The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The combined no-hitter isn’t a sign of baseball’s decay. It’s the opposite.

Cristian Javier threw six no-hit innings in Game 4 of the World Series. (Chris Szagola/AP)
5 min

In October 1956, I walked home from Peabody Elementary School on Capitol Hill to open our front door and discover my mother and a neighbor from across the street cheering as they watched our black-and-white TV.

Don Larsen had just thrown the last pitch of his perfect game in the World Series.

I missed that one, and the welling anticipation as Larsen’s feat grew. It took 66 years for a second chance.

As I watched the last inning of the Houston Astros’ four-pitcher no-hitter against the Philadelphia Phillies on my TV on Wednesday, I grinned. I covered 44 World Series, but sometimes it’s excellent just to watch, riveted, purely as a fan, without that nonstop typing.

But I missed the feeling in the park. What were fans saying as the innings passed and history crept closer?

“People were talking about the darn ‘pitch count’ and when [starting pitcher] Cristian Javier would get hooked, even during a World Series no-hitter,” said my friend Gary Klein, who took his family to the game. “Nobody would have taken Larsen out of his perfect game.

“It was a fabulous night. But why can’t modern pitchers ever pitch complete games? What would Warren Spahn say about this?”

Astros combine to no-hit the Phillies and knot the World Series

After a dramatic pause that I didn’t have the strength of character to resist, I said, “Well, I can tell you how Spahn explained it to me.”

After Gary stopped chuckling, he said, “That would do.”

Because Spahn, who threw 382 complete games — including 21, 22 and 22 complete games at ages 40, 41 and 42 — was a childhood hero of mine, I always sought him out at old-timers’ games, including some at RFK Stadium.

By then, with Spahn a senior citizen, the complete game was deep into its death dive and its demise much discussed. In 1960, the average team threw 42 complete games. By 1980, it was 33. Then suddenly, by 1990 that was cut in half to 16.5. Complete games were halved again to 7.8 per team by 2000. This year, the average team had 1.2.

We all know there are many reasons. Teams, correctly or not, think they preserve arms — and investments — by limiting pitches in each game and total innings in a year. Analytics prove that many pitchers lose effectiveness the third time facing a batting order, much less a fourth.

These, and other theories, play a part. But, long ago, Spahn told me how he thought the trend got started, why it grew and why it was probably inevitable, even proper.

For generations, Spahn explained, pitchers could cruise through entire chunks of an opposing lineup knowing that two or three or even four hitters, plus the pitcher, hit few home runs. So, maximum effort was not needed — just maximum control, plus changing speeds — in many situations. A mistake might mean a single.

That’s why, for a century, the phrase “reach back for something extra” was part of the game.

In 1952, MLB teams averaged 106 home runs. In ’72, 106. Nice coincidence. That was one sport. If your “heart of the order” had three men who averaged 25 homers, that meant the other six spots averaged something like five.

For the next 30 years, as more and more hitters developed home run power, a different sport was born. By 2002, teams were averaging 169 homers. This season, it was 174. If your three best sluggers combine for 75 to 90 homers, you may still face five other hitters who average 15 homers.

“The pitchers never get a chance to ‘cruise,’ ” Spahn said, because every inning demands reach-back effort.

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Jim Palmer, in different words, told me the same thing. He and Greg Maddux, among others, tried to ease the burden of their high inning totals by studying hitters to find out where their power zones were — then avoiding those spots and, at least with the bases empty, worrying about little else. Perhaps that was their semi-cruising.

These days, with everybody swinging hard and trying to “elevate to celebrate,” almost every pitch of every game is max effort.

In the Astros’ no-hitter, Javier used 97 pitches in six innings, an efficient total. But that still projects to 146 pitches for nine innings — or roughly 50 percent more than a normal modern starter’s average total.

To risk a pitcher of Javier’s present and future value for the sake of a no-hitter chase would be crazy. It’s not quite apples to apples, but nobody asked Larsen, Spahn or Palmer to throw 200 pitches.

Year after year, when I had Monday chats for The Washington Post, the most asked theory-of-the-game question was the same: What’s wrong with these gutless pitchers?


The task, and the stress, that they face in throwing 95 to 110 pitches to get through six or seven effective innings is, in my book, entirely comparable in baseball virtue to Spahn pitching 26 complete games in 1951. That year, the St. Louis Cardinals were a winning team. Stan Musial had 32 homers. The other seven everyday players averaged six.

So, to all those who saw this week’s thoroughly modern four-pitcher no-hitter in the World Series, don’t look for signs of the decay of civilization or even the diminishing of athletic heroism in baseball. We’re just watching change. Our newly minted no-hitter is just as worth celebrating, in its own terms, as the one in 1956.