The Unlikeliest No-Hitter

No-hitters are unlikely feats. Navigating 27 outs against a group of professional hitters without allowing a single hit takes a tremendous amount of skill. Still, the list of pitchers with a no-hitter might appear to be somewhat random, with hurlers like Hisashi Iwakuma, Mike Fiers, and Chris Heston making an appearance. Since that Heston no-hitter in 2015, there have been 14 complete game no-hitters. Of those 14, five have been thrown by Cy Young award winners: Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Jake Arrieta (twice). Former ace Cole Hamels has a no-hitter, ace-when-healthy James Paxton has one, and current ace Lucas Giolito just completed another. Recent history suggests about half of the pitcher who throw no-hitters are aces or something close to it, while half were aces for a single day. Alec Mills’ no-no against the Brewers on Sunday falls in the latter category, a journeyman righty who pitched his way to history.

Mills’ story deserves telling, though because he’s been an afterthought for much of his career, it wouldn’t be a surprise if you hadn’t heard it before. He was a walk-on at Tennessee-Martin before developing into their ace. Heading into the 2012 draft, Baseball America noted his good “control of an upper-80s fastball that bumps 90 mph at times” as well as “a slurvy breaking ball and nascent changeup.” He was drafted in a round — the 22nd — MLB would prefer doesn’t exist and sent to a rookie-league likely to be disbanded come 2021. He moved slowly through the minor leagues, needing Tommy John surgery early on, but pitched well all the way up through Triple-A in 2016 and made three appearances for the Royals that season.

As spring training began in 2017, the Royals designated Mills for assignment to make room for Jason Hammel on the 40-man roster. He was traded to the Cubs a day later and then missed most of the season with bone chips in his elbow. Mills was never ranked too highly on prospect lists, and the “pitchability righty” and “back-end starter” designations that appeared on the Cubs’ 2019 prospect list run pretty consistently with reports dating all the way to the draft eight years ago. Mills pitched well in a multi-inning relief role and had two good late-September starts against the division-winning Cardinals last season. If not for Jose Quintana’s injury before the start of the 2020 campaign, Mills wouldn’t have made the rotation, though Paul Sporer did mention that “a pair of breaking balls, including a new slow curve (67.6 mph)… [had] yielded a career-best 13% swinging strike rate” in our pre-season Positional Power Rankings.

Entering Sunday’s game, Mills had played pretty much as advertised. He wasn’t striking out many hitters, but posted a slightly above-average walk rate and solid groundball rate. He used his sinker to get those groundballs, but left the pitch up enough to surrender five of his eight homers on a pitch he throws about a third of the time. Those homers and a lack of strikeouts meant a 5.22 FIP entering Sunday, 14% below league average, though perfectly acceptable for an end-of-the-rotation starter. His 4.74 ERA was better and pretty close to league average, though the difference between his ERA and FIP was likely due in large part to a solid Cubs’ defense that has also helped Yu Darvish, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and the rest of the Cubs’ staff to lower figures than their Statcast data expects.

That was entering Sunday. Then Mills went out and threw a no-hitter.

His pitch usage, strikeouts, walks, and groundball rate were all fairly in line with his season norms. Where Mills excelled on Sunday was with his command. He got first pitch strikes more often than he normally does and did a better job avoiding the center of the plate. Here is Mills’ heat map entering Sunday, as well as for his no-hitter:

And here’s where the batted balls he surrendered were located in the zone:

There’s a hole in the middle, and the reason for that hole is that Mills rarely pitched in the middle of the plate. Only six of his pitches were center-center, and two of those were offspeed offerings. Good command and a quality pitch-mix are never going to be enough to throw a no-hitter, however. It takes a little help. Sometimes, no-hitters are marked by fabulous defensive plays that save the game, though there weren’t really any of those bolstering Mills’ bid on Sunday. Sometimes guys get a bit lucky. Mills allowed some hard-hit balls, though most of those came in the first couple of innings. The Statcast profile of his batted balls is below:

