Why more pitchers flirt with no-hitters
Around the seventh-inning stretch of Sunday's game in Chicago – at which point 39 outs had been recorded, without a hit by either team – you and I probably had the same two thoughts.
Gavin Floyd of the White Sox didn't complete the trick. Neither did Ted Lilly of the Cubs. But that doesn't change the fact that 2010 has become Year Zero in Major League Baseball.
Ubaldo Jimenez started it with a no-hitter on April 17.
Since then, we have witnessed three perfect games: Dallas Braden, Roy Halladay and Armando Galarraga. (I was there. It was perfect. Deal with it.)
By the way: Poor Ubaldo. He's pitching his way into the record books, with a 12-1 record and a 1.16 ERA. He threw the first no-hitter in Rockies history. And yet he doesn't own one of the three best pitching performances of the first half.
Already this year, 16 pitchers have taken a no-hitter into the seventh inning, according to STATS LLC. Since 1974, that’s tied for the second most, at this point in a season.
The most on that list? Last year, with 18.
After so many no-hit bids – some completed, others not – we can say that a trend has developed. And if you're looking for a tidy explanation, you've come to the wrong sport.
My opinion? Testing for performance-enhancing drugs and amphetamines (that's the biggie) has plenty to do with this. But it would be short-sighted to say that PED testing is the primary reason for the brilliance of Braden, Halladay, Galarraga and Jimenez.
If a decline in PED and amphetamine use is the sole driving force, then why didn't we see a similar no-hitter explosion in 2005 – the first season of penalty-enforced testing?
Care to guess how many no-hitters there were in the majors that year?
Ironically, MLB witnessed seven no-hitters in 1991, during the early days of the Steroid Era. That year, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire both took 0-for-3's in a combined no-hitter by the Orioles. So it was still possible to dominate hitters who were cheating.
That being said, the effects of current drug testing are undeniable. Home runs have become fly outs. Batters feel less invincible. Swings have more holes. And in many afternoon games, hitters who played nine innings the night before drag their bats to the plate and face a pitcher who has been resting and preparing for four days.
Those were the days when hitters popped greenies to stay focused. No more.
"I think no steroids helps," Dodgers reliever George Sherrill said. "The game is much cleaner. Video and scouting reports help. And it's hard hitting a round ball with a round bat."
"The easy answer is that it's getting back to being even on the field," said Todd Jones, the longtime Tigers closer. "That's the only thing that's been taken out of the picture."
We can't deny that the game has changed over the last five years, because of reasons related and unrelated to PED testing.
As Sherrill pointed out, advanced video and scouting data enable pitchers to study for starts as if they were the California bar exam. (Halladay is famous for his comprehensive pitch plans.) Hitters have access to similar data but must get ready for a different pitcher every day. Starting pitchers have four days in between starts to scrutinize video of themselves and the opposition.
"It favors pitchers more than hitters," one player agent said of statistical systems such as Inside Edge and BATS. "Some organizations are accumulating information even before hitters make it to the majors."
Starters are also using a broader repertoire of pitches. Words like "sink" and "cut" and "late life" have entered the fan vernacular. We hear analysts say that a pitcher is keeping the opposition "off balance." Braden and Galarraga are among the starters who rely more on movement than sheer stuff. The same is true of White Sox left-hander Mark Buehrle, who threw a perfect game last year.
It's hard to guess and hit at the same time. As Marlins pitcher Burke Badenhop put it: "No-hitters usually fall into the good-pitching-and-defense category, rather than poor hitting."
But maybe the best explanation straddles the line between the PED crusade and baseball's natural evolution.
As the Steroid Era waned, general managers began placing a greater emphasis on pitching and defense. This happened for several reasons. 1) Run prevention had been undervalued. 2) Young players who don't hit much but play good defense are usually inexpensive. 3) Teams are leery of signing old sluggers who could decline quickly in the absence of PEDs and amphetamines.
The net result: There are fewer power threats at the plate and more capable defenders in the field. Both of those trends help pitchers.
Think back to the Buehrle perfecto. Dewayne Wise's spectacular catch in center field comes to mind immediately, doesn't it?
Well, Wise has changed organizations seven times. His best attributes are positional versatility and a great glove (obviously). Those skills might have been overlooked in the Steroid Era. If Buehrle had been pitching his perfect game in 1995, there's no guarantee that a superb defender like Wise would have been playing center field behind him – or in the major leagues at all.
The gems by Jimenez (Dexter Fowler) and Galarraga (Austin Jackson) included similarly brilliant plays in center field.
"You hear more and more about the value of defense these days," Braves reliever Eric O'Flaherty said. "Teams are really making a point to put stronger defensive teams out there. A lot of teams are unwilling to put a poor defender on the field just because he can hit. That is one aspect where I think the game has changed a lot in the past few years."
The roster spots that once belonged to power threats off the bench are now occupied by fleet no-hitter preservationists. But let's not forget that it's really, really hard to retire 27 major-league hitters without allowing a hit – or baserunner, in some cases.
We'll be able to make a more complete assessment of Year Zero in October. By then, baseball's aces and fifth starters might have pushed the season total beyond the seven no-nos witnessed 19 years ago. In the meantime, I would urge you stick around the ballpark or in front of the TV until both teams have a hit.