Welcome to Hitless Baseball

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

By his own definition, Max Scherzer had a shot at a no-hitter. In the nightcap of Tuesday’s doubleheader against the Giants at Citi Field, in his first home start since signing with the Mets, he held San Francisco hitless for 5.2 innings before Darin Ruf lined a single to left field, ending the 37-year-old righty’s quest for his third career no-no. “My rule of thumb is when you get one time through the order, you got something going. You get two times through the order, you got a shot,” said Scherzer afterwards. He had turned the lineup over for the second time earlier in that inning; Ruf was the 21st batter he faced.

Scherzer wasn’t the only pitcher to make a run at a no-hitter this week. In the span of just over 24 hours on Tuesday and Wednesday, five starters made it through at least five innings without yielding a hit. Just hours after Scherzer’s effort, the Braves’ Max Fried retired the first 15 hitters he faced at Dodger Stadium before Hanser Alberto lined a single to right field. The next day, the Brewers’ Brandon Woodruff, the Dodgers’ Tony Gonsolin, and the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani all found the holes in opponents’ bats. While none of them made it as far as the nail-biting time in the eighth or ninth innings, the conditions appear primed for the 2022 season to pick up where last year — a season that featured a record nine no-hitters — left off.

Through the first two weeks of the season, starters have taken no-hitters into the sixth inning 10 times:

No-Hit Bids of 5 Innings or More in 2022
Player Date Tm Opp Broken IP H R BB SO Pit
Clayton Kershaw 4/13/22 LAD MIN 8th, 1 out* 7 0 0 0 13 80
Sean Manaea 4/8/22 SDP ARI 8th, 0 out* 7 0 0 1 7 88
Yu Darvish 4/7/22 SDP ARI 7th, 0 out* 6 0 0 4 3 92
Max Scherzer 4/19/22 NYM SFG 6th, 2 out 7 1 1 3 10 102
Brandon Woodruff 4/20/22 MIL PIT 6th, 1 out 6 1 0 2 9 95
Shohei Ohtani 4/20/22 LAA HOU 6th, 1 out 6 1 0 1 12 81
Matt Brash 4/17/22 SEA HOU 6th, 1 out 5.1 2 2 6 5 85
Shane Bieber 4/12/22 CLE CIN 6th, 1 out 5.1 2 3 3 5 79
Max Fried 4/19/22 ATL LAD 6th, 0 out 7 2 0 0 8 93
Tony Gonsolin 4/20/22 LAD ATL 6th, 0 out 6 1 0 3 3 83
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
* = first hit was surrendered by a reliever

Even before the controversy involving Kershaw — who became just the second pitcher pulled from a perfect game in the seventh inning or later — and Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, Padres manager Bob Melvin pulled starters with no-hitters in progress in back-to-back games. What’s more, they were his first two regular-season contests with his new team! Like Roberts, Melvin made his moves in light of the fact that his starters hadn’t fully built up their pitch counts after shorter-than-normal spring trainings, and like Kershaw, both Darvish and Manaea publicly supported their manager’s decision.

The managers of the other seven pitchers above (including Roberts, again) didn’t have to go to the hook before their starters gave up a hit or, in the case of Ohtani, who retired the first 16 Astros before Jason Castro singled, a baserunner. In his case, though, Angels manager Joe Maddon told reporters that he wouldn’t have pulled Ohtani with a perfect game intact: “There’s no number. He was going to pitch a perfect game. I’m not going to get in the way of a player’s greatness — ever.” Ohtani, who due to a series of arm injuries logged just 1.2 innings in 2019 and ’20, didn’t sound so convinced, even given that he had maxed out at 80 pitches in his first start of the season and had gotten through the first out of the sixth inning at just 66 pitches. “I was aware of [the perfect game] but I knew the pitch count was getting up there, so I was thinking I probably wouldn’t be able to finish it off,” he said afterward.

For all of those looking to project some measure of old-school machismo onto Scherzer and Buck Showalter given the circumstances, the Mets’ manager acknowledged that the ace righty was working with a pitch count of around 110 after throwing 96 pitches in his previous start. Scherzer was less concerned about preserving a no-hitter than with pitching deep into the game so as not to overtax a bullpen that had thrown four innings in the opening game of the doubleheader:

“I knew I needed to control my pitch count tonight so I could pitch as deep as possible because of the doubleheader.

“The deeper I could go, it saves bullpen arms. That not only matters today but it also shows up for the next three or four days. My job tonight was literally to pitch as many innings as possible.”

Scherzer joined Fried as the only pitchers from the above group to go back out for another inning after giving up a hit. He didn’t quite get to 110 pitches, but he was just the third pitcher to reach 100 in a start this year, after Nathan Eovaldi on April 13 and Corbin Burnes a short while earlier on Tuesday.

Indeed, on the heels of a spring training that was only three and a half weeks long due to the lockout, starters have averaged just 4.65 innings and 77 pitches per start through Thursday’s games. That’s down not only from last year’s 5.02 innings and 83 pitches per start but also from the 2020 averages of 4.78 innings following a similarly abbreviated summer camp. As starters build up their pitch counts, and as rosters are pared back to 26 players and 13 pitchers after May 1, this year’s numbers should rise, but it helps to explain why even these veteran hurlers weren’t pushed further.

