On April 27, 2002, Derek Lowe threw a no-hitter for the Red Sox against the Rays. Your mileage may vary, but for me, it was the first MLB no-hitter to which I really paid attention. As such, I was swept up in the reverence of the moment. No-hitters don’t happen every day. Well, at least they didn’t used to.
There has been no shortage of discussion about the dwindling offensive performance and the absolute glut of pitching dominance at the MLB level this year. There is perhaps no better sign of the shift in the power dynamic between pitcher and batter (and the potential need to address it) than the fact that in 2021 alone, six different pitchers have tossed nine-inning no-hitters. (Madison Bumgarner threw seven no-hit innings in a shortened game in April). Those six pitchers are Joe Musgrove, Carlos Rodón, John Means, Wade Miley, Spencer Turnbull and Corey Kluber.
Whereas in the past, each of these guys would own the pitching spotlight for weeks and even months at a time, now the afterglow may last less than a day. For example, just last week, Turnbull no-hit the Seattle Mariners only to have Kluber do the same to the Texas Rangers the very next day. Come on, Corey. Couldn’t you give Spencer 24 hours to himself?
In addition to there being a high rate of no-hitters, there has also been a wide variance in the skill level of the guys who have thrown them. Now, no-hitters have not always been the territory of Cy Young contenders alone, but it does feel like the potential for anyone to throw a no-hitter is at a peak right now.
With all that in mind, perhaps it is only a matter of time before someone on the Red Sox has a date with destiny and keeps an opposing team’s bats entirely silent for nine innings. This may be an alarming thought for the people at Jordan’s Furniture, but since the question of if someone will throw a no-hitter is losing its luster this year, let’s try to answer the questions of who might throw one for the Red Sox in 2021 and when.
There is no real scientific way to predict this sort of thing, at least as far as I can tell, but to try to narrow things down and pick a specific pitcher and date, I tried to distill the act of throwing a no-hitter down to its basic ingredients. To throw a no-hitter, you need to miss bats, produce contact that your defense can handle, get outs quickly and get lucky. Let’s break down each of these categories and determine which Red Sox starter (currently on the MLB roster) is best at each.
Well, duh. Of course the easiest way to not give up a hit is to simply not let the ball hit the bat. However, some pitchers succeed despite inducing a lot of contact. Unfortunately, that leads to more balls in play, which leads to more chances for struck balls to turn into hits. So, although you don’t need to strike out everyone you face, it helps to avoid contact as much as possible.
There are a bunch of statistics that measure some degree of a pitcher’s ability to miss bats, but for this exercise, let’s go with strikeout rate, whiff rate, chase rate and zone contact rate. According to Baseball Savant, Eduardo Rodriguez leads Red Sox starters in strikeout rate (26.2 percent) and chase rate (27.9 percent), while Garrett Richards leads in whiff rate (25.7 percent) and Nick Pivetta leads in zone contact rate (81.1 percent).
If we just go on who leads in the most categories, Rodriguez seems like the easy answer, but Rodriguez is dead last among Red Sox starters in zone contact rate (85.1 percent) and second to last in whiff rate (22.9 percent). Meanwhile, in addition to allowing the lowest rate of contact on pitches in the zone, Pivetta is second in strikeout rate (25.4 percent) and whiff rate (24.5 percent).
Edge: Nick Pivetta
Producing “Good” Contact
Striking out every single batter would make for an amazing no-hitter, but it’s never been done at the MLB level, so making sure that batters are creating contact that is likely to result in an out when they do connect is critical. Again, this is obvious, but some guys are better at it than others. For this category, I’ll be using the statistics of home run rate (it doesn’t matter how soft a home run is hit, they are always hits), line drive rate and Baseball Savant’s meatball rate.
