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It takes a great pitcher to throw a no-hitter. Yet like any caper, it doesn’t hurt to have accomplices.
And it’s impossible to ignore that the near-unprecedented six no-hitters thrown in the first seven weeks of this Major League Baseball season saw three teams – the Rangers, Mariners and Cleveland – twice victimized.
Those squads will see better days, certainly, and broad conclusions can’t necessarily be drawn from any two games, extreme though they may be. Yet the offensive deficiencies Joe Musgrove, Carlos Rodon, John Means, Wade Miley, Spencer Turnbull and Corey Kluber exposed in making history reflect the season-long futility of all three clubs.
Why, you ask, have six no-hitters clustered around three clubs? Let’s explore:
Rangers: Futile chase
For most of the past decade, every year is the Year of the Strikeout across the major leagues, and 2021 may be the punchiest season ever.
The Rangers could wind up as the reluctant champions of the K.
Only the Tampa Bay Rays (472 strikeouts) have been punched out more than the Rangers (444), and worse yet, they tend to aid and abet pitchers.
Musgrove – third in the NL in strikeouts – and Kluber certainly didn’t need any help when they took the Globe Life Field mound in Arlington, Texas.
But the Rangers obliged, striking out 19 times against the Padres and Yankees starters. Ten of the 19 strikeouts were swinging – and the Rangers chased a pitch out of the zone on every one of them.
Nick Solak – the Rangers’ second-best hitter this season – was the worst offender, fanning four times in the two no-hitters, three of them coming on chases. Entering Thursday’s play, the Rangers’ chase percentage of 28.1% was 10th-worst in the major leagues, a metric teams are increasingly relying on to identify hitters that can survive in this high-velocity era.
Just look at the five most disciplined teams in the major leagues – the Dodgers, Padres, Giants, Yankees and A’s are all in playoff position or within a game of it.
And not all chasers are created equally.
The first-place Red Sox are “good chasers” – at 31.6%, they go outside the zone more than any club in baseball, but also make contact 60.7% of the time when they chase, better than any team but the Astros. It befits a club with three of the top 14 hitters in the major leagues – J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers – on MLB’s swing/take leaderboard.
Yet the Rangers have no one as gifted as Devers, nor as punishing as Martinez or Bogaerts.
Their most accomplished hitter, Joey Gallo, is batting .211, leading a group of five Rangers with at least 50 plate appearances batting between .087 (Leody Taveras) and Gallo's .211.
In a grim commentary on the state of the game, the Rangers are batting .236 and producing a paltry .693 OPS – yet seven of their nine regulars rank as league average or better hitters.
What a league.
Mariners: Expect more misery
No-hitters at times can reflect a team’s poor fortunes – a series of line drives hit directly at fielders, or a defender making a dazzling play to rob a batter and reinforce the buzzard’s luck surrounding the squad.
Not the Mariners. They’ve earned every bit of their ignominy.
Like the Rangers, they excel at swinging and missing – their 29.4% swing-and-miss rate ranks third in the major leagues, and they helped Means considerably, providing seven of his 12 strikeouts by fannig on a pitch outside the zone.
In fairness, Means’ changeup was dancing that day, and he’s averaging 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings this year. No, the greater red flag for the Mariners is the balls they managed to put in play against Means and Turnbull.
Of the 33 balls in play, just eight were of the hard-hit variety – with an exit velocity of at least 95 mph. Twenty-two balls in play had an expected batting average (xBA) of .200 or worse, including 13 of 18 against Turnbull.
An optimist might posit that they just ran into two emerging stars who threw the games of their lives. Alas, the Mariners’ season-long pattern snugly fits their no-hit narratives.
They rank 13th in the AL with a 36.7% hard-hit rate and are last in the AL and 28th in MLB in exit velocity (88 mph).
Bad luck? Nope, they’re also dead last in the major leagues in xBA (.219).
In an uncontextualized bit of happenstance that will thrill observers who believe “launch angle” is the cause of all modern hitting ills, the Mariners actually lead the majors in that metric, at 15.4%. However, launch angle married with all that soft contact only serves to produce a bevy of popups and soft fly balls.
To wit: Their hardest-hit ball against Means was a 96.5-mph popup by Ty France, the proverbial pop fly up the silo.
If traditional stats are your jam, they rank last in the majors in batting average (.198), on-base percentage (.279) and OPS (.639).
All this comes even as the flailing lineup endured a shift change of sorts, with Evan White (28 adjusted OPS), Dylan Moore (80) and Taylor Trammell (71) on the IL or in the minors, supplanted in part by top prospect Jarred Kelenic and reigning Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis, who returned from an early-season injury.
Some veterans may stabilize and young hitters may adjust, but there’s little helping much of the lineup, such as a catching platoon of Tom Murphy (41 adjusted OPS) and Luis Torrens (50).
So, if you find yourself in a social setting – say, at the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club – and someone asks, “What’s wrong with the Mariners?” you can reply with confidence that they cannot hit. At all.
Cleveland: Not a lost cause
We come here not to bury Cleveland, but rather to illustrate that a relatively decent offensive team can still get handcuffed – and no-hit – in this suffocating, pitching-centric era.
Oh, and they also were a tad unlucky.
While Rodon largely dazzled Cleveland from start to finish on a chilly April 15 evening, he may forget to tell his future grandchildren that Cleveland managed seven hard-hit balls – more than a third of the 20 they put in play. MVP runner-up Jose Ramirez smoked one 111 mph, with an expected batting average of .810, and wound up with nothing. Rodon, meanwhile, has pitched to a 1.47 ERA all season and is yielding a .180 xBA. Pretty legit.
The Wade Miley Experience is a little tougher to quantify – a 34-year-old playing for his seventh team and sporting an 89-mph fastball usually conjures up the term “situational reliever” and not “first Cincinnati Reds lefty to throw a no-hitter since 1988.”
But perhaps that was it – game after game of unrelenting velocity and fighting off high heat made Miley’s softer and more horizontal approach a huge challenge. He elicited five Cleveland strikeouts on chases and 15 groundball outs out of 20 on balls in play.
Jordan Luplow (.181), Jake Bauers and Eddie Rosario (both at .203) are bad bets to break up anyone’s no-hitter. But collectively, once you get past their 28th-ranked, .213 batting average, there are few red flags with this Cleveland team, which is middle-of-the-pack in most advanced metrics and in the upper third in OPS and line-drive rate.
It’s just that in 2021, even an average team is susceptible to the no-hitter.
Sometimes more than once.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: No-hitter: Why Rangers, Mariners, Cleveland has been twice victimized