Tyler Gilbert had a lot of firsts come in one game. The rookie left-hander for the Arizona Diamondbacks had his first start, his first complete game, his first shutout and his first no-hitter all wrapped into one, blanking the San Diego Padres with a 7-0 gem on Saturday.
In a season in which no-hitters have come at a rate unseen in major league history — the eight so far are a modern record and have tied the 1884 season for the most overall — Gilbert’s masterpiece was by far the most unexpected. He came into the game with just three and two-thirds innings pitched at the major league level and left it having kept his cool for 102 pitches, striking out five and walking three in nine scoreless innings.
“Crazy,” Gilbert told reporters after the game. “It’s not going to hit me for probably another day. I don’t know what just happened.”
Gilbert, 27, is the 15th pitcher to make a start for Arizona this season, extending a franchise record. And he is only the fourth player in major league history to throw a no-hitter in his first start. The others were Bobo Holloman for the St. Louis Browns on May 6, 1953, Bumpus Jones of the Cincinnati Reds on Oct. 15, 1892 and Theodore Breitenstein for the Browns on Oct. 4, 1891.
The surge of no-hitters this season has raised questions about why these seem to be occurring at such an extraordinary rate.
Who has thrown a no-hitter this season?
Sort of! Bumgarner, the former ace (and three-time World Series winner) of the San Francisco Giants shut out Atlanta on April 25, and allowed no hits in the process. But because of doubleheader rules developed last season, the game was limited to seven innings. A 1991 ruling intended to eliminate rain-shortened no-hitters and other oddities made throwing at least nine complete innings a requirement for a game to be recognized as a no-hitter. Bumgarner’s game will instead be classified as a “notable achievement.”
“I didn’t give up any hits today,” Bumgarner said. “I’m not in control of how many innings we’re playing.”
What is going on?
A number of factors are in play leading to the surge of no-hitters. Chief among them are an emphasis on power pitching and batters’ having shown a willingness to sell out contact in order to increase power. Those factors, plus surgical deployment of high-quality relievers, has resulted in strange numbers across the board.
Teams were averaging 8.04 hits per game through Aug. 13 — tied for the second lowest mark since 1909, according to Baseball Reference — and were striking out 8.78 times a game, the second highest total ever. As a result, batters were hitting .242 and scoring was down significantly for a second consecutive season.
Another factor that has to be considered is control. Shutouts are almost entirely a thing of the past — there have been 24 this season, and there have been fewer than 40 in each season since 2015 — but the seven starters who have thrown a no-hitter this season have kept their pitch counts low by employing remarkable control. Gilbert walked three batters, Turnbull walked two and Miley and Kluber each walked one. The other three pitchers who threw a no-hitter this season didn’t issue a single free pass. That obviously was not the case in the Cubs’ combined no-hitter, where each pitcher issued at least one walk.
Factor in colder weather in April and May, a new baseball, a preponderance of prohibited substances ahead of an M.L.B. crackdown, advanced defensive positioning and other changes in the game and it has seemingly become a recipe for no-hitters becoming a common occurrence.
But you can’t discount simple variance. While no-hitters come at a fairly predictable rate over long periods of time, they have frequently come in clumps and then gone long stretches without one.
Do only the most dominant pitchers throw no-hitters?
Hardly. While Nolan Ryan was the most unhittable pitcher in major league history, and threw a record seven no-hitters, other dominant pitchers failed to throw one despite similar credentials — most notably Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Steve Carlton and Grover Cleveland Alexander.
Among the current superstars who have yet to throw one: Gerrit Cole of the Yankees, Cleveland’s Shane Bieber, Zack Greinke of the Houston Astros, and Jacob deGrom of the Mets.
Meanwhile, Mike Fiers, a fairly uninspiring veteran for the Oakland Athletics, has thrown two.
Where are the perfect games?
With all of these no-hitters it would seem logical that a perfect game would be mixed in, but baseball is in a strangely long stretch without one. Both Carlos Rodon and John Means came tantalizingly close to perfection this season, but Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners threw baseball’s last perfect game on Aug. 15, 2012. That stretch of nearly nine years is the longest between perfect games since the gap of 13 years 7 days between Catfish Hunter’s masterpiece on May 8, 1968, and Len Barker’s on May 15, 1981.