The American sports fan — or at least the American sports writer — has developed a perpetual need to define things. "This was the greatest game ever!" "Greatest comeback in sports history!" "This is the year of the pitcher!"
That’s the working definition of this year’s baseball season: the Year of the Pitcher. After all, there have been five no-hitters this season, including two perfect games. Remember, that’s not including the should-have-been perfect game by Armando Galarraga. While that surely seems like a lot (more on that in a minute) the number of no-hitters to games played in 2010 is ridiculously low when compared to, say, the number of walk-off wins.
There have been 1,502 games this season in Major League Baseball heading into play on Wednesday. The five no-hitters account for .3 percent of those games, which means we’ve qualified this as the Year of the Pitcher based on less than half of one percent of all the games played this year. Meanwhile, there have been 136 walk-off wins so far, which means that more than nine percent of all games have been decided in the most dramatic fashion. That sure seems like a lot, doesn’t it?
Have a few great pitching performances stolen "the year of" away from the walk-off? To figure that out, we’re going to need a bit of perspective on these numbers.
It’s obviously impossible to compare something as rare as a no-hitter (or perfect game) to something like a walk-off win. The fact is, once a player gets a hit in the game, there is no longer a chance for that event to occur (you can’t un-ring a bell, or un-hit a game, as it were). Unlike the no-hitter, a typical baseball game could have up to 17 lead changes before getting to the ninth inning with the home team needing a rally to win. So, despite the minuscule number of no-hitters this season when compared to the total number of walk-off wins, or total number of games played, the no-hitters can really only be judged against their own historical context. Shall we.
There have been 268 no-hitters (not including shortened games) in history, dating back to 1875. Coming into the season there were just 14 no-hitters since 1999, making the five no-hitters this season stand out even more (note: for the purposes of this historical comparison, it’s difficult to count Galarraga’s perfect game that wasn’t because we do not know how many games in the course of baseball’s long history were also actual no-hitters that the umpire botched a call to ruin. Galarraga clearly threw a perfect game, but it’s hard to use that in year-to-year comparisons).
There have been five or more no-hitters in a season eleven times in the history of the majors, including this season. We have seen more than six no-hitters in a season three times before this year, and while the first (eight) was way back in 1884, the other two came within this generation. There were seven no-hitters in 1990, including two on the same day when Dave Stewart and Fernando Valenzuela each tossed a no-no on June 29th. There was, however, no perfect game that season. The following season there were another seven no-hitters, including one that featured three pitchers and another that featured four pitchers. There was one perfect game (by Dennis Martinez) as well as Nolan Ryan’s seventh and final no-hitter. 1991 makes a pretty good case for the Year of the Pitcher.
Still, of the 20 perfect games in history, two have come this season. And yes, you can add that Galarraga game back in now, making it a theoretical three of 21 perfect games in the same year. Maybe this really is the year of the pitcher.
Here are a few notes to add back that up: Josh Johnson, despite giving up three runs in his latest start, boasts an ERA that currently rivals the all-time greats. Johnson’s 1.72 ERA would be the fourth-lowest since 1968. Having said that, the number did raise more than a tenth of a run last night and it was just a few weeks ago that Ubaldo Jimenez was boasting better numbers than Johnson, before he faltered a bit by giving up four or more runs in five of his last six starts.
Jimenez, for what it’s worth, still boasts a 2.75 ERA and is one of 18 pitchers who currently have an ERA under 3.00. To add another bit of context to this year’s numbers, Chris Carpenter led the NL with a 2.24 ERA last season and there are currently three players under that mark this year, including two on his own team.
As a league, the pitching has been better than in recent years. In fact, the overall ERA heading into games on Wednesday (4.15) is the lowest since 1992 (worth noting the overall ERA was below 4.00 in every year but one from 1980-1992 and not one time since) and the overall WHIP is the best since 1992 as well. Even if it’s not the Year of the Pitcher when you look at the entire history of the game (I’d take 1968, with seven 20-game winners including Denny McLain’s 31 wins and 49 pitchers with an ERA under 3.00 including 21 with a 2.50 or better) but 2010 has been, without much doubt, the Year of the Pitcher of the Last Two Decades or So.
So.can it be both the Year of the Pitcher and the Year of the Walk-off? Sure, it can. But based on the recent history, it’s probably not. While nine-percent of all games seems like a really high number to be decided by the last swing of the bat (or, in some cases, the last ball, hit-batsman or balk) the ratio of games to games won in walk-off fashion is not significantly higher than any of the last five years.
According to baseball-reference.com, there were 211 walk-off wins in 2,430 games in 2009 (8.68 percent). In 2008, there were 228 walk-off wins in 2,428 games (9.39 percent), which is more than the current pace (9.05 percent) through the 1,502 games this season. The numbers in 2007 and 2006 were slightly lower than this year – 215 of 2,431 games (8.84 percent) in 2007 and 214 of 2,429 games (8.81 percent) in 2006 – though not so much that it would make this campaign stand out with "Year of" status. If anything, recent history would have given that moniker to the 2008 season.
Why, then, does it seem like there are so many walk-off wins this year? Perhaps it’s the ridiculous nature of some, from grand slams where the batter thought it was an out to, as mentioned above, a walk-off balk to players getting hurt on their home-plate celebration to, recently, a pie-in-the-face celebration gone horribly wrong.
How about this for an answer to the "Year of" debate: it’s the Year of Really Compelling Baseball. There have been great pitching performances and a ton of thrilling late-inning wins. Add in the fact that five of the six division races are within 3.5 games and this is shaping up to be one heckuva season.if you’re looking for that kind of definition, of course.