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The Year of Near No-hitters

If it seems like you’ve also heard about a new near no-no on a daily basis, you aren’t imagining things: Baseball is currently more hostile to hits than it has been in 50 years.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Tuesday night in Toronto, Mariners starter James Paxton no-hit the Blue Jays, walking three and striking out seven in Seattle’s 5–0 win.

The euphoria that followed Paxton’s final pitch — his 99th, which fittingly flew exactly 99 mph — looked like the euphoria that follows any no-hitter: the final-out fielder fist-pumping; the no-hitter-hurler raising his arms in the air; the batterymates sharing a hug; the team forming a mosh pit on the mound; the disheveled, perspiring pitcher getting the game ball and a beverage bath. For a Canadian pitcher on his native soil and a team in a tight playoff race, the no-no was a worthy reason to celebrate. Like every on-field performance, though, Paxton’s feat was partly a product of the conditions under which it was produced. And baseball’s conditions in 2018 are more hostile to hits than they have been in 50 years.

It’s not a slight against Paxton to point out that he profited from the same state of affairs that has helped all pitchers this year. Paxton has never pitched more than 136 innings in a season, but when healthy, he’s an ace; among pitchers with at least 200 innings pitched since the start of 2016, only Noah Syndergaard and Clayton Kershaw have lower park-adjusted FIPs. The southpaw’s previous start, a seven-inning, 16-strikeout scoreless outing against the A’s, was almost as impressive, and the trick that Paxton picked up in that game — throwing high fastballs — returned to some extent on Tuesday. (The lefty’s last two starts have featured the highest and seventh-highest average four-seamer heights of his career.) Like virtually every other no-hitter, this one was preserved by a fine defensive play — in this case, a diving grab and whirling throw by third baseman Kyle Seager to end the seventh. But as no-hitters go, this wasn’t one of the fluky ones.

Shortly after Paxton made headlines, though, another news alert went out over the wire: Nationals starter Jeremy Hellickson — the same Hellickson who recorded an ERA of well over five last season and settled for a minor league contract in March — was perfect against the Padres (whom four Dodgers pitchers combined to hold hitless last Friday) through six. That was the sort of seemingly surprising performance that’s become commonplace this season. Hellickson lost the perfect game and the no-hitter in the seventh, but even coming as close as he did was a symptom of an abnormally ball-in-play-averse brand of baseball.

A lack of balls in play shouldn’t be confused for a lack of scoring. Teams have averaged 4.46 runs per game this season, barely lower than last year’s 4.48 through the same date, and 2017’s full-season runs-per-game rate was the highest since 2008. MLB’s home run rate, which reached a record level last season, is still high: Despite last month’s miserable weather, 4.4 percent of non-strikeout at-bats have resulted in home runs this year, down only slightly from 4.5 percent through the same date in 2017. And because pitchers are increasingly avoiding the strike zone, walks and hit by pitches are also propping up offense. But lines like Hellickson’s are a constant reminder that the game isn’t the same.

The graph below, based on data provided by Dan Hirsch, proprietor of historical stats and analysis site The Baseball Gauge, shows the percentages of games through May 8 of each season during MLB’s expansion era (1961-present) that featured no hits through five, six, and seven innings.

This season, we’ve seen 28 no-hitters through five, 20 through six, and nine through seven, all record totals through this point in the year. As a percentage of games, no-hitters through five and six haven’t happened this frequently since 1968, and no-hitters through seven haven’t come this fast and furious since 1967. If it seems like you’ve heard about a new near no-hitter on a daily basis this season, you aren’t imagining things. Thus far, at least one team has been held hitless through five innings in 5.3 percent of games. At that rate, a no-hitter through five is more likely than not on any day with with a reasonably full slate of games.