As for the spate of no-hit bids, we really are seeing more of them, at least if one considers five hitless innings to be a no-hit bid. I do, and it’s borne from professional experience. Even as no-hitters have begun to feel routine in recent years, they all mandate some sort of coverage, and particularly during my 5 1/2 years at SI.com, that responsibility often fell to me — and often while my wife, herself a baseball editor at Sports on Earth, SI, and now The Athletic, scrambled to assemble de parallel plans for the coverage under her purview. If a game gets through five innings without a hit — a point at which there’s only about a 5% chance of that no-hitter being completed, as Craig Edwards calculated a few years ago — it’s still second nature for me to check in with an editor and make sure somebody has eyes on it, even if I don’t.

Last year, I used the No No-Hitters archive to log the annual number of no-hit bids that made it to the seventh inning since 2015, a data set that came in handy during last year’s flurry. With the database help of Sean Dolinar, I’ve added no-hitters broken up in the sixth — information not logged at No No-Hitters — and also cleared up a few minor errors (at least one theirs, and at least one mine). With apologies to Rich Hill, here’s what the table now looks like, through games of Thursday:

No-Hit Bids as a Percentage of Games Since 2015
Year Games NH Broken 6 Broken 7 Broken 8 Broken 9 Broken 6+ % Near NH % Near + NH
2015 4858 7 42 22 12 5 81 1.67% 1.81%
2016 4856 1 40 23 9 4 76 1.57% 1.59%
2017 4860 1 43 13 4 6* 66 1.36% 1.38%
2018 4862 3 45 30 10 3 88 1.81% 1.87%
2019 4858 4 48 17 4 4 73 1.50% 1.59%
2020 1576 2 28 7 1 1 37 2.35% 2.47%
2021 4622 9 30 24 14 2 70 1.51% 1.71%
2022 384 0 7 1 2 0 10 2.60% 2.60%
Totals 30876 27 283 137 56 24 501 1.62% 1.71%
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference +NoNoHitters.com
* = includes one no-hit bid broken up in 10th inning (Rich Hill, 10/24/17). Totals for 2020 and ’21 exclude seven-inning doubleheader games.

Pitchers (and their teams, as this includes combined efforts) are taking no-hitters into the sixth once for every 38.4 starts thus far this season, compared to once for every 58.5 starts last year and once for every 60.4 starts for the recent seasons that did not have truncated spring trainings. Putting it another way: thus far, they’re 57% more common relative to that “normal season” baseline.

As to why, the shortened run-up to the season and those lighter workloads may have something to do with it. As Justin Choi documented earlier this week, average fastball velocities are up; based on Pitch Info data, starters are averaging 93.8 mph with their heaters, up from 93.4 last year and 93.1 in both 2019 and ’20. While they’re not fully stretched out, they know there’s going to be an endpoint and can ration their energy accordingly; instead of emptying the tank by the seventh inning, they’re doing so by the fifth or sixth. As Baseball Prospectus’ Russell Carleton recently wrote, “[T]he end-point might just have been the reason for the good outing. In the third inning, maybe the pitcher reached back for a little extra to get that key strikeout in a situation that might have spiraled into a three-run inning. But knowing that it was going to be a five-and-dive anyway, the pitcher might have said ‘Well, why not here?'”

The increased velocity — not just on fastballs, but on pitches in general — may be contributing to what has thus far been a dramatic league-wide downturn in offense:

MLB Offense, RIP
2015 4.25 1.01 .254 .317 .405
2016 4.48 1.16 .255 .322 .417
2017 4.65 1.26 .255 .324 .426
2018 4.45 1.15 .248 .318 .409
2019 4.83 1.39 .252 .323 .435
2020 4.65 1.28 .245 .322 .418
2021 4.53 1.22 .244 .317 .411
2022 3.99 0.90 .231 .308 .369

Yikes! Scoring levels haven’t dipped below 4.0 runs per game since 1976; the last season that featured 24 teams had a rate of 3.99 runs per game as well, but expansion and a change in ball manufacturers helped to drive rates back over four runs per game. Levels during the strike-shortened 1981 season were right at 4.00, with the same slugging percentage as now, but that year the overall slash line was .256/.320/.369.

Here’s the kicker: Batting averages have never been this low. Not in the 19th century, not in the deadball era, not even in 1968, “The Year of the Pitcher”:

MLB Seasons with Lowest Batting Averages
Year Leagues R/G HR BA OBP SLG
2022 AL, NL 3.99 0.90 .231 .308 .369
1968 AL, NL 3.42 0.61 .237 .299 .340
1888 NL, AA 4.88 0.24 .239 .291 .320
1908 AL, NL 3.38 0.11 .239 .297 .305
1967 AL, NL 3.77 0.71 .242 .306 .357
1884 NL, AA, UA 5.45 0.22 .243 .279 .327
1885 NL, AA 5.22 0.18 .244 .288 .325
1909 AL, NL 3.54 0.10 .244 .306 .311
1972 AL, NL 3.69 0.68 .244 .311 .354
2021 AL, NL 4.53 1.22 .244 .317 .411
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
AA = American Association, AL = American League, NL = National League, UA = Union Association

On a major league-wide basis, batting averages are six points lower than they’ve ever been. In the 1880s, errors — about four per team per game, leading to over 40% of runs being unearned — helped to elevate scoring rates above their 1960s lows; now it’s home runs driving the scoring. We’re getting fewer of those than in recent years, but we saw home run rates dip to 0.86 per game as recently as 2014.

