It was well after midnight on the East Coast when Spencer Turnbull of the Detroit Tigers delivered a 94.7 mile-an-hour fastball to Mitch Haniger of the Seattle Mariners that he tipped into Eric Haase’s mitt for the 27th out in baseball’s fifth no-hitter this season.
The event inspired the typical bells and whistles of a no-hitter: Wire services sent news alerts, MLB.com gave the game’s box score a special badge and Turnbull, a 28-year-old right-hander who led the majors in losses two seasons ago, was justifiably thrilled.
“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,” Turnbull said in a postgame video conference.
But the no hitter, and those before it this season, raised questions about how baseball could already have five 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?
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. An emphasis on power pitching, surgical deployment of high-quality relievers and batters’ having shown a willingness to sell out contact in order to increase power have resulted in strange numbers across the board.
Teams are averaging 7.83 hits per game through May 18 — the second lowest mark in baseball history behind 1908, according to Baseball Reference — and are striking out a record 8.97 times a game. As a result, batters are hitting a record-low .236 and scoring is 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 13 this season, and there have been fewer than 40 in each season since 2014 — but the five 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 walked one. The other three pitchers who threw a no-hitter this season didn’t issue a single free pass.
And 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?
Five no-hitters through May 18 is actually a slower pace than baseball had in 1917, when the fifth no-hitter of the season came on May 6 despite that season not starting until April 11 — 10 days later than this season began. Bob Groom’s magical day on May 6 of that season — he threw two no-hit innings in the first game of a doubleheader and then nine more in the second game — was the third no-hitter in a span of five days.
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 seems within reach, as does the overall record of eight, which was set in 1884.
But nothing is certain no matter what the current pace is. After baseball got to five no-hitters so quickly in 1917, there was only one more the rest of the season. That lone game 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 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?
Both Seattle and Cleveland have 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 is hitting a major league-worst .199 through May 18.