Earlier this week, someone asked me, “Why are we seeing so many near no-hitters?” I answered, “It’s because there are no hits.” I was being glib, but a more detailed response boils down to the same thing. April was the first calendar month in major league history to feature more strikeouts than hits, and May is on track to be the second, albeit by a narrower margin. Thus far, 21.7 percent of plate appearances in 2018 have resulted in hits, which would be the fifth-lowest rate in history behind 1968, 1908, 1909, and 1967 — two pairs of consecutive seasons during the deadball era and what’s sometimes described as the second deadball era, which was fueled by a league-mandated expansion of the strike zone. It’s possible that this season’s unusually unbalanced league has led to more team-talent mismatches that are more likely to turn into no-hitters, and chance plays a role in any year’s totals, but the basic calculus is straightforward: When there are fewer hits, there are more no-hit innings and, in turn, more starts that are labeled no-hit bids.

The reason for the reduction in hits is equally logical. It’s not that hitters are coming up empty more often when they put the ball in play. This year’s .294 batting average on balls in play is higher than last year’s .292 through May 8 and as high as or higher than the MLB BABIPs through the same dates in six of the past 10 seasons. Even so, fewer at-bats are ending in hits: This year’s .244 batting average is the lowest through the same date of any season in that span, and anything under .251 would be the lowest full-season average of the DH era.

In 2004, the MLB batting average through May 8 was .265. The biggest culprit behind the 21-point drop since that season, to no The Ringer reader’s surprise, is the strikeout rate, which is up for the 13th consecutive season. This year’s K rate has risen to a record 22.7 percent of plate appearances, up from 21.5 percent through May 8 of last year and 21.6 percent for the full 2017 season.

Although the leaguewide strikeout rate is up for both starters and relievers, the chart below shows that starters’ strikeout rates have spiked especially sharply, narrowing the gap between the two roles. That’s partly a product of their roles having converged in another way: Starters are throwing a lower percentage of teams’ innings than ever, as the same image also reveals.

As more and more teams call for relievers earlier to avoid paying the “times through the order” penalty, starters have less and less cause to conserve speed and parcel out secondary pitches sparingly early in the game. That may be exacerbating the trend toward more strikeouts earlier in games: The leaguewide strikeout rate in innings one through six is up 1.5 percentage points this year compared to the same point last season, whereas the rate in innings seven through nine is up only 0.5 percentage points. That means many more no-hitters through the first several innings, but not as many more through eight or nine. This year’s rate of no-hitters through eight innings is only the 26th highest since 1921, when Retrosheet’s play-by-play data begins. Thanks to Paxton, Sean Manaea’s no-hit gem against Boston, and the Dodgers’ four-man no-hitter relay, the 2018 rate through nine innings — fueled by no-nos in all three North American countries — ranks 11th, which is still the highest since 1969.

If baseball’s latest trends hold — always a risky assumption — more no-hitters will be the comparatively boring combined kind, both because it takes more pitches than ever to complete the typical game (if not Paxton’s highly economical outing) and because managers are growing less willing with each passing season to let starters rack up high pitch counts, even when a no-no is on the line. In other words, we’ll be bombarded with “no-hitter” notifications midway through games but rarely get the satisfaction of seeing the same pitcher finish one off.

Granted, the so-called “near no-hitter” has always led to a lot of false alarms: Historically, no-hitters haven’t been 50–50 propositions until the eighth inning is over, and no-hitters through six have lasted three additional innings only 10 percent of the time. But not since the ’60s have we seen so many no-hit bids through five, six, and seven, and the fruitless no-hit attempts of that era didn’t demand our attention via Twitter and push notifications the way today’s do.

MLB’s At Bat app adds red “no-hitter” text to its scoreboard after five hitless innings and, like the Associated Press, starts sending out alerts after six. This year’s no-hit rate through seven innings is roughly in line with recent seasons’ rates through six, so if the current run environment persists or starts to skew even more extreme, news services may want to wait an extra inning before telling the world to drop what it’s doing and find a way to watch. Of course, the next no-no through six should be easy to ignore; these days, we can count on another arriving sometime soon.