One of the most common jokes about baseball is that it’s a sport so boring that the most exciting thing that can happen in it is a game where nobody gets a hit. The Reduced Shakespeare Company included that joke in their recent show The Complete World of Sports (abridged), or at least they did when they came to Ithaca in March but as one-liners go, it’s far from new. And if you’re going to discuss what Francisco Liriano accomplished tonight in pitching a “no-no” for the Minnesota Twins against the Chicago White Sox, you do have to admit that the no-hitter is rather an odd duck as sports feats go.
It’s not a great test of a pitcher’s overall talent. Consider this: the list of pitchers who never threw a no-hitter in their careers includes Tom Seaver, a pitcher so talented that the bidding between teams to sign him as a prospect was one of the reasons for the establishment of the MLB Draft, Andy Pettitte and all three of the Atlanta Braves’ great pitchers of the 1990’s: Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine. By contrast, the pitchers who have thrown no-hitters include such luminaries as Johnny Van Der Meer, who threw two straight in 1938 then never did it again, Chris Bosio and Bud Smith.
Quick! Name the last Twins pitcher to throw a n0-hitter before Liriano. I’ll even give you a hint: he did it in 1999. You guessed it! Eric Milton-hey, wait, you little liar! I know very well there’s no way you could have guessed that! Milton’s one of the ones you always miss on the Sporcle quizzes about no-hitters. Not surprising since he hasn’t played in the majors since 2009, when he made a grand total of five starts for the Los Angeles Dodgers and hasn’t made more than six appearances in a season since 2006, when he went 8-8 for the 80-82 Cincinnati Reds.
My point is, no-hitters depend an awful lot on what’s often, for lack of a better term, referred to as “luck” or at least “an awful lot of improbable but all fortuitous chances occurring within a very short span of time.” (Like I said, “for lack of a better term.”) And that’s actually part of what makes them just so interesting. Everything has to go right.
You have to have your fair share of at-bats that end within the first three pitches, which doesn’t happen in most at-bats, but they all have to end with the player out or at least on base because of an error, and the probability of that is even lower. You have to have at least some strikeouts. You have to have no singles, no doubles, no triples, no home runs, be they one-run, two-run, three-run or grand slam.
You have to have no game-stopping injuries, something that’s not a given when a pitcher’s out there for so long. You have to have cooperating weather, something that’s REALLY not a given when you consider how many rainouts have occurred this season so far (19, two short of the total for 2010).
Because all of these variables have to come together in a game that likely was the first sport to come up with advanced statistics because it has so many different variables, every pitch becomes an event. Where baseball’s usual problem is how long an at-bat takes and how boring it can become as the pitcher and batter try to wear each other out, in a potential no-hitter, every pitch is exciting.
Will the pitcher retire his man within the first three pitches? Will the next pitch be a strike? A ball? An out? A foul? Will the umpire mess up? The defense? It’s tension but focused tension, not the tension that quickly turns into boredom during a 14-3 blowout in the second game of a doubleheader. And that is how an event where nothing ever happens can be the most interesting event of all.