The 12 Greatest MLB Pitchers to Never Throw a No-HitterMay 17, 2021
The 12 Greatest MLB Pitchers to Never Throw a No-Hitter
Major League Baseball pitchers are currently on pace to annihilate the all-time record for no-hitters thrown in a single season.
There have already been four no-nos tossed in 2021, and the campaign is only about 25 percent complete. That implies a pace of 16. Whether you prefer the ancient record of eight that was set in 1884 or the more modern record of seven accomplished in each of 1990, 1991, 2012 and 2015, it could get shattered.
Of course, the inherent beauty of no-hitters is the randomness of their occurrences. The four guys who have pulled it off thus far this season—Joe Musgrove, Carlos Rodon, John Means and Wade Miley—had combined for one complete-game shutout (by Miley in 2016) in 461 career starts prior to 2021. No one saw any of those performances coming, and it could be a full calendar year or more before the next one.
On the flip side of that coin, there are quite a few all-time greats who never managed to make it onto the no-hitters page of the record book.
There are 24 pitchers who rank in the top 30 (among pitchers) in career Wins Above Replacement on both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference. Twelve of those 24 legends logged at least one no-hitter. Nolan Ryan famously tossed seven.
These are the other dozen great pitchers who never had their lucky day.
The Ancient History
We're going to focus predominantly on the guys who pitched in the past half-century. However, there are a few worth mentioning who were unable to hurl a no-hitter even before the mound was lowered in 1969.
Grover "Old Pete" Alexander (1911-1930)
FanGraphs No. 9; Baseball Reference No. 5
Proof of how difficult/random it is to throw a no-hitter, Alexander ranks second in MLB history with 90 complete-game shutouts in his career, yet he never managed to do one hitless.
There were plenty of close calls, of course. In his rookie season alone, he threw a one-hit shutout in a win against Cy Young and had a relief appearance in which he threw eight innings without allowing a hit. Four years later, Alexander had not one, not two, not three, but four one-hit shutouts in a single season. So close, but no cigar.
Kid Nichols (1890-1906)
FanGraphs No. 19; Baseball Reference No. 4
Nichols wasn't quite the shutout artist that Alexander was, but 48 in a career is nothing to sneeze at. Neither Baseball Reference nor FanGraphs offers game-by-game logs prior to 1901, but even in the latter stages of his career, Nichols tossed a 1904 two-hitter in which one of the hits was an eighth-inning home run.
Tim Keefe (1880-1893)
FanGraphs No. 29; Baseball Reference No. 15
As just noted, we don't have game logs for Keefe, because his entire career took place prior to 1901. The record books do say he pitched 554 complete games and 39 shutouts, though, and there were six seasons in which he led the league in hits allowed per nine innings pitched. Safe to assume he flirted with a no-no or five along the way, but he never got one.
Lefty Grove (1925-1941)
FanGraphs No. 13; Baseball Reference No. 6
Grove led the league in ERA nine times in his career, led the league in strikeouts in each of his first seven seasons, pitched 35 complete-game shutouts and was named the 1931 AL MVP with 31 wins.
But it wasn't until his next-to-last season that he finally flirted with a no-hitter. In the 1940 season opener against the Washington Senators, Grove carried a perfect game into the eighth inning before an error and back-to-back singles ruined his quest for history.
Robin Roberts (1948-1966)
FanGraphs No. 26; Baseball Reference No. 22
Starting with the 1950 Phillies—AKA the Whiz Kids—Roberts had a dominant seven-year run, earning NL MVP votes in each of those seasons. He racked up 45 complete-game shutouts in his Hall of Fame career. And even though he allowed the second-most home runs (505) in MLB history, he did have a pair of one-hit shutouts, plus one start in May 1954 in which he allowed a leadoff home run to Bobby Adams before retiring the next 27 batters.
7. Curt Schilling
Career Stats: 436 starts, 216 wins, 3.46 ERA, 8.3 H/9, 8.6 K/9
WAR Ranks: No. 20 on FanGraphs; No. 26 on Baseball Reference
For more than a decade, it felt like there was a distinct chance of witnessing history for every Curt Schilling start.
It started in 1992. After making 16 relief appearances in his first season with the Philadelphia Phillies, Schilling transitioned into the starting rotation and almost immediately became a dominant force. Ten of his 26 starts that season were complete games, including four shutouts. He also threw a September one-hitter against the New York Mets in which the only walk or hit allowed was a fifth-inning Bobby Bonilla solo shot.
There would be much closer calls later in his career.
