Jon Lester, Philip Humber Show That No-Hitters Are Unique and Hard to Predict, Even in a Year of the Pitcher

Jon Lester, Philip Humber Show That No-Hitters Are Unique and Hard to Predict, Even in a Year of the PitcherOn April 21, a pitcher who had never thrown a complete game went nine innings, and he did it without allowing a baserunner.

In Major League Baseball, that's called a perfect game, and only 21 guys have ever done it.

Philip Humber's magical outing immediately had the baseball world asking if 2012 was going to surpass the pitching dominance of 2011, when hurlers gained an edge they haven't had for years.

Less than two weeks later, Jered Weaver joined the show. His was a mere no-hitter, but it was a remarkable outing, showcasing Weaver's elite form.

Spring has continued to favor the mound, with Johan Santana also throwing a no-no. Matt Cain showed up for a perfect game and had Sandy Koufax-level strikeouts. Even the lowly Mariners put together a no-hitter — albeit one that took six guys to do it.

The spurt in pitching's rarest gems has had some wondering whether the no-hitter is losing its luster, as it's becoming more commonplace.

But while statistics are gradually moving upward for pitchers, it can't be assumed that the no-hitters are guaranteed to continue. For one, tying them to overall pitching dominance may be misleading.

No-hitters aren't a gaudy statistic, like a high number of total strikeouts. They require many factors, one of the biggest being luck (although it certainly helps if you start with a pitcher who is less likely to give up a lot of hits).

No matter how many times pitchers chase a no-hitter, they continue to be rare. Each one is also remarkably unique. No-hitters rely on contributions from the whole team, and they can't be manufactured, even from the greatest pitchers. That's why they're so special.

Take the two starting pitchers for Tuesday night's Red Sox-White Sox game, for example.

Humber opposed Jon Lester, who pitched a no-hitter in 2008 in dramatic fashion. Always a decent pitcher, Lester's career became an afterthought when he had to fight for his life after being diagnosed with leukemia. He beat the disease, and then he came out and beat the odds on the field, too, with a no-hitter that was written for the storybooks.

Both Humber and Lester have had incredible days on the mound, but it's the rest of their careers that have shown just how improbable their two greatest games were. Humber, who struggled just to stay in the league, has dealt with an elbow injury this year and scuffled to a 3-4 record with a 6.01 ERA despite his nine innings of history. Lester, while a definitive ace at some points in his career, is logging a 5-6 year with a 4.49 ERA, where there are more questions about his use of cutters than the kind of transcendent wonder Red Sox fans would have had on a day that, say, Pedro Martinez was pitching. Both pitchers struggled in their Tuesday matchup.

This is the point: Both men have thrown no-hitters, but neither guy has fans coming to the game wondering if it will happen again. They have had moments of greatness, but the reason they reached the epic level of a no-hitter relied just as much upon outside forces as it did on their abilities as pitchers.

There's always that chance, that remote chance, that a no-hitter could happen on any day in the park. But it's just that — a chance. It's a chance that's really no better when Justin Verlander comes out than another guy.

The historical data and anecdotal evidence shows that every no-hitter is amazing, but the evidence isn't helpful at all when predicting another one. Statistically, because pitchers have been better in 2012, no-hitters would be expected. But it's not always the most dominant pitchers who throw them, and even in eras where pitchers decidedly had the edge, no-hitters and perfect games were not the norm.

This doesn't take the excitement out of a purported "Year of the Pitcher" — if the flukiness of a no-no can teach us anything, it's that they can happen at any time.

But in the discussion of whether the special feat is losing its relevance as pitchers go through a dominant stretch, perhaps a different question needs to be asked. If pitchers are so dominant, why aren't there even more no-hitters? When will Verlander get his perfect game? Does the totality of all pitchers being great mean that individuals are guaranteed games where they blow the opposition away?

A truly great pitcher is one who can hold on for an entire season, compiling long outings and good overall numbers en route to winning efforts by his team. Just as a pitcher isn't any more impressive for striking out the side if he can't keep guys off base for the rest of his outing, a pitcher is not sensational just for throwing a no-hitter if the rest of his career is uneven.

No-hitters should not be a mark of greatness — they should be a mark of a great day. They should be treated as so many of those great statistics in baseball are — as something to be celebrated when forces combine with luck and talent to produce something special.

Humber and Lester, and all of the aces and no-hitter recipients across the leagues, are decent in their own right. They'll be judged by the scope of their output. And they'll be known for being in the class of those who have thrown a no-hitter — a distinction that hints of talent but acknowledges that it's more of a baseball anomaly than a definitive sign of an unstoppable pitcher.

If this year ends up offering more and more no-hitters, chances are the rest of the pitching stats will follow accordingly. But no one should be afraid that a great pitching year will ruin the no-hitter, as the feat is based just as much on outside forces as it is on ability.

The no-nos won't be something that defines this season as a Year of the Pitcher. But they could be a sign that, in a Year of the Pitcher, enough guys were good enough that the baseball gods allowed for something extra special.

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