Sometimes, the simplest explanation is the valid one: The number of hits per game in the major leagues has plummeted, so no-hitters are on the rise.
Even so, this season has been a bit extreme.
Spencer Turnbull’s gem Tuesday night was the major leagues’ fifth no-hitter this year, and 2021 is on pace to obliterate the modern record of seven no-hitters in a season. Cleveland and Seattle have already been no-hit twice each, and of the 20 complete games that have been pitched this season, a quarter of them have been no-hitters.
Of the five pitchers who have thrown one, only two have been All-Stars — John Means in 2019 and Wade Miley back in 2012. It’s enough to make these no-hitters feel almost ... routine?
“I think it’s still really hard,” said Texas manager Chris Woodward, who was on the losing end when Joe Musgrove threw the first no-hitter in San Diego Padres history last month. “It’s one of the hardest things to do in sports. Any time it’s happening, any game I’m watching ... if a guy has a no-hitter through four, I’m always kind of like intrigued.”
It’s hard to separate all these no-hitters from the context of what baseball looks like in 2021. Entering Wednesday, there was an average of 7.83 hits per team in a game. Only one season has ended with a lower figure, in 1908, during the dead ball era. The other seasons when hits were the scarcest were 1968, remembered as the Year of the Pitcher, and dead ball seasons of 1909 and 1907.
Remarkably, there wasn’t a single no-hitter in 1909 and only two in 1907. But there were six in 1908 and five in 1968.
The highest hits per game average since 1900 was in 1930 at 10.37 per team. Next up were 1925, 1921, 1936 and 1929. Not surprisingly, there were only two no-hitters combined in those five seasons.
“My instincts tell me the pitching is getting better,” said Cincinnati Reds manager David Bell, whose team produced one of this year’s no-hitters when Miley threw his May 7. “The hitting is too, but I do think that the way the arms are, the velocity the pitchers are throwing, the ability to spin the ball incredibly well, it’s just a tough combination. And you get a guy on a good night when he’s locked in, the scouting reports have gotten more exact, and it can make for a tough night.”
One of the more unusual stretches for no-hitters came between 1988 and 1992. During that stretch, the hits per game numbers stayed between 8.62 and 8.75 every season, but the number of no-hitters varied widely. There was one in 1988, followed by zero in 1989, then seven each in 1990 and 1991. Then it was back to just one in 1992.
From 2002-06, there were only five no-hitters. In that 2006 season, teams averaged 9.28 hits per game. That number has steadily decreased since then, and no-hitters have been more common. There were seven each in 2012 and 2015.
In this era of hard-throwing relievers and fewer complete games, you might expect more combined no-hitters, but this year’s have all been solo efforts.
“I think the surprising thing is that, you know, maybe in the age of pitchers not going 100 pitches, that they’re actually being able to finish these games off. Because typically nowadays it’s hard for a guy to get through six innings with less than 100 pitches,” Woodward said. “That’s probably more surprising to me. And there hasn’t been a 160-pitch no-hitter yet, which is like gut-wrenching for a manager. I can’t even imagine having to deal with that.”
The number of strikeouts hasn’t really been out of the ordinary in these no-hitters, and that might be part of the reason pitch counts weren’t out of control. The average number of strikeouts in this year’s no-hitters has been 9.2. Carlos Rodón of the Chicago White Sox had only seven in his no-hitter against Cleveland last month.
Perhaps the trend will subside a bit, but as long as hits are this hard to come by, a no-hitter will be a constant possibility. The question is whether these feats will still draw as much attention.
“Every time you get close, that excitement, you can feel it in the dugout — I hope that never leaves,” Kansas City manager Mike Matheny said. “There’s some excitement when you see, you know, this is tracking really well, we’ve had some really great plays, the innings are going by, maybe this could happen. I really hope fans don’t start to think it’s common.”