In a flashback to 2010, last week featured two no-hitters in a span of four days, with Francisco Liriano of the Twins blanking the White Sox on May 3 and Justin Verlander doing the same to the Blue Jays last Saturday. (There were two near misses as well: The Cardinals' Jaime Garcia carried a perfect game into the eighth inning against the Brewers last Friday, and the next day Milwaukee's Yovani Gallardo returned the favor by holding St. Louis hitless for seven innings.) They were the majors' seventh and eighth no-hitters in just over a calendar year, which inspires the question: Where are all these no-nos coming from?
The pitchers themselves, of course, have had a hand. In his gem, the second no-hitter of his career, Verlander touched 101 mph with his fastball and allowed just one base runner, on a 12-pitch walk in the eighth inning. But Liriano's night to remember underscored the fluky nature of no-hitters. The lefthander walked six and struck out just two in what was, statistically, one of the least impressive no-hitters ever.
There is, however, something larger than luck or randomness at work here. The conditions of the game have shifted, making no-hitters slightly more likely than they were just a few years ago. Consider what can happen in an at bat: A player can strike out, he can put a ball in play or he can hit a ball over the fence for a home run. Well, strikeouts—the best way for a pitcher to ensure that he doesn't give up a hit—continue to climb. Hitters now strike out in 18.6% of their plate appearances, the latest high point in a trend that has been the single most important statistical constant in the game's history (right).
When they do make contact and hit the ball in the air, that fly ball isn't as likely to leave the yard as it was just a few seasons ago. In fact, at 7.0%, the home run/fly ball rate is at its lowest point since 1993, and down from 7.8% just two years ago. That's a lot of HRs becoming F8s. Finally, when a batted ball stays in play, it's becoming an out at a very high rate. This season, major league hitters have just a .289 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), the lowest mark since 1992. That figure was at or above .300 from 2006 to '08, and .297 as recently as last season.
These three trends—the highest strikeout rate ever, fewer balls leaving the yard and more outs converted when they don't—are combining to produce the lowest majors-wide batting average in nearly 40 years: .249 through Sunday. That figure hasn't been less than .250 since 1972, a year when offense dipped so much—just four years after the mound was lowered—that the American League decided to add the designated hitter to boost scoring. While HR/FB should tick up with warmer weather, and BABIP might as well, the two-year trend in those numbers indicates that we are watching a fundamentally different game in 2011 than we were in 2009.
The last time both HR/FB and BABIP ran so low together? The early 1990s. The last time we had eight no-hitters in 13 months? The early 1990s. Based on the stats, we could be in a new golden age of no-hitters.
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The rising strikeout rate may be a contributing factor in the spate of no-hitters. The percentage of plate appearances with a whiff has gone up steadily.
18.6% (alltime high)
CJ LAFRANCE/ZUMAPRESS.COM (VERLANDER)
TIGER BLOOD Liriano (below) wasn't as dominant as Verlander (left), but now both have no-hitters.
CHARLES REX ARBOGAST/AP (LIRIANO)
[See caption above]