On a Day for No-Hit Bids, Astros Righty Ronel Blanco Finishes the Job

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

No fooling: April 1 was a day for no-hit bids. On Monday afternoon at Wrigley Field, in his major league debut, Shota Imanaga threw 5 2/3 innings of hitless ball against the Rockies before yielding a single to Charlie Blackmon. On Monday evening at Citi Field, in his first start for the Mets, Sean Manaea matched Imanaga with 5 2/3 hitless innings against the Tigers before finally surrendering a single to Andy Ibáñez. (The Mets still managed to lose in extra innings.) And finally, on Monday night at Minute Maid Park, Ronel Blanco went the distance for the Astros against the Blue Jays, at one point retiring 26 hitters in a row. He capped a 10-0 rout by getting Vladimir Guerrero Jr., whom he’d previously struck out three times, to ground out to second base.

The win was the Astros’ first of the season after they opened with four straight losses at home against the Yankees. According to MLB.com’s Sarah Langs, manager Joe Espada, who took over from the retiring Dusty Baker, became the first skipper ever to notch his first major league win — or his first with a new team — with a no-hitter. This is the earliest no-hitter by calendar date, per Sportradar, surpassing Hideo Nomo’s April 4, 2001 no-no for the Red Sox against the Orioles. The first of last year’s four no-hitters, a perfect game by the Yankees’ Domingo Germán, wasn’t thrown until June 28.

If you haven’t heard of Blanco, you’re forgiven. The 30-year-old Dominican-born righty entered the game with just 58 1/3 major league innings under his belt, and until last year, he hadn’t made more than two starts in a season since 2017, his second in pro ball. He’s a late bloomer who was never considered much of a prospect; he did place 30th on our Astros Top Prospects list last year as a 35+ FV reliever, with Eric Longehagen and Tess Taruskin describing him as an “up/down relief piece” whose 94-97 mph fastball “plays below its velocity.” According a 2022 profile at The Athletic by Jake Kaplan, Blanco is a former position player who didn’t begin pitching until he was 18. He signed for a $5,000 bonus in 2016, when he was 22, after trying out for at least four other teams. Before getting signed, he practiced baseball in the mornings and washed cars in the afternoons in his hometown of Santiago in order to support himself and his mother. Astros scout Francis Mojica spotted him throwing 94 mph while scouting Julio Rodríguez, who had the same trainer.

Blanco made seven appearances out of the bullpen for the Astros in 2022, but at the behest of new general manager Dana Brown got a shot at starting last year. He split his season between Triple-A Sugar Land (13 starts and two relief appearances), the Astros’ bullpen (10 appearances), and their rotation; of his seven starts, six came in June and July as part of a six-man rotation. For the Astros, he posted a 4.50 ERA and 5.99 FIP in 52 innings, walking a tightrope with a 12.4% walk rate and 2.08 homers per nine.

Now Blanco is having a better week than just about anybody in baseball. He entered Monday night’s game fresh off winning the fifth starter job with a 10-strikeout, 4 1/3-inning performance against Sugar Land last Wednesday, on the final day of spring training. Earlier that day, his wife had given birth to the couple’s second child. He got the starting job mainly because the Astros had to dig into their depth chart; not only are Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers Jr. both recovering from surgeries (Tommy John surgery for the former, flexor tendon and bone spur removal for the latter), but Justin Verlander and José Urquidy landed on the injured list during spring training, the former due to shoulder inflammation, the latter due to a forearm strain.

Despite that modest prologue, Blanco made his first start of the 2024 season one for the history books. He’d never thrown more than six innings or 99 pitches in any of his major league starts, and maxed out at seven innings (last August 9 at Sugar Land) and 100 pitches (July 24, 2017 at Quad Cities) for his professional career; he exceeded those previous highs on Monday, though he needed just 105 pitches to complete the job. He faced just 29 hitters, with a pair of walks to George Springer — one on five pitches to lead off the game, the other on six pitches with two outs in the ninth — being the only blemishes. He went to a three-ball count against only two other hitters, Justin Turner in the first inning and Kevin Kiermaier in the second.

Blanco was able to spend much of the night cruising because his teammates quickly took the pressure off of him. They scored three runs in the first off Blue Jays starter Bowden Francis on homers by Kyle Tucker and Yainer Diaz, each of whom would add another later; in doing so, Diaz became the first catcher to homer multiple times while catching a no-hitter. The Astros gradually extended their lead to 7-0 before Francis departed in the sixth. Down 10-0 in the bottom of the eighth, manager John Schneider moved third baseman Isiah Kiner-Falefa to the mound for this season’s second pitching appearance by a position player. (The first was by the Giants’ Tyler Fitzgerald against the Padres on Sunday).

