The No-Hitter: What It Means, How To Jinx It, And How To Predict It

Dice-K was four outs away from a no-hitter on Saturday night. Jinxes are stupid, but many of us jinxed him anyway. Why? And as long as we're admitting this much, when is the best time to jinx a pitcher? Let's hit the books.

We start, then, with the greatest no-hitter jinx of all time. Or, rather, a series of jinxes, each more incredible than the next. We don't know who jinxed Dave Stieb on the night of September 24, 1988, but we know that he was jinxed, because this happened.


Stieb had a no-hitter with two outs and two strikes in the ninth inning. The odds of a game ending up as a no-hitter are greater than 1,000 to one. Stieb came as close one could get, and then he lost it. We can assume that the anonymous fan responsible for jinxing Stieb high-fived his or her buddies, chugged a New Coke, and then jumped inside his or her Fisher-Price car, the one with the red roof, and pedaled home. Look, I was five years old in 1988. Paint your own picture.

This story isn't over yet. Six days later, on September 30, Stieb had, yes, a no-hitter with two outs and two strikes in the ninth inning. And then... yeah.


I'd guess that the fan who jinxed Stieb's previous game, riding a head of steam, decided to make the exact same prediction this time around. And once again, it "worked." The no-hitter jinx is appreciated by fans as one of two things: either it's a fun, trivial piece of superstition, or a means of letting people know that you are a genius.

Stieb's jinxer may well have said something like, "yeah, I saw it coming. It looked like his fastball was losing velocity, and his dead fish curve didn't look good at all." His or her friends probably ate it up. "Dude! You're like Rain Man! Have you seen that movie yet? It's still in the theater. You haven't seen it? Okay, it's like, Dustin Hoffman is this really smart dude that can figure out anything, but his weakness is that smoke alarms piss him off really bad! All right, I'd better get home. I think I lost my... have you seen the keys to my Fisher-Price?"

You can see how valuable it would be to be able to accurately predict the exact time at which a no-hitter is ruined. To take an example: on Saturday night, Daisuke Matsuzaka came a mere four outs away from a no-no. What if you could have predicted that Juan Castro, a .260 hitter in 2010, would break it up with two outs in the eighth? Your friends would have hailed you as a luminary. "He's so smart," they would say to each other. "And you know he's not one of those people who just sits around and reads blogs all day. He's just a genius, but he's not the weird Howard Hughes sort of genius. He exercises and goes to bars and stuff. You know, the other day I saw him at Qdoba, and I think he ordered his burrito without meat because he cares about the environment. Anyway, yeah, he must just be really smart like that. Smart and cool. That's a really cool combination."

So let's get to work. Like you, I would like my friends to think that I am really cool and smart. Fortunately for you, I've thrown myself under the train and sacrificed any "cool factor" I may have ever had. I have determined several variables that will tell you when -- or whether -- a pitcher is going to blow a no-hitter, and I've done so by looking up every box score of every game played so far in the 2010 season. My cool is dead so that yours may flourish.


WHY NO-HITTERS ARE REMARKABLE: BINOMIAL/CUMULATIVE PROBABILITY

(Update, 5/23: corrected an error in calculation. Season-long robot no-hitter odds adjusted from 52% to 49%.)

Since 1876, major-league pitchers have thrown 265 no-hitters. These days, they happen about twice per season. If many other variables didn't come into play -- specific pitcher versus hitter matchups, long-term momentum, in-game momentum, fatigue, etc., etc. -- this would be a remarkably high number.

Let's imagine 18 robots. One is a pitcher, eight are playing defense for him (her? IT?!?), and the other nine are hitters. There's a 0.5% chance that they'll become self-aware, and if that happens, there's a 64% chance that they will be content with playing baseball, as opposed to other indulgences such as building a factory, coming to kill you, or taking a job at a grocery store.

That's another discussion, though. Let's suppose that they're fine with playing baseball. Let's also suppose that each of these robot batters holds a .280 batting average against the robot pitcher. When the robot pitcher first takes the mound, his odds of throwing a no-hitter stand at about 0.00014%.

Now let's also suppose that the robot pitcher pitches 4,860 games -- the total scheduled number of starts in baseball's regular season. His odds of pitching at least one no-hitter in this entire robot season stand at about 49%.

Again: human pitchers do so against human batters about twice per season. There's something going on here. That s*** did not happen in BaseWars 2020.


