Justin Verlander Earned That No-Hitter

Entering Sunday’s games, 30 pitchers since 1908 had thrown multiple no-hitters. The list is an impressive one, including names like Warren Spahn, Max Scherzer, Walter Johnson, and Randy Johnson. There are also some less exciting names on the list with Homer Bailey, Mike Fiers, and Jake Arrieta all accomplishing the same feat in recent seasons. Of those 30 players with at least two no-hitters since 1908, 27 of the 30 had thrown exactly two such games, including Justin Verlander. After a 14-strikeout, one-walk no-hitter on Sunday, Verlander joins Bob Feller, Cy Young, and Larry Corcoran in all of baseball history three no-hitters, sitting behind only Sandy Koufax (4) and Nolan Ryan (7).

All no-hitters are impressive, as navigating an entire game without allowing a hit is a feat unto itself and generally comes with an excellent defensive performance combined with a great outing from the pitcher. Verlander’s no-hitter is one of the most impressive in recent history due to how little he relied on his teammates to complete the task. Only seven times before has a pitcher put up more than Verlander’s 14 strikeouts in a no-hitter. Scherzer put up 17 in his October 2015 no-hitter and Ryan did the same back in 1973. Ryan also struck out 16 and 15 in other no-hitters, with Clayton Kershaw getting 15 Ks in 2014 while Warren Spahn and Don Wilson also reached 15 strikeouts in their performances. Verlander’s 14 matches four others including Ryan, Koufax, Matt Cain, and Nap Rucker back in 1908. Cain, Koufax, and Rucker did not walk any batters, and the only other pitchers with at least 14 strikeouts and one walk or none were Scherzer and Kershaw.

Some no-hitters are marked by great defensive plays. This was not one of those games. There were only two hard-hit balls all game long by the Blue Jays, and both were ground balls. The first was a pulled grounder from Vladimir Guerrero Jr. that came off the bat at 98 mph.

According to Statcast, batted balls with that exit velocity and launch angle are hits 55% of the time. Vlad hit his ball right at a fielder and the play was made.

Billy McKinney also pulled a hard grounder, this one to the first-base side.

This one came off the bat at 103 mph, and based on exit velocity and launch angle, it is a hit 60% of the time. No other batted ball had an expected hit percentage above 12% against Verlander on Sunday. There were some infield files and pop fouls and mostly routine plays. To get a sense of how rare Verlander’s performance was, I multiplied the expected out rate for each batted ball and found that based on exit velocity and launch angle, Verlander’s chances of throwing a no-hitter were about one in eight. That might not seem absurdly high, but compared to recent no-hitters, the odds were strongly stacked in Verlander’s favor. Here are Verlander’s and the other five no-hitters since the start of the 2018 season.

Justin Verlander’s No-Hitter Odds
Pitcher Date % Chance of No Hits by xBA Odds of No-Hitter
Justin Verlander 9/1/2019 12.11% 8 to 1
HOU Combined 8/3/2019 0.07% 1350 to 1
LAA Combined 7/12/2019 0.02% 4650 to 1
Mike Fiers 5/7/2019 0.52% 192 to 1
James Paxton 5/28/2018 0.02% 4004 to 1
Sean Manaea 4/21/2018 0.41% 245 to 1
Based on Contact Quality of Balls in Play During No-Hitter

Verlander’s odds were more than 20 times better than the next closest no-hitter. Generally, around 21% of batted balls will have an expected batting average greater than .600, but Verlander had zero in his no-hitter on Sunday. To provide a little bit more context, I looked at the one-hitters and two-hitters this season to provide some comparison. Verlander’s odds still look far and away the best.