Blanco struck out seven Blue Jays while generating 20 whiffs on 59 swings (34%). Working off a four-seamer that averaged 95.6 mph, his changeup was absolutely phenomenal, netting 10 whiffs and five called strikes for a CSW% of 42%; batters chased 61% of his changeups outside the zone. All seven of his strikeouts came via the change, four swinging, two looking — both perfectly placed on his glove-side edge of the zone against Guerrero and Daulton Varsho — and one on a foul tip. This is just a beautiful job of keeping those two-strike changeups out of the heart of the zone:

Seven of Blanco’s 20 in-play outs came on the changeup as well. His slider — generally his best pitch — was quite effective, too, accounting for eight whiffs, a 32% CSW%, and eight in-play outs. Indeed, he did an excellent job of avoiding hard contact, allowing just four batted balls with exit velocities of 95 mph or higher. In the third inning, Kiner-Falefa smoked a 99.9-mph line drive to deep left field, where Chas McCormick ran it down. In the seventh, Turner hit a towering but routine 98.2 mph fly ball to center fielder Jake Meyers. In the eighth, in a heart-stopping moment, Alejandro Kirk hit a 100.7-mph comebacker that deflected off Blanco’s glove. Second baseman Mauricio Dubón, who had just replaced Jose Altuve, barehanded the ball and made the throw in time; had a different batter, one who did not place in the second percentile in sprint speed last year, been running, it would have been an infield single.

The tickers of anyone who cared got another jolt with one out in the ninth. Cavan Biggio pulled a 97.6-mph grounder toward the hole between first and second; first baseman José Abreu dove to his right to make a backhanded stop, then threw to Blanco racing for first while still sprawled on the ground.

After that gem, all Blanco had to do was get Guerrero one more time, which he did. In doing so, he notched the 17th no-hitter in franchise history and the sixth of the past six seasons:

Recent Astros No-Hitters
Date Pitcher(s) Opponent Location Score Catcher
8/3/19 Aaron Sanchez (6), Will Harris (1), Joe Biagini (1), Chris Devenski (1) Mariners HOU 9-0 Martín Maldonado
9/1/19 Justin Verlander Blue Jays TOR 2-0 Robinson Chirinos
6/25/22 Cristian Javier (7), Héctor Neris (1), Ryan Pressly (1) Yankees NYY 3-0 Martín Maldonado
11/2/22* Cristian Javier (6), Bryan Abreu (1), Rafael Montero (1), Ryan Pressly (1) Phillies HOU 5-0 Christian Vázquez
8/1/23 Framber Valdez Guardians HOU 2-0 Martín Maldonado
4/1/24 Ronel Blanco Blue Jays HOU 10-0 Yainer Diaz
* World Series game

Remarkably, no other team has more than two no-hitters — either solo or combined — in that span, and it’s conceivable that at some point this year the Astros could cycle through four starters with at least one (including combos) under their belts. Houston’s total of 17 no-hitters is the most of any team since the start of the expansion era in 1961; the Dodgers and Angels are tied for second with 13. While the offense-suppressing Astrodome may have boosted that total, just six no-hitters were thrown there, all by the Astros, during its 1965–99 run. In other words, the team has matched that total in the past six years, a time when batting averages have dipped to levels not seen since the early 1970s.

On that note, particularly on a day when two other pitchers took no-hitters into the sixth inning, we’ll note batters are hitting for a .247 average thus far, down one point from last year even while scoring has risen from 4.62 runs per game to 4.93. It’s far too early to get a feel for which way the trends will go, but it’s not like we’re suddenly in 1972 again. The Blue Jays entered the game hitting .221/.322/.382, 22nd among all teams in batting average but 15th with a 109 wRC+. Such is the impact of a single game at this stage that they dropped to 29th in batting average (.184) and 22nd in wRC+ (78).

As for Blanco, while he’s hardly guaranteed a permanent spot in Houston’s rotation, it would not be surprising if the team sticks with a six-man plan once Verlander returns. The 41-year-old righty is about to head out on a rehab assignment after throwing three innings and 52 pitches in a simulated game on Monday. The Astros tied for third in the majors last year with 128 starts on at least five days of rest; not all of those were within a six-man rotation, but it’s clearly something with which they’re comfortable. Regardless of how things play out, Blanco will always have Monday night’s unlikely and unforgettable effort. He’s part of baseball history now.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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Left of Centerfield
19 days ago

Congrats to Blanco! No matter what happens the rest of his career, he has a moment/game that he can relish for the rest of his life.