Sunday, June 3, 2012

Throwing Water on the Johan Santana No-Hitter

First, a brief statement directed only to Mets fans: 7.5 games back with 17 to play.  Go Phils.

            Now, about the chronologically relevant topic of Johan Santana’s no-hitter two nights ago, in which he posted the following pitching line:

9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 5 BB, 8 K, 134 Pitches (77/57 Strike/Ball), 3/16 GB/FB ratio

            Obviously, a no-hitter is an impressive achievement, but one should revel in the fortune of it just as much as the skill, and also realize that it is mostly the fact that we have always counted no-hitters that we feel that they are impressive.  The no-hitter is fairly common; they have occurred 275 times since 1876 (or about twice per year), and 20 times since 2007 (almost 4 times per season), so they are not nearly as impressive as perfect games, which have occurred just 27 times. 

            A pitcher does not necessarily need to be at the top of his game to achieve this feat, as shown by Edwin Jackson in 2010, who threw a no-hitter while allowing 8 walks and throwing 149 pitches.  Much of this phenomenon has to do with luck.  In a previous post, I discussed how fly balls have a great deal of random variance in their trajectory that can seriously impact game results.  Santana’s absurdly high fly-ball percentage in this game (his season average is just 66% compared to this game’s 84%) illustrates that he was incredibly lucky to escape this game without getting blown out, let alone allowing a hit.  Santana did not have incredible control in this outing, throwing 56% strikes compared to his prior season average of 64%, and walking five, none of which were intentional, and all of which included three consecutive balls at some point in the at-bat.

            ESPN tracks a statistic called the Game Score, which attempts to gauge a pitcher’s performance in a particular game using outs recorded, innings pitched, strikeouts, walks, hits, and runs, and is on a scale from 0 to 100 (theoretically).  It has been referred to in the past on ESPN in reference to the comparison of the consecutive 2010 postseason games in which Roy Halladay pitched a no-hitter and Tim Lincecum allowed 2 hits while striking out 14.  Halladay’s game was given a 94, while Lincecum’s was given a 96, and Santana’s no-hitter received a 90.  This may seem shocking to long-time baseball fans (“how could you beat a no-hitter?”), but it makes sense from the perspective that control and command (which are much more effectively measured by strikeouts and walks than by hits allowed) are a superior method of judging a pitcher’s performance.  In fact, three non-no-hitters this season alone have surpassed Santana’s game score, and they all have similar qualifications: 11+ strikeouts and 2 or fewer walks without allowing any runs.  In case you’re wondering what would constitute a 100, the following games performances have achieved that score since 2000:

9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 17 K, 137 Pitches (Brandon Morrow vs. TB, 2010)
9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 13 K, 117 Pitches (Randy Johnson perfect game vs. Atl, 2004)
9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 17 K, 127 Pitches (Curt Schilling vs. Mil, 2002)

            The moral of the story is that just because you have a title for an achievement does not mean that it is the pinnacle of achievement in that arena.  Would you rather hit for the cycle or hit 4 home runs?  Or even four triples?  And don’t get me started on the Save.

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