Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Worst No-Hitter

Yesterday evening I was packing and decided to throw on a baseball game as background noise. Since the Yankees were playing on the West Coast, I went for the Arizona-Tampa Bay contest. I turned off the game in the third inning, after Edwin Jackson weaseled his way out of a bases-loaded jam. I thought nothing of the game until I saw on Baseball Tonight that he had thrown a no-hitter! My first thought was, is this the worst no-hitter of all time?

Jackson walked eight batters in the game, and threw a career-high 149 pitches, just 79 of them for strikes. At one point in the third inning, the Win Probability actually favored Tampa Bay, thanks to Jackson walking the bases loaded! With two outs in the ninth, Jackson walked pinch hitter Willy Aybar on four pitches, which was Aybar's seventh walk of the season. No doubt about it, Jackson pitched rather poorly and still picked up the no-no. Is it possible to have a worse no hitter than Jackson?

First of all, some ground rules: Major League Baseball defines a no-hitter as a "a game in which a pitcher, or pitchers, gives up no hits while pitching at least nine innings. A pitcher may give up a run or runs so long as he pitches nine innings or more and does not give up a hit."

This excludes some rather infamous no-hit performances, such as this one by Andy Hawkins, who allowed four (unearned) runs in a 4-0 loss while pitching for the hapless 1990 Yankees. In a baseball-reference play index search, I asked for games of 9 IP or more since 1920 with zero hits. I then sorted this list by ascending Game Score, a measure invented by Bill James to assign a single number to a starting pitchers' performance. The best nine-inning performance since 1920, according to Game Score, is Kerry Wood's 20K game in 1998, with a score of 105. The measure is very results-oriented, since it places high value on the number of innings pitched and the number of runs-- shutouts are practically guaranteed to be above 80.

Click the link for the results, which show Jackson's game last night to be the fourth-worst no-hitter on record, in Game Score. Three games tied with a game score one unit worse:

George Culver, July 29, 1968 Pitching for the Reds, his second of what would be five teams in the pre-free agency era, Culver was nothing short of mediocre in this game, for someone who pitched a no-hitter. He walked four in the game, but faced 34 batters, one of the extra men (Dick Allen) getting aboard thanks to a throwing error by third baseman Tony Perez, and reaching second on another error by shortstop Woody Woodward on the same play. Allen then reached third base on a groundout and scored on a sac-fly by Cookie Rojas.

Culver allowed another unearned baserunner in the third inning, with Phillies' starter Chris Short reaching on Catchers Interference by Pat Corrales. Culver then retired eleven straight before walking two men with two outs in the sixth, needing a strikeout to get out of that jam. Culver's final two baserunners got on via walk to open the eighth inning, but Culver induced some ground balls to get out of that one, and breezed through the ninth for the no-hitter.

Bill James calculated how likely it was for each pitcher to have thrown a no-hitter, and George Culver came out as one of the ten men least likely to have a no-no.

Ken Holtzman- August 19, 1969. Of the three no-hitters with a Game Score of 84, Holtzman's seems the most impressive. Facing Phil Neikro and staked to a 3-0 lead after the first inning, Holtzman walked just three in his no-hitter. The reason this game has such a low game score is that Holtzman struck out precisely zero hitters! Not exactly Nolan Ryan, Holtzman struck out just 5.0 per nine innings in his career, despite playing in an extremely pitcher-friendly era. Only one other no-hitter since 1920 has featured zero strikeouts, by Sad Sam Jones in 1923.

Sabermetrics has taught us in the Gospel of Three True Outcomes; that a pitcher can only (really) control three results of an at bat: a strikeout, a walk, and a home run. There are fine tunings in there, such as GB/FB rate, and his own fielding ability, but once the ball is put in play, a lot is left up to his defense. On that day in 1969, the Cubs' defense shined, and Holtzman never allowed more than one baserunner in an inning. Twelve groundouts, twelve flyouts, and three pop-outs formed an even split among the batted balls in this game. Interestingly, while giving up fly-balls tends to influence home-run rate and therefore is bad for the overall success of a pitcher, if one wants to pitch a no-hitter, a flyball is far more likely to turn into an out.

The shimmering defense was on display no finer than on the last out of the seventh inning, in which outfielder Billy Williams climbed the ivy at Wrigley to pluck a home run away from Henry Aaron. Holtzman wrote in Chicago Cubs: Memorable Stories of Cubs Baseball that the home fans were reminding him that he had a no-hitter every inning following the third (so much for jinxes!) Holtzman would go on to throw another no-hitter two years later for the Cubs, and was later elected to the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

Joe Cowley, September 19, 1986
From the box-score, this is my vote for the worst official no-hitter on record. Cowley registered seven walks (and eight strikeouts), and among the 145 no-hitters on record with Game Scores below 100, Cowley's is only one of two in which the no-no-man gave up an earned run. Much like Jackson, Cowley walked the bases loaded to start the sixth, and then gave up three straight fly balls, the second of which scored Reggie Jackson. Cowley also had two men on in the third, and like Jackson walked a man in the ninth, though this runner was erased on the game-ending double play.

In fact, Cowley threw the worst no-hiter of all time, and then never won another big league game. He lost his next six decisions and was out of baseball within a year of this game. Hopefully, Edwin Jackson can avoid this same fate.

1 comment:

Dan said...

AJ Burnett walked nine in his 2001 no-hitter. He also hit a batter and threw a wild pitch.