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MLB's Year of the No-Hitter Has Just Begun

Abbey MastraccoContributor IMay 17, 2021

Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Wade Miley tips his cap to fans after pitching a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians in a baseball game, Friday, May 7, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

It almost sounds like the start of one of Jerry Seinfeld's bits: What's the deal with all the no-hitters?

The comedian is famously a fan of the New York Mets, and true to form, the Mets' only no-hitter came with the controversy of a blown call that would have changed the outcome of the game had it been ruled differently (Sorry, Johan Santana). But that could soon change. Jacob deGrom seems due for one, right? Or maybe it's Long Island's own Marcus Stroman. 

Anything is possible in the year of the no-hitter.

No-hitters used to be a rare feat. It was special to be in attendance for one, feeling like you and everyone else in the stadium were a part of something historic, almost willing the pitcher to throw strikes and the outfielders to make leaping grabs at the wall. 

It's still special, particularly since so few people are allowed inside most parks because of COVID-19 restrictions, but it doesn't feel like such a rare occasion anymore. Four have already been tossed this season, matching the total from 2019, although two of them were combined no-hitters. 

Richard W. Rodriguez/Associated Press

Much like in any other sport, baseball trends ebb and flow as winning teams and front offices discover new ways to gain competitive advantages.

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In 2015, there were seven pitchers who spun no-hit gems. But then there was only one no-hitter in 2016 and one in 2017, which coincided with the era of the home run. Teams were averaging about 1.00 home run per game or less until 2016, when the number increased to 1.16. It rose to 1.26 in 2017. In 2019, it increased to a historic 1.39 as teams hit a record 6,776 home runs. The number decreased in 2020, though not drastically (1.28). 

But that number has dropped down to 1.13 this season, and it could continue to dwindle even further. It's harder than ever to hit a baseball. The league average has dropped to .236, the lowest mark since 1968 (.237). Through the month of April, hits were a record-low 7.63 per game. 

Why, exactly, is it so difficult? A few factors are working against hitters, many of which can be attributed to the increase of analytics. 

An American League scout I surveyed said it mostly comes down to an accumulation of data: Pitchers are throwing harder, their stuff is filthier and data tells them how and when to use the pitches in their arsenal. The average fastball speed this season is up to 93.6 mph. 

Analytical data has also led to defensive game-planning. This can determine everything from how many times through the order a starting pitcher will go and how to maximize bullpen usage, as well as which position players give teams the best chance to win against each lineup. Win probabilities dictate how games are managed. 

All of that leads to the data behind defensive positioning and, of course, the shift. 

The shift was sort of a novelty when Joe Maddon and the Tampa Bay Rays used it to help contain Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz in the early 2000s. Now, it's so commonplace it's limiting the use of left-handed pull-hitters. 

Calls for baseball to ban the shift have heightened in recent weeks after Jay Bruce retired from the New York Yankees and Albert Pujols was released by the Los Angeles Angels. Infielders positioned in the outfield are making it increasingly difficult for hitters like Bruce and Pujols, to do what they do best. 

The league is experimenting with eliminating the shift in the minor leagues this season. An announcement in March stated, "the defensive team must have a minimum of four players on the infield, each of whom must have both feet completely in front of the outer boundary of the infield dirt."

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

Some say the shift is a defensive tactic and banning it would be an overreach and would limit how the game is played. Don't like it? Learn how to hit through it. Throw down a bunt (another controversial subject). 

The ones who want it gone, like San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey, say it limits action, which is boring for fans. 

But the rise of no-hitters is not solely due to analytics and infield shifts. The ball has also changed this season. This year's ball has less drag. Tests done in an independent lab showed the 2021 baseballs fly about one or two feet shorter than the previous incarnation, which was found to have inconsistent stitching that allowed it to fly. 

MLB's official baseballs are hand-sewn at the Rawling's factory in Costa Rica, so the stitching is always a little inconsistent, but the league requires balls to essentially meet a certain level of bounciness. The technical term is coefficient of restitution. Loosening some key stitches and reducing the weight of the ball helps meet the expected range of COI without changing the size of the ball. 

A few other things are factored into the equation, like how the ball plays at each park and the humidifiers installed at domed stadiums. It's a perfect storm working against hitters. 

David Banks/Associated Press

Of course, there are still some hitters who are managing just fine. It's not like we needed any additional evidence to show how prolific a hitter Mike Trout is: He's been leading the league in OPS throughout the young season, and he doesn't show any signs of letting up. What Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Ronald Acuna Jr. are doing in their early 20s is remarkable.

Kris Bryant is proving that he never lost his stroke during some down recent seasons by anchoring a bad Chicago Cubs team, and the Boston Red Sox have slugged their way to the top of the AL East standings. 

However, an increase in no-hit performances shouldn't diminish the accomplishment, because it's still exceptionally difficult to go hitless through nine innings. It's even more difficult to go 27-up and 27-down, which is probably why we haven't seen a perfect game since 2012, when Felix Hernandez, Matt Cain and Philip Humber each tossed one. 

The margin for error is so thin. It's still a historic accomplishment. 

Will we see more this season? Probably. Are we about to see a years-long trend? It's too soon to tell. 

So, that's the deal with all of the no-hitters. Maybe Jerry will finally get to see his beloved Mets throw one soon. 

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