The No-Hitter Hangover?

On the first of June, left-hander Johan Santana labored through 134 pitches and meticulously navigated around five walks to become the first player in New York Mets history to throw a no-hitter.

It was assuredly a special moment for the organization, as well as the entire fan base. The Mets’ manager, Terry Collins, understood the magnitude of the situation. Despite the fact that Santana missed all of 2011 with a shoulder injury and had largely been limited in his pitch counts throughout the year to that point, Collins stuck with his 33-year-old veteran in an attempt to rewrite the history books.

To counteract the extra strain put on the shoulder in that no-hitter, Johan Santana received extra rest before his next start. That decision caused the left-hander to develop rust, according to his manager, and Santana was not sharp against the New York Yankees his next start — he surrendered six runs over five innings, including four home runs.

Collins blamed the extra rest. After also watching White Sox right-hander Philip Humber implode in the start after his perfect game this year, however, I began to wonder if pitchers performed abnormally poorly in their first start following a no-hitter. After Matt Cain posted his worst start of 2012 last night in his follow-up to his perfect game, my suspicions only grew, and I decided to take a closer look at whether these pitchers are part of a broader trend

The hypothesis relied on the abnormal schedule between starts for pitchers who throw a no-hitter. The media demands become more intense. The sheer attention doted upon pitchers who throw no-hitters puts more pressure upon them to succeed, or even to replicate Johnny Vander meer’s back-to-back no-hitters in 1938. Perhaps those factors ultimately combine to adversely affect performance immediately after the emotionally taxing no-hitter.

Though carefully dismissing them as factors in his dreadful performance against the Red Sox in his first start following his perfect game, Philip Humber brought up the distractions — such as appearing on Letterman and speaking with the President of the United States — that ultimately arise.

“I did my best to try to eliminate the distractions and I felt like I was focused coming into the game. I don’t think anything that happened Saturday affected tonight. It was just a bad day. I’ll just chalk it up to one of those days.”

Since the live ball era, there have been 170 no-hitters thrown by a single pitcher, but of course many of those occurred before the invention of the 24 hour news cycle. In an attempt to ascertain if any discernable trend in performance exists under today’s conditions, I chose to isolate the regular season no-hitters over the past ten seasons and pull data from the subsequent starts, comparing their ERA and FIP from that specific start to their averages from that season to determine whether or not each individual pitcher performed better or worse than their own average from that season.

Pitcher Year IP ER HR BB K ERA Season ERA Difference
Carlos Zambrano 2008 1.7 8 1 3 1 43.11 3.91 39.20
Philip Humber 2012 5.0 9 3 3 5 16.20 5.92 10.28
Johan Santana 2012 5.0 6 4 1 5 10.80 2.96 7.84
Francisco Liriano 2011 3.0 4 1 3 1 12.00 5.09 6.91
Mark Buehrle 2009 6.3 5 1 3 7.11 3.84 3.27
Matt Cain 2012 5.0 3 1 4 4 5.40 2.34 3.06
Edwin Jackson 2010 5.0 4 3 4 7.20 4.47 2.73
Jon Lester 2008 5.0 3 2 3 5.40 3.21 2.19
Matt Garza 2010 7.0 4 2 1 9 5.14 3.91 1.23
Anibal Sanchez 2006 7.0 3 2 1 8 3.86 2.83 1.03
Dallas Braden 2010 8.0 4 1 1 5 4.50 3.50 1.00
Justin Verlander 2007 6.0 3 2 6 4.50 3.66 0.84
Kevin Millwood 2003 6.0 3 2 2 7 4.50 4.01 0.49
Clay Buchholz 2007 4.7 1 2 5 1.93 1.59 0.34
Jonathan Sanchez 2009 6.0 3 2 1 8 4.50 4.24 0.26
Mark Buehrle 2007 7.0 3 1 1 4 3.86 3.63 0.23
Roy Halladay 2010 7.0 2 1 7 2.57 2.44 0.13
Randy Johnson 2004 7.0 2 1 1 5 2.57 2.60 (0.03)
Jered Weaver 2012 6.0 1 2 2 1.50 2.61 (1.11)
Justin Verlander 2011 8.0 1 3 7 1.13 2.69 (1.57)
Ervin Santana 2011 9.0 1 2 7 1.00 3.38 (2.38)
Ubaldo Jimenez 2010 7.3 2 5 2.88 (2.88)
Total 132.0 73 21 42 111 4.98 3.44 1.54

Seventeen of the 22 pitchers on this list posted a higher ERA in their start after their no-hitter than their season average, and 12 of those 17 were at least one full run higher than their own average for that year. As a group, these pitchers posted a 4.98 ERA, more than 1.5 runs per nine innings above their overall average of 3.44 for the seasons in which we’re evaluating them. There’s no question that the observed phenomenon of late is that Humber, Santana, and Cain are the norm and not the exception. Of course, we’re dealing with small samples and ERA isn’t a great way to evaluate whether they actually pitched worse, but using FIP brings you to a similar conclusion, as they posted a 4.44 FIP in their 132 innings of work, still quite a bit higher than their 3.70 season average. And remember, this is a sample of mostly good pitchers, so while regression to the mean is expected, this is regression well past their own mean. This is regression to Tommy Hunter’s mean.

Twenty-two pitchers and 132 innings is not enough to say with certainty that there’s a real effect here, but going back further in time is problematic because of the changes in landscape of the sports world in recent years. If we’re hypothesizing that the distractions of the day are a factor in the pitcher’s struggles, we can’t go back to a time before those distractions existed or were as prevalent.

So, instead of expanding our sample, we’re going to dig a bit deeper into the quality of pitches thrown by guys in their after-no-hitter starts, and see if we can’t find a explanation in their stuff for their decline in performance. Jack Moore will be publishing a follow-up on using PITCH F/x data this afternoon, and see whether pitcher’s are throwing their usual stuff in their after-no-hitter start, or whether the combined workload of going nine innings and then dealing with an adjusted routine might be manifesting itself in what they have to throw in their next start. This data isn’t conclusive, but it is interesting enough to warrant further study. And at least Cain, Santana, and Humber can take solace in the fact that they’re certainly not alone in experiencing a big letdown.

J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

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Interesting stuff, JP, thanks.