Sports

The Historic No-hitter Pace Is Bad for Fans. But It May Be Just What MLB Needs.

How many no-hitters would it take for you to stop going out of your way to watch the final few outs of a pitcher’s pursuit of history? It’s only mid-May, but I’ve already reached my quota. On April 9, I tuned in to see San Diego-area native Joe Musgrove complete the first no-no in Padres franchise history. On April 14, I watched White Sox pitcher Carlos Rodón no-hit Cleveland. On May 5, I looked over the shoulder of Orioles ace John Means as he allowed a lone Seattle runner on a dropped third strike. And on May 7, I changed games to watch Wade Miley finish off Cleveland. That was when I hit my limit. As Miley celebrated, Oakland’s Sean Manaea was working on a no-hitter himself. But I didn’t switch feeds to see Manaea’s bid broken up in the eighth. My answer to the quota question, I discovered, was one more than Mr. Owl’s when asked how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop: four.

The no-nos are multiplying, whether you’re watching or not. On Tuesday, the Tigers’ Spencer Turnbull no-hit the Mariners. “I think this obviously will give him a lot of attention and get him on the map,” Tigers skipper A.J. Hinch said. “He enters a very exclusive club of no-hitters throughout baseball.” Turnbull had one day to bask in that attention before the club of no-hitters—suddenly a lot less exclusive—admitted another member: Yankees pitcher Corey Kluber. Kluber’s no-no—against the Rangers, who joined Cleveland and Seattle on 2021’s two-time-victim list—was the sixth no-hitter this season, not counting the April 25 no-hit outing by the Diamondbacks’ Madison Bumgarner, which was ruled a non-no-hitter because it occurred in a scheduled seven-inning game. That’s one short of the modern record of seven (set in 1990 and matched in 1991, 2012, and 2015) and two short of the all-time record of eight, which has stood since 1884. This season is just 26.2 percent complete.

We’ve never seen so many no-hitters so early in a year, which is especially anomalous considering how rarely pitchers in 2021 are allowed to work deep into games. (No-hitters account for six of the 13 total nine-inning complete games this season.) Kluber’s gem put pitchers on pace for 23 in the regular season, and while that clip can’t continue—offense should pick up with warmer weather, and no-hitters can cluster unpredictably based on batted-ball luck—a double-digit total is potentially attainable. Admittedly, more no-hitters mean more memorable moments for the individuals involved: Every hurler who throws a no-hitter has a heartwarming story and a cheering section of family, friends, and fans. I don’t begrudge them their joy (or, in Kluber’s case, blank expression); Turnbull called Tuesday a “a dream come true” and “probably the best day of my life,” and I’m happy he’s happy. Nor am I immune to the tension that builds when a pitcher is one inning away from hugging his catcher and making a broadcaster rave about baseball immortality.

But no-hitters are so special in part because they’re rare. When they’re a weekly occurrence, they lose a lot of their luster. They also expose a worsening imbalance between batters and pitchers that’s fueled the recent surge. That’s the dark side of the no-hitter spree. But there’s also a silver lining: The scrutiny that could come from a year of nonstop no-nos might be baseball’s best disinfectant. In other words, the only way out of this no-hitter headache may be more no-hitters. Just as the offensive nadir of 1968 prompted real reform, the numerous no-hitters of 2021 may leave the league with little choice but to confront its flaws, overcome inertia, and bring about overdue change.

On last week’s episode of FanGraphs Audio, which was recorded two no-nos ago, FanGraphs writer Sara Sanchez (who also wrote about the rash of no-hitters), expressed a desire for the hitless games to stop. “I really hope that all of this just kind of regresses to the mean later in the season,” she said. “And what that would mean is that hitters would go on a hot streak any day now and just start tearing the cover off the ball. And that may not be in the form of home runs. Maybe it’s in the form of doubles. Maybe it’s in the form of triples. All of those are fun, too. That would be outstanding, and probably the best thing for baseball.”

