When Oakland Athletics left-hander Sean Manaea completed a no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox on Saturday night, you might have thought, "About time!" This has been the April of the no-hit bid, as Buster Olney relayed this weekend:
The night before Manaea's gem, Tyson Ross took a bid into the eighth. The day after, Johnny Cueto took one into the sixth. It all makes sense: Strikeouts are up, hits are down, and when there are no hits there tend to be no-hitters. Manaea's was the 31st complete-game no-hitter thrown this decade, which already is more than any decade since the 1960s.
So, yes, this is a weird time for me to tell you complete-game no-hitters might be on the cusp of getting really rare. Manaea's certainly isn't the last we'll ever see, probably even this year, maybe even this month. But as with 300-win careers, 20-win seasons, 200-inning starters and complete games generally, the future is not friendly to no-hitters.
Factor 1: It takes more pitches to complete a no-hitter than ever before. This season, batters are making pitchers throw a record 3.93 pitches per plate appearance, up from 3.89 last year, 3.83 in 2015 and 3.74 in the early 2000s. Outs take more pitches than hits, and strikeouts take more pitches than other outs, and strikeouts are a bigger percentage of outs than they've ever been. For that matter, walks (which take the most pitches of all) are much more common than they've been in any season since 2000.
If we look at all the games in which a team threw nine innings and allowed no hits or one hit, the number of pitches required to get the 27 outs has been steadily rising. In the 1990s, the median pitch count in these games was 114. In the 2000s, it was 115, in the first half of this decade it was 117, and in 2016-2017 it was 120. This year, the median is 125 pitches. Most of those are one-hitters, so knock off three or four pitches from those averages to reflect one fewer batter, but the rise is real.
Of course, it's only a half-dozen or so extra pitches, which wouldn't be a big deal, except ...
Factor 2: The occurrences of 120-pitch starts have gotten really rare. We all know that teams are more sensitive about pitch counts, and that on average pitchers get pulled from games earlier than ever. But it's not just on average: On the extremes, in the very best starts, teams are far less likely to let a pitcher go deep. Last season, 95 percent of starters were pulled at 110 pitches or fewer. Just seven years ago, the 95th percentile pitch count was 117, and in 2000 it was 124 -- plenty of pitches to complete the typical no-hitter. If, on average, it'll take 120 pitches these days to throw a no-hitter, then few pitchers would be allowed to go that far:
Of course, managers always have given their pitchers longer leashes when history is on the line, so this wouldn't be a problem. What is a problem is ...
Factor 3: Managers aren't extending those leashes when history is on the line anymore. Last year, five pitchers were pulled with a no-hitter intact in the fifth inning or later. (Manaea was one of them -- he'd thrown 98 pitches in five hitless innings on April 15.) There were six pitchers pulled from no-hit bids in each of 2015 and 2016, and five in 2014. Such starts -- no hits, no complete game -- have been three times as common since 2014 as they were in the 25 years prior. There already have been three this year.
This is new. Since 2010, four of the six highest pitch counts have come in no-hitters, and the other two were no-hitters broken up with two outs in the ninth inning. No pitcher in that time has thrown more than 133 pitches in a "normal" start, but managers have let pitchers throw 149, 148, 137 and 134 when a no-hitter was on the line. That's, frequently, what it takes. It seems silly to say "Can you imagine a manager letting a pitcher go 140 pitches to chase a no-hitter today?" After all, yes, it happened just five years ago. But can you? I can't. Can you even imagine it today?
It's helpful to consider what happened when Corey Kluber was pitching on May 13, 2015. Kluber completed the eighth inning having thrown 113 pitches and struck out 18 batters. Nobody has ever struck out 21 batters in a nine-inning game, and Kluber could have done it by striking out the side in the ninth. It would have pushed him up to around 130 pitches, to be sure, but he could have done something nobody had ever done, or matched something -- 20 K's -- only four pitchers have done.
But his manager, Terry Francona, pulled him. Pitchers don't get a long leash to chase 21 strikeouts. It's just not the culture. They've always gotten a long leash to chase a no-hitter, but Kluber had allowed one hit, so Francona pulled him.
We're getting closer to a no-long-leash culture for no-hitters. We're not there all the way -- Ross was allowed to throw 127 pitches Friday, 11 more than anybody else has thrown in a start this year -- but the no-hit bid is losing its power. Rich Hill was pulled from a perfect game bid last year, the first time that had ever happened. Between youth and recent injuries, almost every pitcher has some reason for his manager to be protective of him these days.
The bottom line is that it used to take 115 pitches to throw a typical no-hitter; now it takes 120, and that number is going up. It used to be that pitchers could be pushed to 120 pitches semi-regularly; now they almost never go past 110, and that number is going down. For now, the math juuuuuuust holds together, and we still get plenty of no-hitters, like Manaea's 108-pitch effort. But "going up" and "going down" are the key clauses there. When no-hitters start to go, they could go quickly, especially as letting pitchers throw extra pitches for the pursuit becomes the exception rather than the rule.
You'll definitely get to see some more no-hitters. Somebody will probably throw one tonight. Enjoy it. Enjoy all of them. Because in five or 10 years, my guess is there are going to be a lot of combined no-hitters, but if a pitcher wants to throw one all by himself, it won't be enough not to allow any hits. He'll quite possibly have to be perfect. And those are really rare.