Pitchers are better than ever. Hitters seem worse than ever. With six no-hitters by May 19, baseball is two away from tying the full-season record, which was set in 1884.
It had been less than 24 hours since Spencer Turnbull of the Detroit Tigers completed baseball’s fifth no-hitter of the 2021 season when Corey Kluber of the Yankees threw the sixth.
The pitchers have remarkably different pedigrees — Turnbull led the majors in losses two seasons ago and Kluber has won two A.L. Cy Young Awards — but their achievements were celebrated with the same bells and whistles of a typical no-hitter: Wire services sent news alerts, MLB.com gave their box scores special badges, and the players celebrated wildly with teammates — or at least as wildly as Kluber, nicknamed Klubot for his stoicism, is capable of.
Turnbull, though, was very obviously elated.
“It is by far the best night of my life, most exciting, and it’s definitely kind of like one of those landmark stamps on my career up to this point,” he said in a postgame video conference from Seattle in the early hours of Wednesday.
Those two no-hitters, and the four before them this season, have raised questions about how baseball could already have so many no-hitters so early in the year, and why they seem to be occurring at such an extraordinary rate.
Who has thrown a no-hitter this season?
Joe Musgrove, San Diego Padres (April 9 vs. Texas Rangers): In throwing the first no-hitter in his franchise’s long history, Musgrove allowed only one base runner, on a hit-by-pitch. He threw 112 pitches, but Manager Jayce Tingler was determined to let him see it through. “He was in control,” Tingler said. “After the seventh inning, that’s when we kind of put all the chips in. For Joe, for the team, for the organization, for the city that hadn’t had a no-hitter before, at that point you throw everything out the window and you roll with it and see where it lays out.” (Box Score)
Carlos Rodon, Chicago White Sox (April 14 vs. Cleveland): Rodon was two outs from baseball’s 24th perfect game when he hit Roberto Perez with a pitch. “It just feels good to finally sit here and tell you I dominated today, and it felt good,” Rodon said. “I’ve never really done that. I’ve never done that on this level at least, and it feels good to say I did it.” (Box Score)
John Means, Baltimore Orioles (May 5 vs. Seattle Mariners): Like Musgrove, Means was breaking a long streak for his franchise: No Baltimore starter had thrown a no-hitter on their own since Jim Palmer did so in 1969. Means had never thrown a complete game and said later that he found himself nervous in the ninth inning. “I got a little bit of the Jell-O legs, started to feel a little wobbly,” he said. “But once I threw that first pitch, I was able to lock in again.” (Box Score)
Wade Miley, Cincinnati Reds (May 8 vs. Cleveland): Miley had to wait out an 83-minute rain delay before getting started, but he needed only 2 hours 34 minutes to record baseball’s fourth no-hitter of the season. “He put on a clinic,” Cleveland Manager Terry Francona said. (Box Score)
Spencer Turnbull, Detroit Tigers (May 18 vs. Seattle): He said he did not feel right at all to start the game, but Turnbull, who led the majors in losses in 2019, made quick work of the Mariners, striking out nine and allowing only two base runners on walks. “It got to a point I think the last four innings, I don’t know if he shook one time,” catcher Eric Haase said. “We were just in really great sync and whatever I was putting down he was throwing and he was executing.” (Box Score)
Corey Kluber, Yankees (May 19 vs. Texas): A four-pitch walk to Charlie Culberson in the third inning was all that stood between Kluber and perfection. But Kluber, in his first season in pinstripes after throwing only one inning for Texas last year because of injury, still managed the Yankees’ first no-hitter since David Cone’s perfect game in 1999. “There’s a lot of things that have to go your way,” Kluber said. “It’s definitely cool to do it in this uniform.” (Box Score)
Wait, didn’t Madison Bumgarner throw one?
