Another Unique and Wondrous No-Hitter, Just Like Yesterday

For the better part of five years, Corey Kluber was borderline unhittable. At his double-Cy-Young peak, he was a one-man dead ball era, putting up a 2.85 ERA even as offensive numbers exploded across the league. Though he never closed the deal, he felt like a threat to pitch a no-hitter every time he started.

Kluber isn’t the same pitcher he once was. His walk rate is nearly double where it sat in those halcyon years; his strikeout rate has declined. His fastball doesn’t always crest 90 mph anymore. But he still has that same vicious cutter/slurve combination that powered his ascent, and let’s be honest with each other: This year, nearly every pitcher feels like a threat to throw a no-hitter every time out.

Kluber no-hit the Rangers last night, a capstone achievement that will forever feel slightly out of place with the arc of his career. That’s not to discount the moment: He was excellent last night. He worked off of his slurve rather than vice versa; he threw 31 of them and only 23 sinkers. From the start of the game, he was placing the pitch exactly where he wanted it, befuddling the Rangers’ lineup:

Kluber’s ceaseless desire to fill up the zone worked in his favor last night. He drew a whopping 25 called strikes, a number he hadn’t surpassed since his glory days. Batters step in against him wondering which breaking ball he’ll embarrass them with, which is a truly awful mindset to take into at-bats against a strike-throwing machine, but that’s always been his unique gift: He throws so many pitches that break at so many strange angles, putting batters at a disadvantage right from the jump.

On the other hand, it’s not like the Rangers prospered by swinging. They came up empty on 28% of their swings, and they somehow swung less frequently at the easy pitch to hit — seven swings on 23 sinkers — than they did at that demon slurve (12 swings on 31 pitches). In fact, they swung in reverse proportion to how easy it is to put bat to ball, and Kluber mainly threw the hard pitches to hit, which resulted in this delightful chart of pitches that Rangers batters put in play (courtesy of Baseball Savant):

One of those “curveballs” — it’s tough to categorize Kluber’s pitches — nearly ended the no-hitter before it really got going. Adolis García put a charge into a well-placed breaking ball, but sent it directly to the largest part of the park, where Brett Gardner made an easy catch:

That was pretty much it, as far as good contact goes. The Rangers hit only four balls harder than 95 mph, and the other three were either pounded into the ground (two Willie Calhoun groundouts) or popped up harmlessly (a Joey Gallo fly ball that came off the bat at 53 degrees). If your plan is to wait Kluber out and then swing at his cutter and slurve, you’re going to have a bad time, as Rangers hitters discovered.

They’ve been having a bad time quite frequently this year. This is the second time they’ve been no-hit; Joe Musgrove got the party started in Globe Life Field this April, the first of six we’ve already seen less than two months into the season (seven if you count Madison Bumgarner’s seven no-hit innings, which I do). This makes the Rangers one of three teams to come up hitless twice this year; Cleveland and Seattle are also in that club.

It feels vaguely unfair to Kluber to lapse into a discussion of the state of offense in 2021, but hey, life’s not fair. He was magnificent, but come on: Spencer Turnbull threw a no-hitter two days ago, and a visiting pitcher has already no-hit these very Rangers in their park this year.

Major League Baseball announced changes to the ball before this year, in an attempt to stem the rising tide of home runs. It worked! Unfortunately, it didn’t do much to stem two other tides: rising strikeout rates and declining BABIP. Here are those rates, with pitcher batting numbers excluded, over the past ten years:

Leaguewide Metrics, ’11-’21
Year K% BABIP HR/BIP
2011 18.1% 0.297 3.53%
2012 19.2% 0.299 3.90%
2013 19.3% 0.299 3.66%
2014 19.0% 0.301 3.33%
2015 19.9% 0.301 3.90%
2016 20.6% 0.302 4.51%
2017 21.2% 0.301 4.95%
2018 21.7% 0.297 4.57%
2019 22.4% 0.299 5.56%
2020 23.4% 0.292 5.30%
2021 23.5% 0.289 4.77%

It’s not rocket science (though astrophysicists are on the case). Fewer home runs, more strikeouts, and fewer hits on balls in play mean more no-hitters and less offense. An early-season run of no-hitters is fun, but if we end the season with 20 or more of them, the whole thing will start to feel farcical.

I should clarify: this particular no-hitter didn’t feel farcical. Kluber has been sharp this year. He isn’t the Kluber of old, but he’s still been effective: He had pitched to a 3.48 ERA and 4.01 FIP even before yesterday’s dominant outing. The Rangers looked overmatched, sure, but there’s no cognitive dissonance in my brain when I see him overmatching an opposing lineup. It would almost feel stranger if he’d never thrown a no-hitter.

