Sometimes, the simplest explanation is the valid one: The number of hits per game in the major leagues has plummeted, so no-hitters are on the rise.
Even so, this season has been a bit extreme.
Yankees right-hander Corey Kluber pitched the majors’ sixth no-hitter Wednesday against the Rangers, just a night after Spencer Turnbull’s gem, and 2021 is on pace to obliterate the modern record of seven no-hitters in a season. Cleveland, Seattle and Texas have already been no-hit twice, and of the 21 complete games that have been pitched this season, more than a quarter of them have been no-hitters.
“It’s definitely getting harder to hit. The pitchers are only getting better and I think their plan of attack against hitters are getting better,” Oakland Athletics third baseman Matt Chapman said Wednesday. “The shifts play a big part in that as well. It seems like there’s not many hits out there. The way guys pitch, there’s a lot of power arms and guys have high spin rates and they don’t leave the ball over the middle of plate very often.”
Of the six pitchers who have thrown one, only three have been All-Stars — Kluber three times, John Means in 2019 and Wade Miley back in 2012. It’s enough to make these no-hitters feel almost … routine?
“I think it’s still really hard,” said Texas manager Chris Woodward, who was on the losing end when Joe Musgrove threw the first no-hitter in San Diego Padres history last month then again Wednesday. “It’s one of the hardest things to do in sports. Any time it’s happening, any game I’m watching … if a guy has a no-hitter through four, I’m always kind of like intrigued.”
It’s hard to separate all these no-hitters from the context of what baseball looks like in 2021. Entering Wednesday, the average game included 7.83 hits per team. Only one season has ended with a lower figure, according to SportRadar. That was 1908, during the dead ball era. The other seasons when hits were the scarcest were 1968 — the famous “Year of the Pitcher” — and two more dead ball seasons, 1909 and 1907.
Remarkably, there wasn’t a single no-hitter in 1909 and only two in 1907. But there were six in 1908 and five in 1968.
The highest hits per game average since 1900 was in 1930, when it was 10.37 per team. Next up were 1925, 1921, 1936 and 1929. Not surprisingly, there were only two no-hitters combined in those five seasons.
“My instincts tell me the pitching is getting better,” said Cincinnati Reds manager David Bell, whose team produced one of this year’s no-hitters when Miley threw his May 7. “The hitting is too, but I do think that the way the arms are, the velocity the pitchers are throwing, the ability to spin the ball incredibly well, it’s just a tough combination. And you get a guy on a good night when he’s locked in, the scouting reports have gotten more exact, and it can make for a tough night.”
One of the more unusual stretches for no-hitters came between 1988 and 1992. During that stretch, the hits per game numbers stayed between 8.62 and 8.75 every season, but the number of no-hitters varied widely. There was one in 1988, followed by zero in 1989, then seven each in 1990 and 1991. Then it was back to just one in 1992.
From 2002-2006, there were only five no-hitters. In that 2006 season, teams averaged 9.28 hits per game. That number has steadily decreased since then, and no-hitters have been more common. There were seven each in 2012 and 2015.
“Over the last few years, everybody’s trying to hit homers,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “And if you hit homers you’re going to foul back pitches, you’re going to swing and miss on balls, there’s very little bunting going on for hits. The unorthodox defenses take away a lot of hits up the middle.”
In this era of hard-throwing relievers and fewer complete games, you might expect more combined no-hitters, but each one this has been a solo effort.
“I think the surprising thing is that, you know, maybe in the age of pitchers not going 100 pitches, that they’re actually being able to finish these games off,” Woodward said. “Because typically nowadays it’s hard for a guy to get through six innings with less than 100 pitches.”
The number of strikeouts hasn’t really been out of the ordinary in these no-hitters, and that might be part of the reason pitch counts weren’t out of control. The average number of strikeouts in this year’s no-hitters had been 9.2 through Turnbull’s masterpiece against the Mariners . Carlos Rodón of the Chicago White Sox had only seven in his no-hitter against Cleveland last month.
Chapman insists more players are trying to hit home runs since the base hits have become so tough to come by.
“There’s not many singles left,” he said. “So I think that’s why you see guys trying to swing for more power because most of the hits are over the outfielder’s head or over the fence, which leads to bigger swings and more swings and misses. I think that’s kind of the way the game’s trending right now.”
Perhaps the trend will subside a bit, but as long as hits are this hard to come by, a no-hitter will be a constant possibility. The question is whether these feats will still draw as much attention.
“Every time you get close, that excitement, you can feel it in the dugout — I hope that never leaves,” Kansas City manager Mike Matheny said. “There’s some excitement when you see, you know, this is tracking really well, we’ve had some really great plays, the innings are going by, maybe this could happen. I really hope fans don’t start to think it’s common.”
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AP Baseball Writers Stephen Hawkins and Janie McCauley and AP Sports Writers Dave Skretta and Mitch Stacy contributed to this report.