It’s that record-low batting average, which after all tells us the chances of a batter getting a hit, that’s driving this proliferation of no-hit bids, not just in 2022 but also in this period in question. For the 2015–22 period, the rate of no-hitters and near no-hitters (including those taken into the sixth) has a -0.82 correlation with the MLB-wide batting average, which is to say that 68% of the variance is explained by that average. As to the why of that, higher velocity and increased reliever usage are contributing factors, as are defensive shifts and a change in hitting philosophy, given the increased incentive to hit the ball in the air and the decreased stigma regarding hitter strikeouts.

The baseball itself is a factor, too. MLB’s monkeying with the ball in recent years has been well-documented, to the point that last spring the league even announced that Rawlings (the official supplier of the balls, which it partially owns) had loosened the tension on the first of its three layers of yarn in order to slightly decrease the ball’s coefficient of restitution and thus its carry. Last November, physicist Dr. Meredith Wills discovered that the league used two different balls in 2021, one of them the lighter, lower-COR model. MLB confirmed this, blamed the shortfall on COVID-19-related manufacturing issues, and said that it dipped into previous stock. Based on the production codes, however, Wills found that Rawlings actually switched back to the older, heavier balls.

Presumably Rawlings has now produced enough of the lower-COR baseballs that it won’t have to do the same this year. But meanwhile, the league has mandated humidors to store the baseballs in all 30 ballparks, up from 10 last year and one (Coors Field) from 2002 to ’17. The humidors standardize the amount of water and thus the COR in the balls, which could increase their carry in some parks while decreasing it in others.

It will take a whole lot more study over a larger sample of games to iron out the humidors’ true effect, but we know that balls carry less in cooler temperatures, which tend to be prevalent early in the season. Via our new weather data, for example, the average temperature in open-air ballparks (including ones with open roofs) thus far this season has been 58.8 degrees, 8.4 degrees cooler than the average full-season temperature last year. We’re seeing less carry on fly balls according to Statcast — that during a period where an increasing percentage of batted balls are fly balls:

Fly Balls in the Statcast Era
Year FB/BBE EV FB Avg FB Distance AVG xBA SLG xSLG
2015 19.4% 90.3 315 .194 .199 .585 .604
2016 20.9% 91.1 318 .224 .229 .710 .722
2017 22.3% 91.2 320 .280 .268 .893 .854
2018 23.0% 91.6 319 .270 .258 .851 .808
2019 23.5% 92.0 324 .308 .292 .988 .937
2020 23.9% 92.3 322 .264 .255 .889 .867
2021 25.6% 92.2 318 .281 .274 .878 .861
2022 25.4% 92.1 312 .241 .291 .702 .939
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

As you can see, the actual batting averages and slugging percentages on fly balls are all over the map as the distances have varied, but right now, wow. Relative to the homer-happy 2019, balls have lost 12 feet of distance, and the batting average on those balls has fallen by 67 points, with the slugging percentages falling by a whopping 286 points.

Again, it’s going to take much larger sample sizes over a fuller range of temperatures and air densities — not to mention recalibration of the x-stats — to get a better handle on the true effect of whatever version of the baseball is in play, but it will suffice to say that this is yet another factor contributing to the drop in offensive rates and the rise in no-hit bids. Likewise, the relationship between offensive levels and other factors such as velocity, starter/reliever workload distribution, defensive shifts, and hitting philosophies — and the expanding strike zone and the influence of grip-enhancing substances, two other factors that I could have included here if I’d done a more expansive analysis — is more complicated than I’ve presented it here. But it does appear that we’re in the midst of a perfect storm that’s creating ideal conditions for hitless baseball, and that we’re going to get our fill of it in 2022.

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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1 year ago

What was going on with FB in 2015-2016? Those expected numbers are…pretty terrible? Is it all just the increase in exit velo?

Six Ten
1 year ago
Reply to  Lloyd

This is just a hunch but I think it’s at least part of it: the called strike zone started shrinking after 2015. The expansion was much more on the outside than the inside. It’s (relatively speaking) easy to get good grounder and liner results on balls away, it is much harder to get good fly ball results away. But if they’re strikes you have to be willing to swing at them. As those calls went away fromo 2015-2017 pitchers had to come back to the middle and inside more.

You’d need to look at flyball outcomes before 2015 to validate that, and like anything else I wouldn’t expect one thing to be the whole story. But I’m guessing it’s a factor.

Captain Tenneal
1 year ago
Reply to  Lloyd

Feels like a difference in hit classification that changed between 2016 and 2017.