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Degrees of no-hitter

What do no-hitters really tell us about performance?


Last weekend, Rockies fans witnessed some pretty weird stuff. On Friday and Saturday combined, in 18 innings of baseball, the Rockies amassed three hits. All three were singles. Sandwiched in those two games were 49 straight hitless at-bats. They lost both games, obviously. The St. Louis Cardinals had the Rockies in a chokehold that felt just about inescapable.

On Sunday, though, Rockies starter Jorge De La Rosa turned the tables, smothering the Cardinals all day long. He didn't allow a hit until there were two outs in the seventh inning, when a hard David Freese smash ate up Jordan Pacheco. One of my old high school coach's favorite sayings is, "If you can get leather on the ball, you should make the play," but he was kind of a hard-ass, and that ball was smoked. I'm sure Pacheco is disappointed he didn't make the play, but diving to one's right to snag a pellet moving in excess of 100 miles per hour is hard to do.

Which brings me to the thesis of this article: not every no-hitter or near no-hitter is created equal. There's a binary quality to getting a hit versus not getting a hit that doesn't fully encapsulate the action on the field. To illustrate this point, I'm going to compare the starts of De La Rosa and Shelby Miller (with apologies to Adam Wainwright, whose start I couldn't watch due to life).

First, we ought to understand the context of the games between these two clubs. Offensively they are nearly identical, as both sport a 98 wRC+ on the year, which weights every offensive event and scales it to league average (so both clubs are just a tick below average; this recent slump of the Rockies really killed their numbers). I would guess that both the Cardinals and the Rockies will see those numbers creep back above 100 before the year is out.

Second, those games took place at Busch Stadium. There are two takeaways from this. According to ESPN park factors, Busch is playing as the second most pitcher-friendly park in Major League Baseball this year, so that obviously makes it a more likely setting for a no-no. Further, the standard home field advantage applies; the Cardinals are more likely to succeed in their home ballpark than the visitor is. Okay, caveats noted. Good, great, grand, let's look at the games.

Eric Young Jr., on the first at-bat of the game, lofted a broken-bat single just out of the reach of second baseman Matt Carpenter. After that, it was just brutal, cutthroat pitching dominance. Miller painted corners with 95 mile-per-hour gas all night, completely chaining the Rockies hitters. Eight of his 13 strikeouts were of the spectator variety, displaying how perfect his command was -- or perhaps, how fooled the Rockies were.

Because they were indeed fooled. They never seemed to have any idea what pitch was coming, or where it would be located. Even when they did make contact, it was frequently a slow chopper to an infielder, or a lazy flyout to medium distance. There was only one line drive on the day, off the bat of Nolan Arenado, and it landed in leather instead of on grass. Also, it should be noted, Miller didn't walk anybody. So yeah, absolute domination.

How does De La Rosa's Sunday start compare? His ending line, while obviously very good, doesn't stack up to Miller's. Jorge only pitched 7 innings to Miller's 9; he allowed two hits to Miller's one; he walked three batters to Miller walking none; he struck out 7 to Miller's 13. His game score was a very solid 77; Miller's, on the other hand, was an otherworldly 98, which, according to ESPN, is the best pitching performance of the year so far.

But De La Rosa allowed his hit in the seventh, while Miller allowed his in the first. Because of this, every at-bat was a white knuckle affair for Jorge, every swing was a danger, and every out was a sigh of relief. While Miller's start was a slow, methodical beatdown, Jorge's was a rollercoaster.

Which makes me wonder. Suppose De La Rosa had actually pulled off the no-no. Suppose Pacheco comes up with that smash and makes the play. Suppose Walt Weiss lets Jorge go over his pitch count and retires the next six batters without too much fuss. As long as we are supposing, let's go even further: what if those six outs were all bullet line-drives that just happened to be caught? Maybe they were all like that ball Matt Holliday hit that nearly decapitated Troy Tulowitzki. What would we make of that? More specifically, would we consider it a better game than what Miller pitched? Should we?

Probably not. If you adjust the end points of Miller's start, he threw a perfect game; from batter two to batter 28, not a single man reached base. It's sort of like how Tiger Woods had won all four Major titles consecutively, but not in the same year (the years were 2000 and 2001). People didn't want to call him a Grand Slam winner, but that's only because he didn't meet the somewhat arbitrary temporal rules for the title; at the end of the day, the man had all four trophies on his mantle at the same time.

If Jorge had thrown the no-hitter, it would have been a STORY. He would have joined the list in Cooperstown and on Wikipedia. They would have saved the ball. He would have been the top story on ESPN and MLB Network. Miller, on the other hand, will be the guy who threw a damn good game, but that memory won't last too far beyond the next start when he gives up five runs on ten hits.

A major tenet of advanced statistics and sabermetrics is that we should reward good process more than good outcomes. De La Rosa pitched well, but he also gave up a lot of hard contact; there were fly balls to the warning track and laser line drives. Miller, though, never gave up anything even remotely well struck.

This is a bit of a ramble, without a whole lot of a point to it (sorry if you read this far expecting one!). The main takeaway is that the idea of a no-hitter versus not-a-no-hitter is binary, and a large portion of it is tied to good old Lady Luck. Shelby Miller's game wasn't a no-hitter, but it was almost certainly a more dominating performance than most no-hitters. It doesn't satisfy the no-hitter criteria, but that's just the way it is sometimes. Performance is often judged on results, but results might not mirror what actually happened.