Justin Verlander’s No-Hitter Odds
Pitcher Date Hits % Chance of No Hits by xBA Odds of No-Hitter
Justin Verlander 9/1/2019 0 12.11% 8 to 1
Mike Fiers 5/7/2019 0 0.52% 192 to 1
Justin Verlander 8/21/2019 2 0.13% 762 to 1
Shane Bieber 7/24/2019 1 1.43% 70 to 1
Masahiro Tanaka 6/17/2019 2 0.02% 5076 to 1
German Márquez 4/14/2019 1 0.15% 665 to 1
Yusei Kikuchi 8/18/2019 2 0.01% 11767 to 1
Sandy Alcantara 5/19/2019 2 0.22% 462 to 1
Mike Leake 7/19/2019 1 0.01% 7759 to 1
Based on Contact Quality of Balls in Play During 2019 game with two hits or less.

Sometimes pitchers can get a little help from umpires, but the game as a whole was called very well.

Verlander went heavy with his fastball all game long. Of his 120 pitches, 78 were fastballs, and he continued to challenge hitters up in the zone as the heatmap from the game shows.

Of those 78 fastballs, Verlander got 15 swings and misses and seven strikeouts, with his slider responsible for another five strikeouts and the curve responsible for the remaining two. For those interested in hidden perfect games, with Verlander’s one walk coming to the second batter of the contest, he’s just one batter away from a hidden perfect game and 27 up and 27 down.

Verlander lowered his ERA to 2.56, with his unsightly 33 homers keeping his FIP at a merely very good 3.42 on the season. In the American League, Verlander’s 5.2 WAR trails only Lance Lynn, Charlie Morton, and teammate Gerrit Cole. The 36-year-old righty’s 35% strikeout rate would be a career high, with his 4.8% walk rate nearly matching last season’s excellent 4.4% figure.

Verlander has been challenging hitters all season long, and nearly every time, he gets the better of the matchup. As Jay Jaffe noted in June, Verlander has dominated despite all the homers, and Sunday’s start was just the eighth all season in which he didn’t give up a long ball. Verlander not only avoided homers on Sunday, but he avoided nearly all hard contact in furthering his place in history. Sitting behind only Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax is an impressive place to be. A no-hitter is going to have some random bounces that help shape history, but in recent memory, no pitcher has deserved a no-hitter more than Justin Verlander did against the Blue Jays on Sunday night.

We hoped you liked reading Justin Verlander Earned That No-Hitter by Craig Edwards!

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Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Cave Dameron
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Cave Dameron

I still got Lance Lynn for the cy young.

eely225
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eely225

That would make me smile a big ol smile

BROD
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BROD

That’s exactly why FIP (and WAR) is stupid.

Verlander: 7th in FIP (3.42), 1st in ERA, 1st in xwOBA
Lynn: 3rd in FIP (3.00), 11th in ERA, 7th in xwOBA

Why? Because FIP (and BABIP) wrongly assumes that pitchers don’t have much control over their batted balls.

– Verlander’s pop-up (launch angles > 50 degrees) rate –
’15: 15.2% (5th among 143 SP’s with at least 300 BBE)
’16: 15.1% (3rd)
’17: 11.4% (14th)
’18: 16.7% (3rd)
’19: 14.5% (3rd)

During that time, he has generated 356 pop-ups and allowed .014 AVG- .023 SLG on them, which means that they are basically free-outs. Despite this, FIP gives Verlander absolutely no credit for his extreme pop-up tendency.

Allowing four pop ups, which are almost never hits, among 13 batted balls is a big deal.

Joe Joe
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Joe Joe

Pitchers don’t have much control over batted balls. They have some, and it usually doesn’t matter as homers are usually decent proxies for quality contact suppression. In the Lynn vs. Verlander discussion, Verlander has given up less quality contact despite the homers. There is a very good argument that Verlander and 2-4 other pitchers have pitched better than Lynn in the AL using xwOBA. Lynn still having a great xwOBA shows that FIP isn’t stupid.

BROD
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BROD

Nope, you are just flat-out wrong about this CM thing.

