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Saturday, March 16, 2013

How Big A Deal Is A No-Hitter?

Pitchers only retire batters they strike out.  The other players retire the batters who put the ball in play except for those rare occasions when a pitcher actually makes a fielding play.  So how valuable are pitchers and how should their performances be evaluated?

June 1, 2012 Johan Santana became the first Met pitcher to throw a no-hitter: 8-0 against St. Louis in New York.  Met manager Terry Collins let Santana throw 134 pitches even though Santana missed the entire 2011 season with a bad arm.  It is inconceivable that Collins would have let Santana throw 134 pitches in any other regular season circumstance.  Collins must have valued that no-hitter beyond its actual value to the team.  With the Mets leading 8-0 after seven innings, Santana did not need to pitch the last two innings.  Santana benefited from a missed call by an umpire on a ball that clearly hit the foul line and would have been a hit.  Check Santana's 2012 game log.  His final appearance was August 17.  Santana's ERA had risen from 2.38 after his no-hitter to 4.85.

June 13, 2012 in Tampa Met knuckleball pitcher RA Dickey threw 106 pitches and allowed one hit in nine innings as the Mets beat the Rays 9-1.  B.J. Upton was awarded a single in the first inning on what appeared to be an error by Met thirdbaseman David Wright.  Collins wants the Major Baseball League (MBL) to overturn the official scorer’s decision.  Aside from Collins possibly being a bit unbalanced, he must value a no-hitter way more than the accomplishment deserves.

Matt Cain of the Giants pitched a perfect game June 13, 2012: 10-0 against Houston.    Cain threw 125 pitches and the Giants led 10-0 after five innings, so like Santana, Cain could have been pulled much earlier except that his manager, Bruce Bochy, wanted to give him a chance to throw the perfect game.  Cain benefited from a great diving catch by his right fielder and a good catch by his center fielder in very deep left center.
Are these pitching oddities such a big deal?  June 14, 2012 a poll was put up asking fans to choose the most impressive pitching performance.  Among the choices were a 20 strike out game and the perfect game thrown by Don Larsen of the Yankees in Yankee Stadium against the Brooklyn Dodgers in game five of the 1956 World Series.  The Yanks won 2-0 on a solo home run by Mickey Mantle in the fourth and a single by Hank Bauer in the sixth.  Larsen threw 97 pitches.  Yankee manager Casey Stengel needed to win that game as the series was tied 2-2.  Stengel was not concerned whether Larsen got credit for a perfect game, a term with which Larsen was not even familiar after the game.  Larsen benefited from a great catch by Mantle in left center against Gil Hodges and a ricochet off third baseman Andy Carey to shortstop Gil McDougald who threw out Jackie Robinson. Also, Duke Snider hit a long foul home run.
In 1999 I attended the perfect game at Yankee Stadium by David Cone against the Montreal Expos.  Remember them?  The Yankees were holding a Yogi Berra Day and for some reason invited Larsen to attend.  It was great theater as Cone battled oppressive heat and a rain delay.  Cone benefited from a great catch by Paul O’Neill early in the game.
The way to evaluate a no-hitter is to determine the batting average of the players in the game.  For a perfect game use the on base percentage.  More difficult is to determine which of these to use for each individual batter: career, season, one calendar year, one month, one week, …?
But a massive number of strike outs seems to me to be much more of an accomplishment for the pitcher who actually retired those batters without any help.  Even then other circumstances need to be considered.  Outs on the bases reduces the number of batters to be retired as would a losing effort in which the pitcher did not pitch the bottom of the ninth inning.  Also, how many times did the pitcher face opposing pitchers?  And how strike out prone were the batters?  A small hitter’s park helps boost the strike out total as it is more difficult for batters to foul out and long flies either hit or go over close fences in the outfield rather than get caught on the warning track.

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