Putting No Hitters Into The Shredder

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

A couple of weeks ago, Homer Bailey threw a no-hitter and almost everyone celebrated with the usual joy. I was among them. No hitters are fun and I love them for their drama and their rarity. One voice, however, stood out, not in opposition to Bailey, but it opposition to the attention given to no-hitters.

Brian Kenny made the case on Twitter and on MLB Now that no-hitters are not, by definition, the best set of starts even though that’s how most people treat them. Pitchers are trying to prevent runs and to prevent runs you want to limit baserunners. Baserunners reach via hits, walks, and HBPs and we shouldn’t place special focus on one type of way that hitters reach base. A one hit shutout is, according to Kenny (and basic logic) a much better performance than a 6 walk no-hitter.

Kenny is essentially making the other side of the batting average versus OBP argument. Getting on base is what matters for hitters, keeping guys off the bases is what matters for pitchers. He’s right. The quality of the start should be judged by baserunners rather than type of baserunner. I’m on board.

But no-hitters can still be celebrated for their rarity. Kenny makes the point that we shouldn’t celebrate no-hitters as much when the pitcher allows many baserunners because 6 walks is not better than 2 hits and 0 walks. I’m going to take a slightly different path. I’m going to argue we should celebrate no-hitters, but also the other great performances that aren’t no-hitters. We should recalibrate how we treat no-hitters, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t impressive. Five walks are bad, but it’s still really hard to not allow any hits.

Let’s go inside the numbers.

Most No-Hitters Are Great

Since 1916, there have been 204 no-hitters in MLB and all of our data will carry from 1916 through Saturday (7/13/2013) and will focus only on complete games. Let’s start with the number of baserunners allowed in each no hitter in MLB history:

Baserunners % of All No Hitters Count
0 10.3 21
1 20.6 42
2 17.6 36
3 14.7 30
4 14.2 29
5 7.8 16
6 5.4 11
7 3.9 8
8 3.4 7
9 0.5 1
10 1 2
11 0.5 1

What you can see here is that while some no-hitters aren’t great performances, most no hitters are excellent. 85% of all no-hitters contain 5 or fewer baserunners allowed with the average number of baserunners allowed coming in a 3.03 with a standard deviation of 2.31. What those numbers tell us is that most no-hitters are elite starts and only occasionally worthy of criticism.

But Many Equally Great Starts Aren’t No-Hitters

If you just looked at those numbers, you’d probably feel comfortable celebrating no-hitters because most no-hitters are, in fact, great starts. But there is another side that you don’t see with those numbers. What comes next is what percentage of complete games with a given number of baserunners are no hitters:

Baserunners NH/CG %
0 100.000
1 30.435
2 7.725
3 2.591
4 1.234
5 0.399
6 0.181
7 0.103
8 0.077
9 0.010
10 0.022
11 0.013

This is a more troubling table. We can all agreed that perfect games are great, but aside from that these numbers tell us something else. What you see here is that, for example, 70% of all CG in which a starter allows 1 baserunner aren’t no-hitters. And it gets worse as we move down the list. 92% of all 2 baserunner starts don’t get recognized as no hitters. It’s 97% at 3 baserunners.

If we sit back and agree we should judge pitchers on baserunners allowed, no-hitters are quite deceptive. We’re leaving out a ton of great starts because a pitcher allowed a hit instead of a walk even though they allowed the same number of men to reach base. This is compelling evidence. If we’re looking at the game holistically, no-hitters are interesting because allowing no hits is very rare, but focusing on them is wrong because they make up such a small fraction of each set of complete games.

It’s really rare to see a no-hitter, and it’s rare to see no-hitters that aren’t excellent performances. But there are a ton of starts that are equally as valuable as no-hitters that get far less attention. Let’s put the numbers side by side.

Baserunners NH Non NH CG
0 21 0
1 42 96
2 36 430
3 30 1128
4 29 2321
5 16 3999
6 11 6079
7 8 7734
8 7 9121
9 1 9620
10 2 9070
11 1 7924

There are 96 1 hitters in MLB history with no other baserunners allowed. Those are better starts than the 29 no hitters with 4 baserunners allowed, but they don’t get the attention they deserve. 430 times a pitcher has allowed 2 baserunners in a start and not gotten credit for a no-hitter while 36 pitchers who had essentially the same outing are credited with no-hitters.

“So, Tell Me What To Think.”

I’m not anti-no-hitter. I love them and they are a lot of fun, but when you take a look at these numbers, you can easily see that we’re celebrating something because it’s rare, not necessarily because it’s the best. Plenty of starts that aren’t no hitters are better than starts that were no hitters, even before we look at strikeouts and great defensive plays.

Kenny is making a very good point when he tells you not to be bound by the statistics of the 1880s. Walks aren’t outs in disguise. They are valuable offensive tools and shouldn’t be brushed aside as meaningless for pitchers. No-hitters are a rare subset of starts, but they are not by definition, the best starts. Plenty of pitchers have thrown 2 hit shutouts who never got to celebrate like Tim Lincecum did when he allowed 5 baserunners. All I’m asking is that you give those guys some credit too.

You don’t have to stop enjoying no-hitters. In fact, you should enjoy them just the same. Baseball is fun and is meant to captivate you. I love no-hitters because they can vanish on every pitch. You can see walks coming when the pitcher allows the 3 ball. They’re super important, but are much less dramatic.

All told, the evidence tells us that no-hitters shouldn’t be revered as great starts, but rather as particularly interesting ones. We should also give more credit to great starts in which pitchers allow hits because those guys are getting short changed. A one hit shutout with 10 strikeouts is an amazing start. A 4 walk no hitters with 4 strikeouts is just very good.

Consider each start in isolation. Allowing no hits is difficult, but if you walk a bunch of batters, you’re not doing your job. What Kenny is really asking you to do is to think for yourself and to analyze the world around you. No-hitters are fun and usually great. But not always. And non no-hitters are sometimes better. You can judge for yourself. The following lines are from Saturday. I know which I’d take if you asked which was better.

Greinke: 9 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 9 K (110 pitches) vs Colorado

Lincecum: 9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 4 BB, 1 HBP, 13 K (148 pitches) vs SD

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