WASHINGTON – It was a baseball rarity that, for a time, came in droves and exemplified the gross imbalance of dominant pitchers against helpless hitters, eventually compelling the game’s highest powers to legislate a fair fight on the diamond.
And Major League Baseball’s sweeping rule changes to stimulate offense – a pitch clock, a ban on defensive shifts, a few less inches from home to first – have had a modest but still profound effect.
Hits per game are up 2% from last year and 2.5% from 2021 and runs scored up 7%. Even the stingiest pitcher might agree that the changes – resulting in a faster, more active game – have been positive.
But so far in 2023, this hitter-friendlier game has helped wash away one of the game’s enduring gems:
It’s been almost exactly two years since then-Yankees right-hander Corey Kluber needed just 101 pitches to no-hit the Texas Rangers on May 19, 2021 – the second no-hitter in as many days and the seventh to date that season.
Two more would follow, the nine no-hitters in one season breaking a 137-year-old record. And the man who started that amazing run can’t help but wonder if that era is long gone.
Joe Musgrove made all kinds of history on April 9, 2021, when MLB’s first no-hitter in a record-breaking season was also the first in San Diego Padres history. He struck out 10 and walked none, his lone blemish hitting Joey Gallo with a pitch.
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Two years later, Musgrove has a $100 million contract extension in hand and forever a place in Padres lore. He also realizes that in 2023, the degree of difficulty for a no-hitter has gone way up.
“I feel like you’ll see less and less no-hitters now that they’ve taken away a lot of the ability to control the game,” says Musgrove, who is giving up a career-high 10.9 hits per nine innings in five starts. “The pitch clock doesn’t allow you to slow a game down at times you need to, especially to complete a no-hitter in those last couple innings, when you really need to take your time and bear down every pitch.
“The defensive shifts are gone now, so you don’t have the advantage to put players into favorable spots to get guys to hit into shifts. You’ll see less and less of it, but it’s also a very lucky scenario. Very rarely do you see a guy punch out 15 or 20 in a no-hitter. Usually, it’s a lot of fly balls, ground balls, a couple great plays, a little bit of luck.”
Or simply dominance. There were two no-hitters in the books by May 10, 2022, and three overall, not counting the combined effort by Cristian Javier and three Astros relievers in Game 4 of the World Series. The latest a no-hitter occurred in recent seasons was June 3, 2017, when Miami’s Edinson Volquez threw that season’s lone no-hitter. Not coincidentally, that season produced what was then an all-time high in home run rate (1.26 per team) and 8.69 hits per game, 7% more than 2021’s rate.
Ah, yes, 2021. Undoubtedly, the pitching was sublime, but there were also some awful offensive teams. Three of them – the Rangers, Mariners and Cleveland – were no-hit twice in the season’s first seven weeks. Leaguewide batting average fell to .244 and then .243 in 2022, when it was accompanied by a .706 OPS, the lowest batting average/OPS combo since 1968, after which the mound was lowered.
This time? Cue the pitch clock. Cue the shift restrictions.
To be clear, it hasn’t been a hitting bacchanalia. Leaguewide batting average is still just .247, and if you dig past 2020, you’d have to go back to 1972 to find one that low. Yet there’s plenty of evidence to suggest it’s just that much easier to find the occasional hole in the defense, or a pitcher, pressed for time, making just one mistake.
The absence of no-hitters have also been accompanied by nothing resembling a near-miss. Nine one-hitters have been thrown this season, but just two reached the eighth inning hitless. Those efforts – by Cleveland’s Cal Quantrill and a perfect game bid from the Cubs’ Drew Smyly – were broken up by leadoff hits (Smyly’s in admittedly absurd circumstances).
With fielders limited to staying on their side of second base and off the grass, a certain type of hitter – stubborn – is no longer fodder for easy outs.
“The shift was there for a reason,” says Musgrove. “You saw how successful it was and how many hits it took away. Sure, it gave up hits and cost you a couple runs here or there with a shift single that scores two. But overall, there’s a lot of work put into where guys hit the ball against a certain type of pitcher with certain type of stuff.
“For the most part, it worked out in the pitcher’s favor. It’s a little difficult now; there’s some hitters that just don’t change their approach and are going to consistently hit into the same areas, and not being able to defend against that is more difficult.”
Lots of info, little time
This era of the pitcher, Musgrove notes, wasn’t just “happenstance of the rules. It was pitchers dominating the game through work and scouting and alignments, dictating the pace of the game.” The pitch clock has imperiled that last piece.
The cat-and-mouse of pitcher and hitter with the clock – the hitter must be facing pitcher by eight seconds, giving the pitcher a limited window to vary his delivery time – is still unfolding. But what won’t change is the unyielding time between pitches – 15 seconds with bases empty, 20 seconds with runners on – that can neutralize other pitcher advantages.
Such as copious scouting reports and pregame plans of attack that must be synthesized quicker and quicker.
“As a pitcher, there’s so many things you try to process between pitches,” says Musgrove. “Situation, going back to scouting reports on what counts this guy likes to steal in, who’s on deck, do I have a chance to pitch around this guy, do I make him try to (swing) in the dirt? It’s a lot to think about in eight seconds, to be on the mound in time to get your pitch, know what you want to throw and execute.
“I think the more we use it, the more we get used to it. But early on, I definitely noticed a difference in my attention to the actual execution of the pitch. There’s a lot of other (stuff) and distractions that I’m focused on all trying to do within that 15-second window.
“I’ll get better with it, but I feel like it has been the most noticeable change – having to go at that pace.”
Relief won’t be coming any time soon.
With the automated ball-strike system making it up to Class AAA, the “if” has given way to “when” it reaches the major leagues. Musgrove’s exposure to it on a rehab assignment showed him a future in which borderline calls will be even harder for a pitcher to earn.
“We just gotta wear it, I guess,” he says.
Not that Musgrove is complaining. For now, the slope still tilts toward pitchers, at least until a generation of hitters corrects for the 99-mph filth and diabolical pitch shapes they are consistently fed.
It’s just that those unforgettable nights where it all comes together – ending in dogpiles and champagne toasts and authenticated baseballs – are truly hard to come by. Musgrove got his no-hitter when the getting was good – otherwise San Diego might still be waiting a while for its first.
“I feel like,” says Musgrove, “it’s going to be a lot rarer that you see it.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB still waiting for first no-hitter of 2023 in pitch-clock era
Source: Yahoo Sports