The most infamous one came in May 2001, then with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Schilling had a perfect game with one out in the eighth inning when San Diego's catcher Ben Davis both broke up the no-hitter and stirred up a debate about the unwritten rules of baseball with a bunt single. He ended up allowing two more hits, a walk and a run before the game ended, but the Padres looked helpless at the dish until that bunt shook him.
Schilling also took a perfect game into the sixth inning of a two-hit shutout in April of that same season.
The following April, he had one of the most impressive starts in MLB history, striking out 17 Milwaukee Brewers en route to a one-hit shutout. Granted, the hit occurred in the third inning, but he was lights-out aside from that one pitch to Raul Casanova.
But the most painful of all came in the final season of his career while with the Boston Red Sox. At 40 years old, he no longer had the ol' strikeout stuff. That didn't stop him from going 8.2 hitless innings against the Oakland A's before Shannon Stewart lined one the opposite way just past the outstretched arm of second baseman Alex Cora to ruin the no-no bid.
6. Fergie Jenkins
Career Stats: 594 starts, 284 wins, 3.34 ERA, 8.3 H/9, 6.4 K/9
WAR Ranks: No. 18 on FanGraphs; No. 24 on Baseball Reference
Only Jamie Moyer and Robin Roberts allowed more career home runs than Fergie Jenkins' 484, but he was a mighty fine pitcher aside from those too-frequent long balls.
The 1971 NL Cy Young Award winner and Baseball Hall of Famer is one of just 18 pitchers in MLB history to rack up more than 3,000 career strikeouts. Along the way, he tossed 267 complete games, 49 of which were shutouts.
But whereas Curt Schilling and several others higher on this list came painstakingly close to a no-hitter on multiple occasions, Jenkins never even sniffed the finish line.
Three of his complete-game shutouts were one-hitters, one each in 1972, 1974 and 1979. However, the one hit came within the first 15 batters in each of those gems.
There was at least one two-hitter in which he made it into the seventh inning before allowing the first hit, but he never managed to carry a no-hit bid into the final frame.
5. Mike Mussina
Career Stats: 536 starts, 270 wins, 3.68 ERA, 8.7 H/9, 7.1 K/9
WAR Ranks: No. 17 on FanGraphs; No. 23 on Baseball Reference
Mike Mussina is unofficially the most perfect pitcher to never pitch a perfect game, as "Moose" twice had perfectos broken up in the ninth inning.
The first one came on May 30, 1997. Against what was an absurdly loaded Cleveland lineup—the heart of the order that day consisted of Julio Franco, Jim Thome, Matt Williams, David Justice and Manny Ramirez, not to mention Hall of Famer Omar Vizquel batting ninth—Mussina was throwing flames through a minefield. He retired the first 25 Cleveland batters before Sandy Alomar Jr. lined an inside fastball into left field for a base hit. Mussina kept his composure and struck out the next two hitters to polish off the one-hit shutout.
Four years after that near-perfection with the Baltimore Orioles, he came even closer to history in his first year with the New York Yankees.
Mussina put together three complete-game shutouts in 2001 in which he had at least 10 strikeouts while allowing fewer than three hits, including the Sept. 2 gem against the Boston Red Sox.
Through eight innings, Mussina had not allowed a baserunner, but the Yankees had not scored a run. The Bronx Bombers finally pushed one across in the top of the ninth, putting their ace three outs away from the record books. He got Troy O'Leary on a groundout to first and Lou Merloni on a strikeout when pinch hitter Carl Everett stepped up to the plate. On a 1-2 pitch up and away, he dropped an opposite-field single into left to break Mussina's heart again.
4. Pedro Martinez
Career Stats: 409 starts, 219 wins, 2.93 ERA, 7.1 H/9, 10.0 K/9
WAR Ranks: No. 15 on FanGraphs; No. 17 on Baseball Reference
With the possible exception of Armando Galarraga getting robbed of a perfect game by a bad call on what should have been the 27th out, Pedro Martinez threw the most famous unofficial perfect game of the past half-century.
On June 5, 1995, Martinez retired the first 27 San Diego Padres he faced. Had the offense given him any run support whatsoever, it would have been a perfect game. Instead, the Montreal Expos were also held scoreless for nine innings, necessitating extras. They finally scored in the top half of the 10th, but then Bip Roberts led off the bottom of the 10th with a double off Martinez. He still got the win, but those nine perfect innings cruelly do not count as a perfect game.
That wasn't his only close call. Heck, it wasn't even his first one. Fourteen months earlier, Martinez took a perfect game into the eighth inning against the Cincinnati Reds. He pegged a batter in that frame but still had the no-no intact heading into the ninth. But a leadoff single on a grounder up the middle ruined that one.
