So Lester was lucky, but then Lester was already luckier than most, in that he had had cancer and not only is still on the planet, but has continued to be an athlete and perform at a high level. Forget the debilitating effects of cancer treatment; the physical and emotional stress inherent in a cancer diagnosis is incredible. That Lester pitched a no-hitter having been through that is perhaps not quite the miracle that, say, Lou Gehrig climbing out of his sickbed and having another four-homer day, it's not J.R. Richard overcoming his stroke to strike out 15 (as he did in his major league debut), but it's probably the closest thing we're going to get.
From a pure baseball point of view, the most novel aspect of Lester's game is that while he becomes the 18th pitcher in the long history of the Red Sox to throw a no-hitter (the first was Cy Young, who chucked a perfect game back in 1904), and the fourth in this decade alone (following Hideo Nomo in 2001, Derek Lowe in 2002, and Clay Buchholz last year), he is the first Boston lefty to pitch one in almost 52 years. The last was Mel Parnell's Fenway whitewash of a Chicago White Sox lineup that included Nellie Fox, Minnie Minoso, Larry Doby, and Lou Aparacio, and took place on July 14, 1956.
Parnell's no-hitter was itself highly unlikely. A terrific pitcher at his best (and taking into account the walk-crazy 1950s), Parnell started late and had his arm pitched off by the Sox early. He packed the entire useful portion of his career into the five seasons, from 1949 to 1953, going 94-48 with a 3.24 ERA in 1220 innings. After that, he struggled with injuries, including a broken arm in 1954. When he pitched his no-hitter, he had just 14 games left in his major league career.
The last BoSox lefty to throw a no-hitter prior to Parnell was Dutch Leonard, who threw the second of his two Red Sox no-nos in 1918, 38 years earlier. As must always be stated in these cases, this was Hubert "Dutch" Leonard, the Deadball Era spitballer who accused Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker of betting on games, not Emil "Dutch" Leonard, the Washington Senators knuckleballer.
Some of the overarching right-handedness of the Boston no-hitters is pure demographics-there are more right-handers than left-handers-but some of it is just luck; if the New York Mets could get from 1962 to today without any pitcher throwing a no-hitter, then it is not unthinkable that Boston lefties could be shut out for half a century. Some of the long drought for the portsiders was also a side effect of planning: because of the Green Monster, Boston management had traditionally been southpaw-averse in the assembly of its pitching staffs. While a team doesn't need a great pitcher to get a no-hitter, it certainly helps to be a good one, or any at all. When it comes to lefty starters, the Sox haven't been that interested, with a franchise list of portside starters which is both brief and festooned with names long since departed for the Hall of Fame or the hereafter:Boston Likes Lefties, but Only in Politics: Most Career Starts by Red Sox Left-handers through 2007
Rk Pitcher GS Years 1 Mel Parnell 232 1947-1956 2 Bruce Hurst 217 1980-1988 3 Lefty Grove 190 1934-1941 4 Bill Lee 167 1969-1978 5 Dutch Leonard 160 1913-1918 6 Ray Collins 151 1909-1915 7 Babe Ruth 144 1914-1919 8 Fritz Ostermueller 126 1934-1940 9 Herb Pennock 125 1915-1922, 1934 10 Bobby Ojeda 113 1980-1985 11 Jesse Tannehill 106 1904-1908 12 Mickey McDermott 97 1948-1953 13 John Tudor 94 1979-1983 14 Mickey Harris 90 1940-1949 15T Gary Peters 70 1970-1972 15T Frank Viola 70 1992-1994
As with so much with the Red Sox during the Frazee-Quinn-Yawkey/Trust years-which is to say almost every minute of the franchise's existence prior to the current ownership-management team-this was a spectacularly wrong-headed approach to team-building. Fenway's unique dimensions certainly made it a dangerous place for a left-hander to face a righty pull hitter, but it was also a good hitter's park for everyone, not just the Jim Rice wannabes blasting away at the Wall, and while a few managers undoubtedly salted their lineups with some extra righty hitters when visiting Boston, the best left-handed hitters weren't going to sit just so the fifth outfielder could take a poke at a cheap home run. In other words, the Red Sox had at least as much to gain from using a good lefty at Fenway as they did a poor righty. What they would have lost in shots at the wall (which are hardly inevitable if the pitcher is good enough) they would have gained back in beneficial platoon effects.
Take one example from a key rival, the Yankees: Roger Maris, a left-handed hitter, was just a career .218/.307/.390 hitter against lefties. However, facing what we can safely presume to have been mostly right-handed pitchers, he was a career .281/.379/.539 hitter at Fenway. Picking a contemporaneous left-handed hitter at random: Tigers first baseman Norm Cash, a lefty, was a career .227/.307/.384 hitter against portsiders, but facing mostly righties at Fenway he hit .290/.387/.514. Conversely, Carl Yastrzemski was a .244/.321/.371 hitter against left-handers, but a .306/.402/.503 hitter at Fenway Park. If the Sox, and for that matter their opponents, sometimes succeeded in keeping the righty sluggers away from the wall, they simultaneously granted the lefty sluggers the rest of the ballpark. And we can be certain that, on the occasional overcast Tuesday, the righty sluggers knocked the righty pitchers' stuff over the wall anyway.
These split stats weren't in wide circulation back in the day, of course, so the Red Sox of yore get something of a pass, but only a partial one. Even without numbers, the evidence was right before their eyes, only the Sox chose to ignore it. The only had to look at Parnell, the supposedly vulnerable lefty who had that Fenway no-hitter among his 20 career shutouts. During his five years of greatness, Parnell was one of the stingiest pitchers in baseball when it came to allowing the home run, yielding just 64 in his 1220 innings. The evidence strongly suggests he was a ground-ball pitcher, and indeed, one of Parnell's key out pitches was his sinker, a pitch he would use liberally at Fenway. As Parnell reported in This Side of Cooperstown, "[W]hen I got to Fenway Park I figured I had to do more than just throw the fastball. So I went to the slider and sinker and worked more on my curveball. The fastball was a pitch you didn't want to give them to hit in Fenway Park. You wanted to keep the ball moving in on 'em all the way." Here's a rule for life: generalizations are dangerous forms of under-thinking, and dualities are almost always oversimplifications. For the Sox, the question should not have been lefty or righty, but which lefty? Which righty? In either case, does he sink like Parnell? Does he think like Parnell?
Mark the gap between Leonard's, Parnell's, and Lester's no-hitters as another signpost on the long, futile road in Red Sox franchise history from 1918 to 2004. Just as the Sox couldn't find any African-American stars because they didn't want to find any, they developed or brought in few left-handed starting pitchers because they not only thought it wasn't important, they figured it was detrimental. Congratulations to Jon Lester for surviving, for succeeding, and for burying another piece of empty received wisdom along the way-may he one day displace Parnell at the top of that very short list of career starts by a Sox lefty. Only 195 to go, and I'll be cheering him for every one of them.