IF YOU'D LIKE TO PREDICT A NO-HITTER BEFORE IT STARTS


Calling a no-hitter before the game even starts is, needless to say, a fool's errand. A brief example:

EXHIBIT A. Bud Smith threw a no-hitter as a 22-year-old rookie in 2001. The rest of his rookie season was pretty decent. Then, after a dreadful start to his 2002 season, he was traded and sent to the minor leagues. He never played in the majors again.

EXHIBIT B. Greg Maddux never threw a no-hitter. He is one of the greatest pitchers of all time.

This is sort of an extreme example. It's simply meant to illustrate that you shouldn't walk up to a Tim Lincecum start and predict a no-hitter before the first pitch is thrown. Lincecum is an outstanding pitcher, but his chances of throwing a no-no are only slightly less slim than every other pitcher's.

And consider this: if you openly predict that Lincecum will throw a no-hitter, imagine the response from your peers. "Yeah, and everyone else thought he would, too. Good job, doofus. Well, I'm gonna go over to Jason's house and check out this new Big Star record he has... oh, of course you know who Big Star is, now that Alex Chilton died. You read that on a blog, motherf***er?" You'll need to stake your words on a pitcher who isn't an easy choice. This is dangerous territory. I don't recommend it.

But! If you're foolhardy enough to want to pick a horse before it's born, here are a few names to consider:

Mark Buehrle. To anyone who follows baseball seriously, this is a hacky choice. Buehrle has never been considered one of baseball's elite pitchers, but his career path kind of reminds me of that of John Smoltz. This is a radical opinion to most, but I think Buehrle has a decent chance of joining the Hall of Fame someday. In the meantime, half of all casual baseball fans still confuse him with Jon Garland. This man has thrown two no-hitters. One of them was a perfect game, and he was three innings and change away from pitching two consecutive perfect games. On May 14 of this year, he threw 4.1 no-hit innings.


Jonathan Sanchez. He threw a no-hitter in 2009. So far in 2010, he has started three games with three no-hit innings.


Brandon Morrow. This is the guy I would go with. This season he's taken one no-hitter into the fifth, and another into the sixth, and yet he has a 6.15 ERA. We're talking Anibal Sanchez levels of obscurity. Speaking of which:


Anibal Sanchez. I mean, he's doing okay, and he's thrown a no-hitter before. It's like playing a game of Hold 'Em and calling all in against three big stacks with 53 suited in your hand. Whatever.

Generally speaking, we begin to silently consider the possibility of a no-hitter after three hitless innings. At this point, the pitcher has demonstrated an ability to deny each player in the lineup of a hit. (Of course, this doesn't account for walks, hit batsmen, etc. We'll get to that later.)

THE THREE-INNING FALLACY


So if a pitcher has a no-no through 3, what is it worth? As of the morning of May 23, 650 games have been played in 2010, which means 1300 starters. Of these starters, 120 of them have preserved a no-hitter through at least 3 innings. If you sit down to watch a baseball game in 2010, there is an 18.5% chance you will see this. Compare this to the 0.3% chance you have of seeing a complete no-hitter.

This can work to your advantage if you're looking to condescend. Sit back and wait for some rube to say, "well, he's faced every man in the lineup so far without giving up a hit... I'm calling a no-no. I'm calling it." Offer to put money on it. He or she will probably accept.


JINX AT 5.1


Here's a look at how far pitchers have traveled in their quest for a no-hitter this season:



Note the dent after the 16th out (5.1 innings pitched). In 2010, 19 pitchers reached this point, and only 12 survived. Here are the seven unfortunate fellows and the guys who spit in their mittens:

Kyle Davies - Ichiro Suzuki (.349 batting average in 2010)
Doug Fister - Max Ramirez (.217)
Rich Harden - Rajai Davis (.246)
Jake Peavy - John Buck (.270)
Wade LeBlanc - Russell Martin (.268)
Ted Lilly - Chris Coghlan (.224)
Brandon Morrow - David DeJesus (.271)

This is a very rare occasion, one in which batting average is more relevant than OPS. Hits are all that matter here. So here we have one spectacular hitter for average this year, three middling guys, and three guys who are pretty bad. On the whole, the 17th out hasn't been a particularly tough one. So what is it?

There's a commonly tossed-around cliche: while throwing a no-hitter, the pitcher should imagine that he's throwing individual one-out games. Every game's a new one. Even if it's out number sixteen.





I try my best to play along,
Like nothing's over and no one's gone
But I, I don't know about that,
I don't know about that...
I don't know about that.