I share her hope for the long term. But I wouldn’t want to bet on a hitter-happy world of batted balls and base runners simply springing into existence, so I’m turning heel and rooting for the opposite outcome in 2021. I hope the hits keep on not coming: Give me more offensive futility and so many no-hitters that the victorious teams feel sheepish about mobbing the mound. I want to watch batting averages burn. Sanchez is right that more hits would be better for baseball. But the best prescription for the league’s long-term health may be to bottom out this year, which would finally force MLB and the MLBPA to take necessary steps they’ve put off for far too long.

Brace yourself for some sophisticated analysis: The reason we’ve seen so many no-hitters this year is that there haven’t been many hits. (Still with me?) Three years ago, I dubbed 2018 “The Year of Near No-hitters.” Although there were only three no-hitters that season—one of which was a combined effort, and all of which were recorded prior to mid-May—there was a significant uptick in credible bids for no-hitters, as MLB’s batting average fell below .250 for the first time since the advent of the designated hitter, and strikeouts became more common than hits. These days, the league is looking up at .240. Through May 19, 2018, the league batted .246. Through this May 19, the league batted .236, one point below the final figure in the infamous 1968 season.

Subtracting 10 points from 2018’s already measly mark has been enough to drop the “Near” from “The Year of Near No-hitters.” The percentage of hitless half-innings is higher this season (46.3 percent) than it was through the same date in any previous campaign since 1968 (when it peaked at 46.5 percent). Put together enough hitless half-innings, and you have hitless starts.

The graph below shows the percentage of games through May 19 of each season in the expansion era (1961 to present) that were no-hitters through six, seven, eight, and nine innings (considering in each sample only games that lasted at least the specified length, so that this year’s seven-inning games don’t artificially depress the no-hit rates through eight and nine innings). This year’s percentage of no-hit games through six innings is higher than any previous seasons save for 1963, 1968, and 2018; the percentage through seven is second highest behind 1965; the percentage through eight is second highest behind 1963; and the percentage through nine (.64 percent) is almost 40 percent higher than in any previous season.

The Historic No-hitter Pace Is Bad for Fans. But It May Be Just What MLB Needs.

The present shortage of hits has several contributing causes, a lack of contact foremost among them. Hitters this season have struck out in a record 24.1 percent of their plate appearances, thanks largely to higher velocities; increased spin and movement; optimized pitch selection, location, sequencing, and tunneling; growing deference among managers to the times-through-the-order penalty; improved catcher receiving skills; greater adherence to the rulebook strike zone among umpires, who now get graded by tracking technology; and changes to the ball (more on that in a moment). This strikeout spike is not a new trend. I’ve been writing and talking about baseball’s rising strikeout rate since at least 2012, when MLB was already several years into a streak of consecutive strikeout-rate hikes that’s on track to turn 16 this season.

I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, but strikeouts—and the accompanying discourse surrounding strikeouts—are inescapable. Throughout baseball history, Ks have consistently climbed in the absence of intervention to halt or reverse their ascendance. It’s been decades since the last meaningful attempt to suppress strikeouts. MLB has belatedly begun to tinker with various experimental rules in the minor leagues and its independent partner leagues that are intended to improve the pace and style of play, but no noteworthy changes have made it to the big league level, and an expiring CBA clouds the future further. The league didn’t even preserve the strikeout-reducing universal DH after last season, opting instead to use it as a bargaining chip in an ill-conceived effort to extract approval from the players for expanded playoffs. (Pitchers—who were horrible hitters before the pandemic and didn’t benefit from a year off—have struck out in 46.8 percent of their plate appearances in 2021, which accounts for most of the overall K rate rise relative to last season.)

It’s tiresome to speculate about the same possible solutions—moving the mound back, shrinking the strike zone, restricting the number of pitchers who can be rostered or deployed per game, diligently policing foreign substances, and so on—year after year without much concrete progress toward those ideas being adopted, or even obvious erosion in resistance to change. An unprecedented string of no-hitters, however, makes it more apparent that there’s a problem. That gets people talking—people like Clayton Kershaw, who allowed two hits in six innings against Arizona on Wednesday. Kershaw responded to the Kluber no-no news by bemoaning this season’s fan-unfriendly offensive environment. “I have all the respect in the world for Corey Kluber and Bum and all those guys that have thrown no-hitters,” he said. “But to have one happen every night, it seems like it’s probably not good for the game. Fans want to see some hits … and some action, and not many people striking out.”