Still, this era of no-hitters all the time kind of sucks. No-hitters are rare and wondrous feats, on a historical scale at least. When they’re pouring in two a week — two in two days, at the moment — it’s impossible not to downgrade the achievements mentally. Sure, Turnbull and Wade Miley threw no-hitters, but Musgrove and Carlos Rodón threw impressive no-hitters.

What a miserable comparison to have to make. I don’t want to! It’s great to see pitchers living their best lives, accomplishing a goal they’ve all surely had since childhood. But come on: It simply doesn’t feel the same when the league is hitting .236 and striking out nearly a quarter of the time.

I’ll say it one more time: None of this is a reflection on Kluber. He was awesome! This was vintage Kluber, a performance that could have resulted in a no-hitter at any point in the last ten years. The slurves were sharp, the sinkers were mostly painted, and the cutters did their normal spirit-crushing thing to the opposition.

In this, the year of the no-hitter, I wouldn’t blame you for feeling some achievement fatigue. Set it aside for a moment, and delight in Kluber finally getting that elusive no-hitter. After that moment, however, it’s fair to wonder: How many more of these before something has to give?





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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rib
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rib

How much do you think the odds that someone will throw two in a row have changed? From, basically, zero to 5%, 10%? Not any particular pitcher, but *someone* before the end of the year?

Sarachim
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Sarachim

Roughly 1 in 200 starts has been a no-hitter this year. Even if the current rate of no-hitters continues all year (which it probably won’t, because it’s an extreme small-sample outlier), I’d guess the odds of someone going back-to-back are closer to zero than 5%.

rib
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Member
rib

Thanks! I appreciate the level-headed approach to figuring this out. I agree that it must be not much more than zero (but my hunch is that you’d have a better chance of winning that lottery this year than ever before).

Sarachim
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Sarachim

I was still curious about this question, so I did some horrifying back-of-the-envelope math, using the following assumptions:

-every starter has a 1/200 chance of throwing a no-hitter every time out (yes, I know this is wrong)
The season is 1/3 over, so we’ve had 1/3 of all our no-hitters. We should expect 12 more (see above)
-ergo, there will be 12 1/200 chances for a starter to go back-to-back (I told you this math is horrifying)

That means my Fermi estimate of the odds of back-to-back no-hitters is 1-(199/200)^12, or 5.8%. Amazingly, the odds someone throws back-to-back no-nos this year might actually be ~5%.

padres458
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padres458

I expect the ball to be different post all-star break

marcotomas
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marcotomas

Same. The goal of the ball being changed was to increase balls in play to make for a more entertaining game. This ain’t it. I’d take the juiced ball again in a heartbeat.

MikeD
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MikeD

Yes, although as an alternative view, they probably need to give hitters and teams a year to adjust and move partially away from the swing-from-the-heels, launch-angle approach. It won’t happen immediately, so maybe they will simply let this ride out and see how the game adapts. It may get them to where they want to be.

RobM
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RobM

I noted something similar below. They accomplished a decrease in homers, but the second part of the equation–more balls in play–hasn’t happened.

memememillenial
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memememillenial

Based on what?

rib
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Member
rib

Ah, that’s what I was looking for: some horrifying math that, yes, is based on indefensible premises, but which nevertheless suggests that going back-to-back (at least this year) may not be so far-fetched. Thanks, Sarachim!

bubbamoo
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bubbamoo

I see it that after someone throws one no hitter, they have a 1 in 200 chance of doing it again( if you discount other implied odds). That would be .5 percent.

Jon
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Jon

I wrote this first but think the end result (about a 2% chance) seems much too high – can anyone point out my error(s) (other than the simplistic assumptions)?

Well, let’s make some (bad) assumptions:
– every team has 5 starters all year who make 32 starts each, or 31 pairs of back-to-back starts, for a total of 930 back-to-back pairs of starts (obviously not true, but probably doesn’t skew the results that much)
– any starter on any day has a 1 in 200 chance of throwing a no-hitter (obviously not true due to pitcher skill, opponent quality, etc., and also if a pitcher throws a no-hitter on one day, they’ll likely have thrown a lot of pitches, affecting he following start)

So the odds of one given starter throwing a no-hitter in back to back starts is 1 in 40000. Since there are 930 chances, there’s a 930/40000 (or ~2.3%) chance that someone throws no-hitters in back-to-back starts.

rib
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Member
rib

This is also an interesting approach. Thanks!

sbf21
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sbf21

Considering it’s been done once in all of MLB history 5% is preposterously high. I think it went from basically zero to basically 0.0001%. But I may still be an order or two of magnitude too high.

RobM
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RobM

No where near that high. That said, I will be tuning into Kluber’s next start. With the funky ball and Kluber looking sharp, perhaps we’ll see someone match Johnny Vander Meer. He has a tough draw, though. The Blue Jays. Not a team I’d expect to be no-hit!