Sort of! Bumgarner, the former ace (and three-time World Series winner) of the San Francisco Giants shut out Atlanta on April 25, and allowed no hits in the process. But because of doubleheader rules developed last season, the game was limited to seven innings. A 1991 ruling intended to eliminate rain-shortened no-hitters and other oddities made throwing at least nine complete innings a requirement for a game to be recognized as a no-hitter. Bumgarner’s game will instead be classified as a “notable achievement.”
“I didn’t give up any hits today,” Bumgarner said. “I’m not in control of how many innings we’re playing.”
What is going on?
A number of factors are in play leading to the surge of no-hitters. Chief among them are an emphasis on power pitching and batters’ having shown a willingness to sell out contact in order to increase power. Those factors, plus surgical deployment of high-quality relievers, has resulted in strange numbers across the board.
Teams were averaging 7.83 hits per game through May 18 — the second lowest mark in baseball history behind 1908, according to Baseball Reference — and were striking out a record 8.97 times a game. As a result, batters were hitting a record-low .236 and scoring was down overall for a second consecutive season.
Another factor that has to be considered is control. Complete games are almost entirely a thing of the past — there have been only 14 this season, and there have been fewer than 40 in each season since 2014 — but the six pitchers who have thrown a no-hitter this season have kept their pitch counts low by employing remarkable control. Turnbull walked two batters and Miley and Kluber each walked one. The other three pitchers who threw a no-hitter this season didn’t issue a single free pass.
Factor in colder weather in April and May, a new baseball, advanced defensive positioning and other changes in the game and it has seemingly become a recipe for no-hitters becoming a common occurrence.
But you can’t discount simple variance. While no-hitters come at a fairly predictable rate over long periods of time, they have frequently come in clumps and then gone long stretches without one.
This has to be a record pace, right?
Six no-hitters through May 19 edges 1917 for the fastest start in major league history. That season baseball raced to its fifth no-hitter by May 6 — despite not starting the season until April 11 — but did not get a sixth no-hitter until June 23.
With teams not having reached even 50 games each this season, and the season scheduled to go a full 162, matching the modern record of seven no-hitters (shared by multiple seasons) seems within reach, as does the overall record of eight, which was set in 1884.
But nothing is certain no matter how quickly no-hitters pile up. Baseball raced to five no-hitters in 1917, but finished with just six. That last no-hitter was certainly memorable: Babe Ruth of the Boston Red Sox walked the first batter of the game, got ejected for arguing balls and strikes (and struck the umpire behind the ear in an epic tantrum), only to have reliever Ernie Shore erase the base runner on a caught stealing before retiring all 26 batters he faced.
Do only the most dominant pitchers throw no-hitters?
Hardly. While Nolan Ryan was the most unhittable pitcher in major league history, and threw a record seven no-hitters, other dominant pitchers failed to throw one despite similar credentials — most notably Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Steve Carlton and Grover Cleveland Alexander.
Among the current superstars who have yet to throw one: Gerrit Cole of the Yankees, Cleveland’s Shane Bieber, Zack Greinke of the Houston Astros, and Jacob deGrom of the Mets.
Meanwhile, Mike Fiers, a fairly uninspiring veteran for the Oakland Athletics, has thrown two.
Where are the perfect games?
With all of these no-hitters it would seem logical that a perfect game would be mixed in, but baseball is in a strangely long stretch without one. Both Carlos Rodon and John Means came tantalizingly close to perfection this season, but Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners threw baseball’s last perfect game on Aug. 15, 2012. That stretch of nearly nine years is the longest between perfect games since the gap of 13 years 7 days between Catfish Hunter’s masterpiece on May 8, 1968 and Len Barker’s on May 15, 1981.
What is Kyle Seager’s secret?
Seattle, Cleveland and Texas have each been no-hit twice already this season, but things are starting to get weird for Kyle Seager, the Mariners’ third baseman. As Christopher Kamka noted on Twitter, Seager has now been involved in nine no-hitters in his 11-season career:
Of course, Seager’s odds of being involved in no-hitters are helped by the fact that his team was hitting a major league-worst .199 through May 18.