Kershaw also alluded to MLB’s decision to address the stagnant, home-run-reliant offense of the past several seasons by deadening the ball this year, noting that “it seems like they missed the mark so far.” Deadening the ball without making any corresponding change to increase contact was always a suspect plan, given that the lively ball was helping prop up scoring rates that otherwise would have cratered with contact on the decline. The 2021 ball, which leaves the bat at higher speeds than last year’s model but doesn’t carry as well, is hardly dead: Historically speaking, this year’s home-run rate is still extremely elevated. On a per-fly-ball and per-batted-ball basis, it’s higher than it was through May in any previous season except 2019. But the new model has seemed to turn some subset of well-hit balls that would have been dingers in 2019 into outs, which has cost batters runs and hits here and there. The ball’s higher drag may also be making it move more on its path to the plate, which could be causing more whiffs.

Hitters’ problems aren’t at an end when they do put pitches in play: This season’s .287 BABIP would be the lowest through May of any recent season. That could be because teams are positioning defenders more adeptly in the infield, the outfield, or both; BABIP looks lousy on grounders and flies alike. Teams are shifting more often than ever in the infield against left-handed hitters, which tends to work well, and they’ve slightly lowered their shift frequency against right-handed hitters, which studies suggest tends to be counterproductive. But that doesn’t mean that banning the shift should be MLB’s top priority. The most pressing problem remains batters’ inability to make contact, not what happens after contact. Maybe banning the shift would encourage hitters to try to put balls in play instead of lifting them over the shift, but it might also be taken as tacit permission to try to pull everything, which would lead to even more all-or-nothing, true-outcome-oriented plate appearances.

The good news for those who are holding out hope for more offense (and fewer no-hitters) over the rest of this year is that batting has begun to pick up in some respects. If we divide the period since Opening Day into four sequential samples of 12 to 13 days, we see that the strikeout rate has steadily declined since the start of the season, and the most recent slice has featured a batting average above .240 and a fairly normal-looking BABIP, echoing the BABIP rebound that took place after last season’s slow start.

Offensive Performance in the First Four Chunks of 2021

Date Range AVG BABIP K% OPS Runs/Inning
Date Range AVG BABIP K% OPS Runs/Inning
4/1-4/12 .233 .286 24.9 .706 .50
4/13-4/24 .232 .282 24.2 .698 .49
4/25-5/6 .235 .284 24.0 .701 .50
5/7-5/19 .243 .296 23.5 .713 .50

Perhaps that modest resurgence will continue as temperatures climb, and the no-hitter onslaught will slow. But until MLB helps hitters overcome the core problem—that pitchers are too good, and that no plan at the plate, however old school, survives contact with an enemy that’s throwing as hard as today’s pitching-lab-perfected, max-effort arms—the strikeout cycle can’t be broken. The hitless beatings will continue until the offensive environment (and fan morale) improves.

For that to happen, the league and the players can’t just adjust on the margins. In 1969, at least three major moves combined to undo the “second deadball era”: a change to the strike zone that reversed its disastrous ’63 expansion, the addition of four new teams to the majors, and a reduction in mound height from 15 to 10 inches. (The AL DH followed in ’73.) The Year of the Pitcher’s glaringly anemic numbers were the impetus for essential repairs. The Year of the No-hitter’s numbers could do the same sort of good, as soon as 2022. And, in the process, make no-hitters seem special again.

Fortunately, these no-nos seem to be budging MLB’s Overton window when it comes to tinkering with tradition, and not a season too soon. (More like several seasons too late.) Blowing by the record number of no-hitters would help call attention to the forces shaping (and misshaping) MLB offenses, and the ways in which MLB could decisively and quickly counteract their effects. So although it sounds strange to suggest fighting offensive failure with more offensive failure, I say steer into the skid and whiff away. Modern batting is broken. Burn it to the ground, and a dynamic, revitalized version of the game may be born from the ashes of oh-fers.

Thanks to Dan Hirsch of Baseball-Reference for research assistance.



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