Alec Mills No-Hitter: Batted Balls
Batter Inning EV (MPH) LA (Deg.) Dist (ft.) xBA
Avisaíl García 1 98.1 22 341 .46
Christian Yelich 1 95.2 -10 11 .29
Jedd Gyorko 2 102.1 23 388 .81
Orlando Arcia 2 98.2 6 112 .61
Jacob Nottingham 3 106 -3 29 .45
Avisaíl García 3 75.8 1 46 .19
Christian Yelich 4 104.4 14 287 .74
Daniel Vogelbach 4 97.9 -10 12 .25
Jedd Gyorko 5 99.6 48 326 .02
Ben Gamel 5 81 11 154 .47
Orlando Arcia 5 88.9 25 309 .12
Eric Sogard 6 95.4 -3 25 .30
Avisaíl García 6 85.4 -6 21 .37
Christian Yelich 7 101.7 -12 14 .36
Keston Hiura 7 74.5 34 253 .15
Jedd Gyorko 7 58.4 60 123 .01
Ben Gamel 8 59.4 83 47 .00
Orlando Arcia 8 89.6 -4 27 .28
Eric Sogard 8 69.1 73 86 .00
Jacob Nottingham 9 58.2 72 73 .00
Jace Peterson 9 99.5 -4 20 .46

If we were to consider the chances of every single batted ball being an out, the odds are about one in 10,000, though on batted balls after the second inning, the odds of no hits on those plays is much better, at about one in 273. One of those balls in the first two innings, a Jedd Gyorko shot, required a solid play by Ian Happ in center field:

If Gyorko hits that ball just a tiny bit later, it’s either a homer or a double. If the launch angle is just a bit higher, the ball flies out of the park pretty easily. It didn’t, though. And none of the other decently-hit balls dropped, either. I went back and took a look at the batted balls for no-hitters in the Statcast era, and Mills’ effort Sunday was the unlikeliest based on exit velocity and launch angle:

No-Hitter Odds Based on Batted Balls
Pitcher Date Chances of No-Hitter Odds
Alec Mills 9/13/2020 0.01% 1 in 9600
James Paxton 5/8/2018 0.05% 1 in 1993
Jake Arrieta 8/30/2015 0.06% 1 in 1687
Cole Hamels 7/25/2015 0.16% 1 in 609
Mike Fiers 5/7/2019 0.28% 1 in 358
Lucas Giolito 8/25/2020 0.32% 1 in 316
Sean Manaea 4/21/2018 0.41% 1 in 243
Hisashi Iwakuma 8/12/2015 0.46% 1 in 218
Jake Arrieta 4/21/2016 0.73% 1 in 136
Mike Fiers 8/21/2015 0.89% 1 in 112
Edinson Volquez 6/3/2017 2.92% 1 in 34
Max Scherzer 10/3/2015 3.09% 1 in 32
Max Scherzer 6/20/2015 6.18% 1 in 16
Chris Heston 6/9/2015 7.75% 1 in 13
Justin Verlander 9/1/2019 15.17% 1 in 7
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

The Brewers had enough hard-hit balls to think a few would drop for hits. Of course, all no-hitters require good fortune. A pitcher could strike out 21 of 27 batters, have six batted balls with just a 10% chance of going for a hit, and still only have a 50/50 shot at a no-hitter. And it isn’t just no-hitters, either. Any championship team, any big comeback, needs a lot of good fortune. At the major league level, baseball is a constant one-on-one battle between two of the very best at what they do. Hard work and great skills put them in that position, but sometimes luck plays a role, too. Alec Mills’ no-hitter required considerable good fortune, and more good fortune than other recent no-hitters. But good fortune makes for great outcomes. Mills earned the chance to be the beneficiary of some of that luck and made baseball history along the way.

We hoped you liked reading The Unlikeliest No-Hitter by Craig Edwards!

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Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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jnovinger
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jnovinger

Verlander’s no-no on 9/1/20, while on the IL, seems the most unlikely of all.