No-No Explanation: Baseball's Remarkable No-Hit Binge Seems to Defy Mathematics

The ball sailed lazily through the temperate San Diego night and settled in Gregor Blanco's mitt. Tim Lincecum nonchalantly raised his right fist. He cracked a grin when Buster Posey grabbed him from behind and lifted him clean off the pitcher's mound. The present became the past and the act of forgetting began.

A no-hitter is a bit like the birth of a child. If you're personally connected to the event, it's world-changing. And, when you think about it, it's a remarkable, long-gestating feat. But it's hardly a unique occurrence — and growing ever less so.

Lincecum's masterpiece was the 281st no-hitter tossed by a Major League pitcher since 1875, back when Ulysses S. Grant sat in the Oval Office and the game was called "base ball." Considering the 200,000-odd games played since that time, this is still hardly a commonplace event. But claiming we're not in the midst of a no-hitter binge is a bit like denying the effects of global warming even as a polar bear ambles through your backyard. After going 33 years without a no-no, Giants hurlers have tossed three since 2010.

Obvious explanations have eluded number-crunching stat geeks and beer-can-crunching drunks alike. Yes, batters are striking out more now — meaning fewer balls are being put in play, where they could end up as hits. But they were striking out less in 1990-91, when pitchers tossed an inexplicable 14 no-hitters. And there are more teams now than in the Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle eras, playing more games. But sophisticated studies regarding no-hitters factor this in — and it turns out to be a nonfactor.

Those studies are jarringly detailed and labor-intensive to the point where one hopes their authors don't rue the investment of time and energy from their deathbeds. A 2011 paper led by New Jersey Institute of Technology professor Bruce Bukiet analyzed the yearly statistics of every starting pitcher — ever — between 1876 and 2009. It calculated individual pitchers' statistical likelihoods of not giving up a hit. This percentage, taken to the 27th power, provides a pitcher's odds of throwing a no-hitter. Bukiet then ran the data 2,000 times.

The average number of no-hitters that, statistically, ought to have been pitched came to within 4 percent of the actual number. In short, we've had about as many no-hitters as the numbers say we should have.

Or, maybe not.

Bukiet says that no one has conducted such an analysis using the data from after 2009; in the nearly four years since, 18 no-hitters have been tossed. "I wonder if we did the calculations now, if they'd be way off," he says. "There's been such a glut."

 
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