Similar story in August 2000. Save for hitting one batter, Martinez was perfect (with 13 strikeouts) through eight innings against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. But John Flaherty led off the ninth inning with a single, foiling yet another would-be no-hitter.
Considering he only allowed 7.1 hits per nine innings over the course of his career—5.3 in 2000, which is just absurd—it's no surprise that he came so close on several occasions. But even the most unhittable pitchers need a lot of luck to join this club.
3. Steve Carlton
Career Stats: 709 starts, 329 wins, 3.22 ERA, 8.1 H/9, 7.1 K/9
WAR Ranks: No. 10 on FanGraphs; No. 19 on Baseball Reference
What's hard to believe about Steve Carlton's quest for a no-hitter is that he never came all that close to one.
Through the first 19 years of his 24-season career, "Lefty" had an ERA of 3.01 with 55 complete-game shutouts. He won four Cy Youngs, he was a 10-time All-Star, and he was a no-brainer selection for the Baseball Hall of Fame as soon as he was eligible.
He also threw six one-hitters while racking up more than 4,000 strikeouts in his career.
However, the lone hit in those games typically came long before he was on the verge of something special.
He tossed a pair of one-hitters in 1979, allowing the hit in the seventh inning of both of those games. In 1975, he made it to the sixth inning. In 1968, he lost it in the fourth inning. In 1980, it was gone in the second inning. And in his 1972 one-hitter against the San Francisco Giants, Chris Speier led off the game with a single.
The closest that he came was a two-hit shutout against the Giants in May 1982. In that one, he made it 7.2 IP with a zero in the hit column before finally relinquishing back-to-back singles.
2. Greg Maddux
Career Stats: 740 starts, 355 wins, 3.16 ERA, 8.5 H/9, 6.1 K/9
WAR Ranks: No. 4 on FanGraphs; No. 8 on Baseball Reference
For much of his time spent on the mound, Greg Maddux pitched to contact. Even during the most dominant seven-year stretch of his career (1992-98), he only averaged 6.9 strikeouts and 1.4 walks per nine innings.
There's a reason he's the namesake for "The Maddux"—a complete-game shutout accomplished on fewer than 100 pitches. He liked to let batters dig their own graves, encouraging them to swing early and hit the ball to his fielders.
So, on the one hand, it's not much of a surprise that he never threw a no-hitter. When your M.O. is getting hitters off-balance for soft contact, seeing-eye singles are a pretty regular occurrence.
Counterpoint: How is it possible that Greg Freaking Maddux never once carried a perfect game or no-hitter into the ninth inning, let alone completed one?
During that aforementioned seven-year arc of dominance in which he won four consecutive Cy Young awards, The Professor had an ERA of 2.15 and a WHIP of 0.968. Even without much strikeout stuff, he threw 35 complete-game shutouts in his career. As good as he was, one would assume he had a magical night somewhere along the way.
Alas, the closest he came was a May 1995 start against the Houston Astros in which reigning NL MVP Jeff Bagwell led off the eighth inning with a solo shot—the only home run Maddux allowed in 44.1 innings of work that month.
1. Roger Clemens
Career Stats: 707 starts, 354 wins, 3.12 ERA, 7.7 H/9, 8.6 K/9
WAR Ranks: No. 1 on FanGraphs; No. 3 on Baseball Reference
Just like both Steve Carlton and Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens was a phenom who barely even flirted with perfection in his career.
The Rocket was an 11-time All-Star, won seven Cy Young awards, led his league in hits allowed per nine innings four times and was voted the AL MVP in 1986. Had it not been for the whole Mitchell Report/steroids saga, he likely would have gotten into the Baseball Hall of Fame with a near-unanimous percentage of the vote.
Clemens logged 46 complete-game shutouts in his 24-year career, but he allowed multiple hits in just about all of them.
During the regular season, the lone exception to the rule came Sept. 10, 1988. On that date, Cleveland's Dave Clark was the only batter to reach base against Clemens, drawing a walk in the fifth inning and swatting a first-pitch single with one away in the eighth.
Rocket had 13 two-hitters in his career, but that was the only regular-season one-hitter and the only time he made it into the eighth inning with a shot at a no-hitter.
Clemens also had one of the best starts in postseason history, tossing a 15-strikeout one-hitter against the Seattle Mariners in the 2000 ALCS. The hit was an Al Martin double to lead off the seventh inning, so he came relatively close on that day. And yet, Clemens never even made it 90 percent of the way to doing something that Nolan Ryan managed to do seven times in his career.