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These Gems Get Rarer

Many have theories about the recent lack of no-hitters, but everyone seems to agree that there has to be a lot of luck involved

September 08, 2006|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

The day after Anibal Sanchez pitched baseball's first no-hitter in going on 2 1/2 years, ending the game's longest no-no drought, Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane closed a short conversation rhetorically.

"You gonna call me back when there are four thrown in the first half of next season and ask why pitchers are throwing so many?" he asked.

If, indeed, four are thrown by July, he was told, the public would certainly like to know what he knew and when he knew it.

Beane stood by his original notion.

"I'm thinking it's purely random," he had said. "I'm not sure you can attach any theory to it. Just randomness."

After 103 pitches Wednesday night in south Florida, Sanchez, the 22-year-old right-hander finishing his 13th big league start, had pitched the major leagues' 233rd no-hitter. He was carried by teammates from the field, tears spilling over the grime and sweat of nine innings. "The best moment of my life," he'd call it.

Pitching in front of a defense that is among the least reliable in the National League, in a lineup where eight of the nine players were earning at or near the major league minimum salary, for a franchise that appeared to give up entirely on baseball seven months ago, Sanchez found randomness had picked its spot, and his moment.

The whole thing took 133 minutes, from first pitch to last, sinkers and sliders and changeups spread across 31 hitters.

Since Randy Johnson's perfect game early in the 2004 season, 430 pitchers had made 12,728 starts, according to STATS LLC, and there'd been at least a hit in every one.

"It's kind of weird there hasn't been one in so long," said Jim Abbott, who threw a no-hitter for the New York Yankees on Sept. 4, 1993. "There's just an awful lot of luck involved, to be honest."

There are theories, enough to sprinkle over any debate.

Generally, the new ballparks, with less foul territory, more natural grass and closer outfield fences, are partial to hitters. The commissioner's office has sought to standardize the strike zone, and many ballparks are equipped with Questec devices that monitor the umpires. Steroid and amphetamine testing have not only shrunk the game's hitters, but appear to have taken a few inches off more than a few fastballs.

From Johnson to Sanchez, 15 no-hitters died in the seventh inning or later, according to STATS, leading some to believe that strict pitch counts in the minor and major leagues have resulted in a lack of stamina at the big league level.

"If a guy went into the seventh inning with 110 pitches, his bullpen would have to finish the no-hitter," said Dan Evans, special assistant to Seattle Mariners General Manager Bill Bavasi. "I think pitch counts get in the way sometimes nowadays. Pitchers don't have the stamina they perhaps did 20 or 25 years ago, because now we're counting.

"Our ability to count to 100 is so good we prevent pitchers from going deep into games. They're programmed a little differently. They may think they're tired."

And, still, Evans granted, such pitch counts began to be instituted decades ago, and would not fully explain a sudden downturn in no-hitters.

"They just happen," he said. "It's like asking somebody why they didn't win the lottery yet."

Greg Maddux has made 668 starts and won 330 games but never has thrown a no-hitter. He lost a chance for one in his first start for the Dodgers, when he was felled by the randomness of nature. On Aug. 3 he threw six no-hit innings, was replaced on the mound by an infield tarp, and did not return after a 46-minute rain delay.

He said he believed no-hitters have become rarer because of a smaller strike zone, deeper lineups and pitch-count squeamishness.

"Guys now might pitch two or three years in the minors to get here," he said, "and never throw a complete game."

Evans also supposed that advancements in scouting -- on-demand videotape and mounds of reports -- have worked against pitchers.

"Players have to be so fine in their execution because they're more predictable than ever before," he said. "Hitters have some feel for a pitcher when, in some cases, they've never seen him before."

Of course, no-hitters aren't so rare that they still can't be found in clusters. Angels General Manager Bill Stoneman threw two in an eight-year career, and his assistant general manager, Ken Forsch, threw one. Forsch's brother, Bob, threw two, and there was a night two seasons ago when Clyde Wright, who threw one for the Angels in 1970, joined them all in a suite at Angel Stadium, bringing to six the no-hitters in one room. And still they couldn't match Nolan Ryan, who threw seven, four for the Angels.

Both Stoneman and Ken Forsch tended toward the theory of the arbitrary confluence of events -- pitcher with good stuff, hitters with bad luck, fielders in the right places at the right times.

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