It began with the dominance of a starting pitcher who struck out 14 batters, it was preserved with a thrilling catch in center field, and it was finished off by a reliever thanks to an escalating pitch count. But Corbin Burnes and Josh Hader of the Milwaukee Brewers combined for a masterpiece in a 3-0 win over Cleveland, helping to set a record for no-hitters in a season.
Burnes was comically dominant for most of the game, recording at least one strikeout against all but one of Cleveland’s batters. He was perfect through six innings and his only blemish was a leadoff walk to start the seventh. Burnes nearly gave up a hit with two outs in the eighth, but center fielder Lorenzo Cain made a terrific sliding catch on a liner by Owen Miller to keep the no-hit bid going.
With that, however, Burnes received a handshake from Manager Craig Counsell and his night was over as he had reached 115 pitches — seven more than he had thrown in any other start this season.
Burnes was upbeat after the game, acknowledging that keeping him healthy for the playoffs was more important than an individual accomplishment. But if it was his choice, he would have liked to stay in. “I think anyone would want to keep pitching in that situation,” he said.
Hader came on in relief of Burnes in the ninth and retired the side in order, striking out two and getting a fine defensive play from first baseman Jace Peterson who ran down a pop-up in foul territory.
The combined effort was the ninth no-hitter of the season, breaking a tie with 1884 for the most in a season. A record three of the no-hitters have come against Cleveland, with Zach Plesac having started all three games for the Indians.
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 8.09 hits per game through Sept. 10 — the third lowest mark since 1909, according to Baseball Reference — and were striking out 8.72 times a game, the second highest total ever. As a result, batters were hitting .243 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 28 this season, and there have been fewer than 40 in each season since 2015 — but the 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, Kluber and Burnes 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.