– Tony Blengino on Contact Management –
“When you think about it, pitchers essentially have two major components to their job: K/BB management and contact management. For those of you who have read some of my previous articles here, contact management is really a thing; pitchers do have a clear impact on the type of contact they allow. Pitchers can have fly-ball, grounder and even pop-up tendencies that influence the amount of production they allow, and also impact the authority of contact allowed within each ball-in-play grouping.”

– Andrew Friedman on Tony Watson –
“Watson has been high on our radar for a while and we checked in periodically with the Pirates about him,” Friedman said. “He is a master of inducing weak contact and he’s a great competitor and teammate. He’s been a big part of our continued success and is going to help lengthen our bullpen in October.

– Dodgers pitching MLB ranks in Exit Velocity and Hard Hit (95+ MPH) % –
’15: 1st in EV and 1st in Hard Hit %
’16: 1st, 1st
’17: 2nd, 1st
’18: 3rd, 1st
’19: 1st, 1st

There is a reason why the Dodgers haven’t hired a single Fangraphs writer in its history.

A. Green
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A. Green

I’m trying to understand this more. Is it being downvoted because of the somehwat standoffish tone, or because of skepticism over contact management?

I find the list with the Dodgers leading the league in lowest exit velocity for five seasons intriguing, but not entirely sure the significance of what I’m seeing. And I do feel like there is something in fangraphs WAR that seems to underrate what Verlander’s doing a sizable amount, but not sure why.

Is there anyone who can clarify both sides of this argument in a reasonable way?

Six Ten
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Six Ten

If we agree that pitchers have control over contact quality, does Verlander’s higher hard-hit rate than Lynn’s count against him meaningfully? Does the fact that his home run rate is *twice* Lynn’s count? How about allowing the highest pull rate of his career despite having a lower than average (for him) ground ball rate?

People are hitting the ball hard off of Verlander when they are hitting him. He is very good! It would not be bad if he won the Cy Young! But he is also running a 90% strand rate. Since the strike, here is the complete list of seasons where an ERA-qualified pitcher had a strand rate higher than Verlander 2019:

nobody

Now, the second highest of his career was 2018 and that’s the 6th highest since the strike. That seems like a mark in his favor here! He’s figured out a way to strand runners that nobody else in the history of the game ever has! Baseball: it’s full of innovation!

But … the Astros as a team have the 8th and 2nd highest strand rates since the strike in those seasons. So it’s possible he’s simply benefiting from the team being good at this in some way. Is he supposed to get credit for that? Maybe! Maybe not! We credit pitchers for team effects all the time.

Mainly it seems to be that they are very good at striking other teams’ hitters out (1st and 2nd K rate since the strike). And Verlander is super duper good at that, as good as he’s ever been in his career. So maybe it’s his ability to miss bats, rather than his ability to get popups, that is most worth celebrating.

My point is not to say Lynn or Verlander is right and the other is wrong. If it’s about contact management, there’s some reason to think Lynn is actually better than Verlander this year (but again it’s not clear-cut). If it’s avoiding walks and any kind of contact, Verlander has been better than Lynn (so I’m not sure why you wouldn’t make that part of your argument). And then maybe you want to ask whither Gerrit Cole in all this, who is extra good at missing bats.

My point is to say synthetic measurements like FIP and WAR are hard, and you can pick and choose your data points to say one pitcher is better than another. You’ll never see anyone at Fangraphs say a small edge in WAR or FIP is proof positive one pitcher is better than another because they know better. These are broad brushstrokes and they are interesting ways to get generalized impressions about what’s in the underlying data, and that’s all anyone ever treats them as.

In other words, it’s an argument because it’s an argument. Your dead-set certainty is at odds with the very thing you’re arguing about. And adding insults to the publication where you’re making your comment wins you no extra credit.

A. Green
Member
A. Green

Funny thing – when you included highest strand rates I immediately wondered where Blake Snell was last year. Then I look at the list to see he’s 2nd in strand rate post strike, just barely behind Verlander! Ironic, as I think that high strand rate probably kept Verlander from getting his 2nd Cy Young last year.

