Thursday, July 29, 2010

Throwing a no-hitter is the new hitting 50 home runs

In the late '90s we learned that chicks dig the long ball. Bud Selig and Major League Baseball better hope that, a decade later, chicks and dudes dig the fastball. It seems that throwing a no-hitter is the new hitting 50 home runs.

There are perhaps several reasons that balls began flying out of ballparks at a record pace in the 1990s--more tightly wound, "lively" balls; expansion leading to an influx of unqualified pitchers--but one of course stands out: steroids. From 1875 until 1994, the 50 home run mark was reached 18 times. From 1995 through 2007, hitters cracked the half-century mark 24 times. Swinging for the fences--and doing so successfully--was the thing to do. The long ball is what baseball became for a decade. Even Brady Anderson got into the swing of things. Sammy Sosa hit 64 home runs in 2001 ... and lost the home run race by nine.

But pitchers have come back with a vengeance. No hitter has eclipsed the 50 mark since 2007, and the home run leader at this year's All-Star break had fewer than any hitter since 1991. Matt Garza just tossed the majors' fifth no-hitter this season, six if you count Armando Galarraga's imperfect game. There were five total no-hitters from 2002-2006.

One more no-hitter would tie 1991's total of seven, also accomplished in 1990, and would come one shy of 1884's record-setting total of eight, meaning there's a decent chance there will be more no-hitters this season than in any other in MLB history. There have already been more perfect games this year than in any other season (if you count Galarraga's).

Prior to 1990, you have to go back to 1969 to find another year of six or more (there were six). There were five in 1968, the so-called Year of the Pitcher, after which they lowered the freakin' mound just to give the hitters a chance, so there have now been more no-hitters through July of this season than there were in the Year of the Pitcher. There were also six in 1917, 1915 and 1908.

So while in 1995-2007 the 50 home run mark became the unique, newsworthy accomplishment in the baseball world, in 2010 it's the no-hitter. Not allowing a hit is in. It's vogue. It's a feat that's supposed to be rare and glorious but is suddenly becoming ordinary and expected. Why was I not shocked to find out that in the 6th inning of Garza's no-hitter, the opposing pitcher had yet to allow a hit himself? Another no-hitter leading off SportsCenter? Yawn. Edwin Jackson (6-9, 5.01 ERA) did that. Dallas Braden (5-7, 3.77) did that. I can barely remember everyone who's done it, just like you may not recall that Luis Gonzalez belted 50 home runs, Andruw Jones did it too, and Sammy Sosa did it three different times.

No one knows for sure if this no-hitter trend will continue for years like the home run onslaught did, or if this is simply a one-year aberration. But for the moment, it looks like one unexpected trend--hitting 50 or more home runs in a season--has been replaced by a far less sexy but no less impressive one--no-hitting the opposition.

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