What is a No-Hitter?

I’m sure you’ve heard by now that Ervin Santana of the Angels threw a no-hitter Wednesday afternoon against the Indians. Santana was masterful, striking out ten, walking one, and needing just 105 pitches to retire 27 Indians in a 3-1 win.

Wait, did that say 3-1?

Any baseball fan can tell you that it’s possible to throw a no-hitter and give up a run. It’s happened before and it will happen again. But why is it possible? This instance got me thinking about what a no-hitter really is.

A perfect game is clearly defined and easily explainable. A pitcher must throw a complete game and retire each batter he faces, allowing no one to reach base. It’s really a team accomplishment, unless the pitcher strikes out all 27 hitters (and even then, the catcher has to catch the ball 27 times), but the pitcher is clearly in the driver’s seat.

What, then, is a no-hitter? Off the top of my head (and I’m sure I’m missing a few things), it goes something like this: a complete game in which a pitcher (or multiple pitchers) allows no baserunners except by walk, hit by pitch, catcher’s or fielder’s interference, dropped third strike, or a batted ball deemed playable by an official scorer.

It’s certainly an accomplishment, but it’s an odd one. We’re excusing a hitter reaching on an error, which is understandable, as the error was invented to absolve the pitcher of responsibility for a player reaching base because of a mistake the pitcher couldn’t prevent. This makes sense in theory, but it’s a one-way street. If a pitcher gives up what should be a double in the gap and his center fielder makes a diving catch to save the hit, we don’t charge the pitcher with a double and credit the fielder with an anti-error (hit saved?).

The other negative outcomes a no-hitter ignores include walks and hit by pitches, two of the results most within the pitcher’s control. So a fielder can make a mistake and it’s still a no-hitter. The pitcher can make a mistake and still be credited with a no-hitter. But a random event such as a batted ball that falls in for a hit or a dribbler the third baseman can’t play in time turns a potential no-hitter into just another day at the ballpark.

I’m not suggesting we ignore the no-hitter the way we should ignore saves and Gold Gloves and probably pitcher wins. I’m certainly not trying to diminish Santana’s achievement, which was an error, a stolen base, a wild pitch, and a walk away from perfection. What I am saying is this:

Henry Chadwick and the founders of modern day baseball statistics were way ahead of their time in their understanding of nineteenth century baseball and the way individual accomplishments contributed to team success. One hundred thirty years later, their findings still have a profound influence on the way we watch and appreciate baseball. It can be frustrating to hear television broadcasters and newspaper writers quote antiquated statistics in evaluating players.

But if we weren’t so strangely obsessed with outdated, mostly meaningless trivialities like the no-hitter, there would have been no reason for the casual fan to tune in to today’s game. And Ervin Santana wouldn’t be a hero in LA tonight.

Congratulations to Ervin Santana on retiring 27 of the 29 batters he faced today, ten without counting on his defense. An impressive accomplishment, no matter how we choose to measure it.

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One Response to What is a No-Hitter?

  1. Like it!

    Thanks a lot, from a Brit trying to nail down the rules of baseball

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