- "Sixteen," Le Tigre

Somehow, there's a common thread of doubt regarding this number. "Sixteen Down" by The Jayhawks is another example. Let's admit to ourselves that there are forces at work that we don't understand.  If you're going to call a jinx, do so right after the first batter of the fifth inning.


INTERMISSION: WHY IS THE NO-HITTER SO IMPORTANT TO US?


Ignoring historical perspective, you're right. By definition, provided we're only talking about nine innings here, a complete game shutout can be more valuable than a no-hitter, but not vice versa. A pitcher can throw a no-hitter, give up a run, and lose. It has happened several times. But if a pitcher throws a complete game shutout, his team wins.

To me, the no-hitter is a far less trivial cousin of the concept of hitting for the cycle. Batters can register two home runs, a double, and a single, but it still isn't The Cycle. The best explanation I can offer is that our evolutionary history favored pattern recognition. One base, two bases, four bases, and four bases just isn't as pleasing as one, two, three, four.

Similarly, the simple box scores we grew up with (and still see in bumper graphics in televised baseball games) shows only runs, hits, and errors. We like to see the bad guys' line peppered with goose eggs.

Personally, I choose to embrace the no-hitter. It's a triviality nested within the confines of an extraordinary achievement.


A FEW BRIEF AND SPECIFIC NOTES ON JINXING


- Jinx the hell out of potential August no-hitters. We haven't seen an August no-hitter since 1992. That was 32 no-hitters ago.

- You should also jinx Mets no-hitters. It has been 48 years since a New York Met threw a no-hitter. For further reference, please see this website.

- Use caution while jinxing on the weekends. No-hitters have loved weekends lately.

- The best days of the week to jinx are Tuesday and Wednesday. Of the last dozen no-hitters thrown, only one was thrown on a Tuesday or Wednesday. This season, only one no-hit bid on Tuesday or Wednesday has made it to the sixth inning (Phil Hughes, April 21).

- Speaking of which, don't jinx Phil Hughes. In his second major league start, he threw 6.1 innings before leaving the game with a hamstring injury. He pitched seven no-hit innings on April 21st. He threw 3.1 innings of no-hit ball on May 7th. He gives me the willies. I refuse to jinx him.


IF YOU PREDICT A NO-HITTER, DO IT WITH STYLE

As previously mentioned, if you want to predict a no-hitter, pick an interesting name. Within this context, this means that you should either pick an obscure pitcher or a perceived past-his-prime lifer.

First, let's address the obscure.

Obscuritycred_medium

Rookies don't count. Any rube can pick an unknown rookie who's making his debut. If you choose an obscure pitcher who has been in the league for at least a few starts, and he delivers, you are a baseball expert. Further explanation is not germane to the title. You simply are.

Another important quality to consider is nostalgia.

Nostalgiacred_medium

We all know these names for one reason or another. We all know Jamie Moyer, of course, because he's been pitching since 1956. Mariners and Phillies fans do/will get nostalgic over him. But at this point, his name rings out in baseball. Everyone knows who he is. He isn't, for example, an Aaron Cook -- the sort of guy who will be forever remembered by Rockies fans, but relatively unknown to the rest of the country.

Dontrelle Willis dominates this category because he is Dontrelle Willis.

Keep in mind that these charts are completely objective and have been valued through purely scientific means. Depending on the company you keep when you watch a given game, you may need to perform some adjustments.


BACK TO DAVE STIEB

On April 10, 1989, Dave Stieb threw another complete-game one-hitter. This was his third one-hitter in four games, dating back to the previous season. (Several sources report that  Stieb lost a perfect game in the ninth inning; however, according to Baseball-Reference, he issued a walk in the second.)

Stieb's jinxer clearly had clout. Not on Stieb himself, of course, but on his or her friends. We would all like to be this person, but we should also remember that no jinx, no matter how strong, whether supernatural or scientific, is infallible. In 1990, at the twilight of his career, Dave Stieb finally threw his no-hitter.

Our Blue Jays blog, Blue Bird Banter, recently composed an homage to Dave Stieb. Read it. He deserves to be remembered. He fell to the imagined jinx so many times, and in such excruciating fashions, that he probably bought into it, only to overcome it in the end. If you jinx, jinx wisely. So much understanding of baseball can be gleaned from statistical analysis, but there's something to be said for a gut feeling.

With that in mind: Mat Latos will throw at least 3.2 hitless innings, and Zack Greinke will toss a no-hitter. It's time.

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