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MLB on Pace for Record-Breaking 11 No-Hitters Thanks to Human Element

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MLB on Pace for Record-Breaking 11 No-Hitters Thanks to Human Element
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With four no-hitters through 868 MLB games Friday night, baseball is averaging one no-no for every 217 games played, or approximately one every two weeks. At this pace and with 1,600 games remaining as of Saturday afternoon, we should expect to see seven more no-hitters by season's end, or 11 total no-hitters in 2012, which would be an MLB record.

Comparing 2012 to other seasons, the projected 11 no-hitters this year is a significant anomaly. In 2011, only Francisco Liriano, Justin Verlander and Ervin Santana no-hit their opponents and in 2010, there were six no-hitters. In both 2008 and 2009, that number was just two, while 2007 featured three to 2006's one. 2005 was the most recent MLB season without a no-hitter.

According to a logarithmic trend line projection based on 2005-2011 data, MLB should have expected to see six no-hitters in 2012. With no greater than six no-nos since 2005—and prior to that, MLB had not seen four no-hitters in a season since six were thrown in 1991—scientific explanation and objective analysis suggests there must be an confounding variable at play, an extenuating circumstance. Dating back to George Bradley's no-hitter in 1876, baseball has never seen more than seven no-hitters during any single season.

The Umpire Ejection Fantasy League has studied this possibility and after thorough review, that confounding factor appears to be the umpires themselves: Of the four 2012 no-hitters, three featured a close or controversial call contentious enough to merit instant replay review and of those three, one and perhaps two no-hitters should, in fact, have featured at least one hit incorrectly wiped off the board.

On April 21, home plate umpire Brian Runge called White Sox pitcher Phil Humber's perfect game against the Seattle Mariners, ruling Brendan Ryan had failed to check his swing on a game-ending 3-2 slider. Though broadcast replays appeared to indicate the call was incorrect, several fan-shot side angles confirmed the correct call had been made.

The green line and pastel points represent the actual number of no-hitters thrown in baseball history, including a 2012 projection of 11 no-hitters. The dotted purple line is a logarithmic trend and projection based on pre-2012 figures while the dotted red line is a polynomial trend line of projected no-hitters, including the 2012 projection data.

On May 2, Angels ace Jered Weaver came within several inches of losing his no-hitter in the top of the fifth inning, Twins batter Chris Parmelee dispatching a 2-2 fastball down the third base line, yet barely foul according to third base umpire Angel Hernandez. Replays and a telling still shot of the ball landing near the foul line indicate Hernandez's call was correct.

On June 1, the New York Mets gained their first no-hitter in franchise history, courtesy of hurler Johan Santana. However, a key missed call in the sixth inning by umpire Adrian Johnson had made it all possible—correctly officiated, Santana's no-no would have been lost thanks to a Carlos Beltran double down the left field line. Instead, Johnson ruled Santana's screamer foul—despite the liner landing on the chalk line past third base—negating a potential two-bagger and keeping the no-hit bid intact.

Finally, on June 8, six Mariners pitchers combined to no-hit the Los Angeles Dodgers, although a Dee Gordon, broken-bat grounder threatened to break it all up in the ninth inning. Though a split screen image of the ensuing play at first base appears to show Gordon's right foot on the bag with the thrown ball still outside of first baseman Justin Smoak's glove, first base umpire Ted Barrett nonetheless called the speedster out, preserving the combined no-hit effort.

Coincidentally, Runge was the plate umpire on June 8 as well, becoming the 10th umpire in MLB history to call balls and strikes for multiple no-hitters in a single season. Prior to 2012, Runge also was behind home plate for Giants pitcher Jonathan Sanchez' no-hitter on July 10, 2009.

Had the most recent two no-nos instead been broken up, as replays suggest they should have been, the 2012 season would have only featured two no-hitters to this point, decreasing the projection of 11 no-nos to just five or six by season's end, which would be consistent with the logarithmic and trend-based pre-2012 projection.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Umpire Brian Runge is the 10th official in MLB history to have been behind home plate for two no-hitters during the same season.

Instead, MLB is set to make history, and not necessarily in a pleasant way: According to a UEFL poll released shortly after Santana's no-hitter, just 35 percent of 331 respondents believed that Johnson's missed call shouldn't detract from Santana's feat whatsoever. 38 percent believed it should be noted, but shouldn't take away from the otherwise spotless accomplishment and 26 percent thought Santana's no-no was decidedly cheapened by the blown call.

The next day, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had placed an asterisk following the headline "No-Hitter*," qualifying the feat with, "Santana throws gem with help of missed call" and setting off a furious debate and rivalry of sorts between Mets and Cardinals fans.

Why all the contention? What could have possibly occurred to thrust umpiring into the forefront of the no-hitter/perfect-game discussion?

Would you believe, it all starts and ends at the imperfect game in 2010: the one that eventually got umpire Jim Joyce pulled from pitcher Armando Galarraga's future games thanks to a book deal following those events.

On June 2, 2010, Galarraga, pitching for the Detroit Tigers, was one out away from a perfect game. Cue the insanity.

With two outs in the ninth inning, Indians shortstop Jason Donald hit a weak grounder to that Bermuda Triangle between the pitcher's mound, second and first base, forcing first baseman Miguel Cabrera to charge to his right and field the chopper. After grabbing the loose ball, Cabrera threw to Galarraga covering first as Donald arrived at the bag. Cue the call from Jim Joyce.

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And just like that, the perfect game was over, the no-hitter finished—and Galarraga? Well, he was all smiles. Joyce? He was resolute—until he went back to the umpires' dressing room and watched the slow-motion replay.

Joyce then insisted on speaking with Galarraga to apologize for—in Joyce's words—"[taking] a perfect game away from that kid over there who worked his [behind] off all night."

Ever the sportsman, Galarraga readily accepted, hugging the tearful Joyce and setting off a series of tremendous sportsmanship not seen for quite some time in professional athletics—the two made national news headlines, appeared together on the ESPY Awards and even co-authored a book, fittingly titled Nobody's Perfect.

In the wake of Joyce's blown call, MLB players voted the veteran arbiter the best umpire in baseball, echoing the sentiment that the missed call was a tragedy that had befallen one of the good guys.

Beneath the surface, umpires took note, setting the groundwork for an explosion of preserved no-hit bids. Tearful apologies for breaking up perfectos obviously cannot be a yearly occurrence and thanks to the psychology of being a human, they are not—clearly, Joyce missing this history call garnered a much different response than had, say, Joe West blown a game-changer.

Since Joyce-Galarraga, MLB hasn't had an umpire break up a no-hitter with a blown call; on the contrary, the umpires seem to have overcompensated so much that no-hitters have remained intact thanks to patently incorrect calls.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
The Human Element

No umpire wants to go through what Joyce endured, so naturally, the benefit of the doubt on close calls in no-hit and perfect game bids naturally goes to the defense. Though the umpires who got these plays wrong by razor-thin margins (at least in Barrett's case) will never admit it—because it is very likely they themselves aren't even consciously aware of it—Joyce's tribulation has greatly affected the officiating community.

Even though umpires have a very difficult and objective job to do, no one wants to be on the wrong side of history, especially if it entails destroying an otherwise flawless performance by a major league pitcher. No one wants to be that villain.

Hence, it is better to give a no-hitter than receive that dubious distinction of Mr. Imperfect and as we have seen twice in 2012, that psychological fear of altering the course of baseball history is just enough to preserve a no-hitter.

 

Gil Imber is Bleacher Report's Rules Featured Columnist and owner of Close Call Sports, a website dedicated to the objective and fair analysis of close or controversial calls in sports.

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