If it seems like every other day someone is flirting with a no-hitter, and every other week someone is completing one, it isn’t simply your imagination. Some six weeks into the 2018 season, Major League Baseball has already witnessed three no-hitters — one each in the United States, Mexico and Canada — and a nearly unprecedented rate of late-inning bids.
It is perhaps a silver lining of sorts — a more-than-occasional jolt of excitement, announced in push-notifications on smartphones and scrolls across the bottom of televisions (“No-hitter alert!”) — to an otherwise bleak and alarming trend taking over the game: the rise of strikeouts, the decline of hits and the sheer dearth of balls in play.
And it is probably not a fluke of random clustering. It may be here to stay.
Three no-hitters by the second week of May is something baseball hasn’t seen since 1969 (when the pitchers were Montreal’s Jim Stoneman, Cincinnati’s Jim Maloney and Houston’s Don Wilson), and it already gives us more no-hitters than were thrown in 2016 (one) and 2017 (one) combined.
As for no-hit bids, entering Friday there have already been 20 instances of a no-hitter carried into the seventh inning, or one every 27.6 games, a rate not seen since 1968 — the fabled “Year of the Pitcher,” in which Bob Gibson won the National League ERA title with a 1.12, Carl Yastrzemski won the American League batting title at .301, and MLB responded by lowering the mound in a bid to boost offense. Last year, by comparison, there were only 24 no-hit bids of six or more innings over the course of the entire season, or one every 101.3 games.
The record for no-hitters in a season is seven, achieved four times in the modern era — two in this decade (2012 and 2015). This year, almost a quarter into the season, we’re on pace for 12.
It isn’t difficult to see what is behind the trend: Hitters are striking out this year at a rate of 22.7 percent of all plate appearances, the highest in history and the 18th straight year with an increase. Meantime, the leaguewide batting average of .245 (down 10 points from 2017 and 26 points from 1999) is at a 46-year low. April 2018 was the first month in baseball history in which strikeouts exceeded hits, and May is on its way to being second.
In 2010, 72.2 percent of plate appearances ended with a ball put in play (i.e., anything besides a walk, strikeout, hit-by-pitch or home run). This year, the rate is 66.6 percent.
More strikeouts plus fewer balls in play equals fewer hits — which, in turn, equals more no-hitters and late-inning, no-hit bids.
Two of this year’s no-hitters were individual tours de force — the April 21 gem in Oakland by Sean Manaea, in which the A’s left-hander no-hit the mighty Boston Red Sox while striking out 10; and the May 8 no-no in Toronto by Seattle Mariners lefty James Paxton, who needed only 99 pitches to complete the task and who touched 100 mph with his fastball in the bottom of the ninth.
But as a symbol for where baseball is in 2018, and where it appears to be heading, the May 4 no-hitter in a game in Monterrey, Mexico, is perhaps most instructive. In that game, Los Angeles Dodgers rookie right-hander Walker Buehler and three relievers — Tony Cingrani, Yimi Garcia and Adam Libertore — teamed up to hold the San Diego Padres hitless across nine innings, combining to issue five walks and strike out 13 batters.
That’s the type of no-hitter we’re likely to see more of in the future. With starting pitchers throwing fewer innings than ever (an average of roughly 5 1/3 innings this season), and teams less willing than ever to allow their starters to face a lineup more than twice in a game, the tag-team no-hitter may become the norm.
(The rise in strikeouts also plays into this trend, as strikeouts generally require more pitches than other outs, contributing to the leaguewide rise in pitches per plate appearance — an average of 3.91, the highest on record — and the rising pitch-counts for starters in the late innings. Put simply, it requires more pitches now to complete a no-hitter than it used to, and managers are less willing than ever to allow starters to throw so many pitches.)
Not so long ago, it would have been almost unheard of to remove a starting pitcher six or seven innings into a no-hitter or perfect game. But this season, there have already been five instances of a manager yanking his starter with an active no-hitter entering the seventh.
Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts has done it at least three times in the past three years. In 2016, he pulled Ross Stripling in the eighth inning of a no-hitter — perhaps understandably, as it was Stripling’s big league debut — and later that same year, he pulled veteran lefty Rich Hill seven innings into a perfect game.
When Buehler, on May 4, reached 93 pitches at the end of the sixth inning — in what was only his third big league start and 11th appearance, Roberts called the decision to pull him “a no-brainer.” Few managers in the game today would have done any differently.
“This one was probably the easiest,” Roberts told reporters.
A four-man no-hitter, capped by a reliever who has barely had time to break a sweat, is nowhere near as exciting as an individual effort by a starting pitcher on his ninth inning of work, approaching 100 or 120 pitches, the tension building across the stadium, the pitcher’s teammates studiously avoiding him in the dugout, the announcers carefully avoiding the words that might jinx him.
And the payoff, when the gem is complete, is nowhere near as satisfying. Whom do you even jump on? The closer who finished it off with maybe 15 pitches? Or the starter who threw the first six innings, but watched the rest from the dugout?
But that’s where baseball is in 2018. And like rising strikeout rates and fewer balls in play, it is something we’re probably going to have to get used to.