Lincecum no-hitting Padres twice in 12 months seemed improbable

Other pitchers who have thrown two, but only two, no-hitters, Homer Bailey, Mark Buehrle, Jim Bunning, Steve Busby, Carl Erskine, Bob Forsch, Roy Halladay, Ken Holtzman, Randy Johnson, Addie Joss, Dutch Leonard, Tim Lincecum, Jim Maloney, Christy Mathewson, Hideo Nomo, Allie Reynolds, Frank Smith, Warren Spahn, Bill Stoneman, Virgil Trucks, Johnny Vander Meer, Justin Verlander and Don Wilson.

An abbreviated list of pitchers who threw exactly one no-hitter: Bert Blyleven, Kevin Brown, David Cone, Bob Gibson, Dwight Gooden, Carl Hubbell, Juan Marichal, Jack Morris, Phil Niekro, Jim Palmer, Gaylord Perry, Bret Saberhagen, Johan Santana, Mike Scott, Dave Stieb, Fernando Valenzuela, Dazzy Vance, and David Wells.

Dizzy Dean never threw a no-hitter. His brother Paul did. Whitey Ford never threw a no-hitter. Don Larsen did. Roger Clemens never threw a no-hitter. Jim Abbott did. Neither Greg Maddux nor Tom Glavine nor John Smoltz ever threw a no-hitter. Kent Mercker and Kevin Millwood did.

Within less than 365 days, Lincecum pitched two no-hitters against the San Diego Padres. The Padres have existed for nearly 45-and-a-half seasons, and have never thrown a no-hitter; they’re 0 for 7,245.

In that same span, they’ve been no-hit nine times, by Lincecum (twice), Jonathan Sánchez, Bud Smith, A.J. Burnett, Phil Niekro, Milt Pappas, Dock Ellis, and the baseball Ghidra known popularly as Mercker, Mark Wohlers and Alejandro Peña.

In that same span, San Diego’s starting pitchers have thrown 28 one-hitters. Most recently, Andrew Cashner spun two one-hitters between Lincecum’s two no-hitters.

Yeah, this stuff gets pretty weird.

Considering that Lincecum has struck out 25 percent of the batters he’s faced in his career, though, it’s really not so terribly surprising that he’s pitched a couple of no-hitters. What’s surprising is that he’s pitched them recently, with his strikeout rate around 22-23 percent, and not earlier in his career, when he was striking out closer to 30 percent of the batters he faced.

There is, I suppose, a well-paid — and coiffed — baseball analyst somewhere, right now, arguing that Lincecum’s second no-hitter in less than one year suggests a return to form.

Anything is possible. Most things are improbable. This is one of those things.

After his no-hitter last season, Lincecum posted a 4.54 ERA in 13 starts. He finished the season with a 4.37 ERA, which used to be good. But when considering today’s general environment, along with Lincecum’s home ballpark, you find that 4.37 wasn’t good at all. He was, according to at least one measure, not even a replacement-level pitcher.

This season, even after throwing this second no-hitter, he’s got a 4.42 ERA. Almost exactly the same as last year. His strikeout and walk rates are almost exactly the same as last year. His home run rate, too. He’s throwing the same pitches as last year, at the same speeds. Essentially, he used to throw 92 and now he’s throwing 90, and he’s throwing slightly fewer fastballs and slightly more sliders because the fastball’s not so good.

All of which seems to be working well enough … except for some (strange?) reason, he keeps giving up a high percentage of homers on his flyballs. Now, if you want to argue that Lincecum’s suffering a three-year run of bad luck on flyballs, fine … But I hope you’re not one of the people who denied for years that Matt Cain was not getting lucky on his flyballs allowed.

Because you can’t have it both ways. Or at least I don’t think you can. If you think pitchers are going to give up homers on 10 percent of their flyballs, it has to apply to the guys who seem lucky and the guys who don’t.

Among the 63 pitchers with at least 400 innings over these last three seasons, Lincecum has the sixth-highest HR/FB ratio: 13.3 percent. The four pitchers with higher percentages: Ervin Santana (15.0), Hisashi Iwakuma (14.0), CC Sabathia (13.8), Mike Leake (13.7) and Yovani Gallardo (13.5). If you see any particular commonality among these pitchers, other than probably poor luck, please let me know.

What’s frustrating about this argument, though? We said the same thing about Lincecum after 2012, when his HR/FB ratio was 14.6 percent. We said the same thing about Lincecum after 2013, when it was 12.1 percent. Should we say it again now, when it’s around 13 percent?

Yes, we should. We should probably keep saying that Lincecum, while far from a great pitcher, remains good enough to start every fifth day for a lot of teams. We should probably keep saying that while Lincecum doesn’t really deserve the $17 million he’s earning this season or the $18 million he’ll make next season — exactly what were the Giants thinking, anyway? — he might well continue making a very good living after 2015, assuming that he can arrest the decline in the speed of his pitches.

Of course, it’s also possible that Lincecum really is systemically prone to giving up home runs, in which case he doesn’t really belong in the major leagues. Not as a starter, anyway. Which means he’ll probably never throw another no-hitter.

Which seems improbable. But not nearly as improbable as him throwing two no-hitters against a team that’s never thrown one, itself.