Obviously Verlander has benefited from a generous BABIP (though I’m still interested to understand more about why the Dodgers pitchers are leading in Exit Velocity every single year). I’m wondering if the 90% is a little misleading, since Verlander’s WHIP is so low, his homers are so high (so adds to his WHIP but aren’t on base) and pitchers pitch less innings now, we’re talking about less baserunners than probably anyone else we’d compare this statistic to. So yes the strand rate is helping him significantly, but not near as much as a normal 225-250 IP, 1.00-1.10 whip pitcher who gives up home runs at a normal rate.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

The issue isn’t whether pitchers have control over their batted balls or not, because it’s pretty obvious that a pitcher neither has complete nor zero control over it. The question is whether introducing balls in play introduces more error than it solves. Isolating the things that are uncontaminated by other factors is a solid approach that likely captures the value a pitcher brings to the table better than complicated models that attempt to tease out the relative effects of the defense.

To make the case that a pitcher is responsible for BABIP, you probably have to look at some kind of batted ball data to make the case. So Luis Castillo has an incredible BABIP, but he’s also great at keeping the ball on the ground. Charlie Morton has a 3% barrel rate, which is awesome, so that makes some sense why his BABIP is so low. Marcus Stroman has both of those characteristics. Verlander’s BABIP is microscopic, but aside from the pop-ups (which are incorporated into WAR) I’m not seeing a ton of evidence he’s responsible for the weak contact. You could do it I’m sure if you dig into the data enough, maybe, but it’s not at all clear we’d find it.

Joe Joe
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Member
Joe Joe

Baseball Prospectus had an article that compared xwOBA, FIP, DRA to see which one was the most repeatable at estimating wOBA from one year to the next. xwOBA and FIP basically tied. My guess is that FIP is slightly more accurate for pitchers with a normal quality of contact suppression skill on balls in play as quality of contact skill can’t be separated from the noise, and xwOBA being vastly superior for the extremes in quality of contact on balls in play.

dl80
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dl80

He’s far worse at everything than Verlander this year except home runs allowed.

Cave Dameron
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Cave Dameron

That’ll happen when you play in Arlington with an awful defense.

JupiterBrando
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JupiterBrando

I might be wrong, but I’m pretty sure a big problem with normalizing for an “awful defense” means the statistics are neutralized across the board. Meaning that if the Rangers defense actually overperformed in Lynn’s starts, he’d still get extra credit in his peripherals, because they assess based on the team’s overall performance.

I’m pretty sure this is why Aaron Nola’s 2018 bWAR is so absurdly high. He gets extra credit because the Phillies defense was historically awful, but breaking it down on a per start basis, they actually overperformed for him significantly. So he really gets double credit: his ERA is lowered because of that overperformance, and his peripherals are lowered as well because that overperformance isn’t factored in, whereas it inherently is in ERA.

I don’t know the case for Lynn, but it’s why you can’t just go “awful defense!” and give a guy the Cy.

Cave Dameron
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Cave Dameron

I’m aware of that issue. But I don’t know how to look up how the defense has performed on each pitcher individually.
Also the ballpark is more of a factor than defense here.

JupiterBrando
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JupiterBrando

Agreed on the ballpark, but more season to season variance is going to come from batted ball luck and how a defense responds to it than the fluctuations that come from home parks, even one as extreme as Arlington.

Come to think of it, this explains why Mike Minor’s bWAR is so high. He has 7.5 WAR with a 3.12 ERA, presumably because the idea is his ERA would be even lower with a better defense. But -should- a guy really have a 3.12 ERA with under a strikeout per inning and solid, but not elite control?

Joe Joe
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Member
Joe Joe

One could just use stats based on exit velocity and launch angle to remove defense and ballpark effects. Only downside to this is that Lynn would likely drop to about 4th best pitcher in the AL using that approach.