Pivetta once again shines in this category, ranking first among current Red Sox starters in line drive rate (21.7 percent) and second in home run rate (0.57 per nine innings). Nathan Eovaldi has been the best at avoiding home runs, allowing just one this season for a rate of 0.16 per nine innings. However, he has the highest meatball rate (9.4 percent) among Red Sox starters. In terms of avoiding meatball pitches, Martín Pérez is the best in the Red Sox’s current rotation (5.9 percent), with Rodriguez (7.3 percent), Pivetta (8.4 percent) and Richards (8.7 percent) following behind. Pérez is also pretty good at avoiding dingers (0.59 per nine innings), but he is last among Red Sox starters in line drive rate (25.6 percent).
Since Pivetta, Pérez and Eovaldi all struggle with one of these categories while dominating in another, we’ll give it to Pivetta since he is the only guy in the top two of two of the statistics in this category.
Edge: Nick Pivetta
Throwing a complete game of any kind requires a lot of pitches unless you throw a Maddux. Even if you do, you’re still probably looking at somewhere between 80 to 99 pitches. More realistically, a complete game no-hitter will usually require at least 110 to 120 or so pitches. That means that anyone who wants to throw one of these things has to have significant stamina and the ability to get quick outs so as not to boost their pitch count needlessly. If this were MLB The Show, we could just look at who had the highest stamina rating, but until Statcast figures out a way to put a little stamina meter over players’ heads during games, we’ll have to rely on some other metrics.
To determine which Red Sox starter has the best chance to go deep into a game, I looked at there average pitch count, how often they get into hitters’ counts (which I’m defining as 3-0, 3-1, 2-1 or 2-0 counts) and their walk rates. Throwing a lot of pitches, constantly having to battle back and giving up walks is not only draining, it creates more and more chances for the opposing team to get a hit.
This is where Pivetta’s lock-solid case evaporates. He is last among Red Sox starters in walk rate (12.2 percent) and average pitch count (17.7 per inning). He also averages 1.8 hitters’ counts per inning, which is third in the rotation. Meanwhile, Eovaldi leads in two of the three categories, with 16.1 pitches per inning and 1.4 hitters’ counts per inning, while ranking second in walk rate (5.6 percent). This is also a decent category for Rodriguez, who leads in walk rate (5.3 percent) and is second-best among Red Sox starters with 1.5 hitters’ counts per inning. Still, Eovaldi has this one.
Edge: Nathan Eovaldi
Some of the best pitchers in MLB history never threw no-hitters and that’s because as much as it takes a ton of skill to throw one, it also takes a tremendous amount of luck. Just like in poker, you can be great at reading opponents and knowing when to push the issue and when to sit back, but every now and then pocket aces will lose to a lesser hand.
Of course, luck is perhaps the most difficult of these categories to quantify. How lucky someone is isn’t something FanGraphs, Baseball Savant or Baseball Reference can entirely measure, but we do have at least a bit of an approximation in things like batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and expected batting average. Based on that, Pivetta is the easy winner of this category, as he has both the lowest BABIP (.269) and lowest expected batting average (.227) among current Red Sox starters.
Edge: Nick Pivetta
Now that we’ve determined who will be throwing the no-hitter (congratulations in advance, Nick), let’s try to figure out which team it will come against. For this, I could make the easy joke of picking Seattle, Texas or Cleveland, as all three teams have been no-hit twice this year, but let’s try to pick out a team with bad expected luck when it comes to getting hits and getting on base overall. After all, more base runners of any kind equals more risk. To measure these two variables, we’ll use expected batting average and xwOBA. Now let’s just take a look here and … sorry, Mariners. Seattle is last in MLB in expected batting average (.219), while the Miami Marlins are last in xwOBA (.292).
It feels too easy to take the Mariners. Is one team really going to be no-hit three times in one season? Even if no-hitters are becoming more common, that still seems awfully unlikely to me. However, the Marlins don’t fit either, even though the Red Sox play Miami this weekend, because Pivetta is scheduled to start on Wednesday and his next turn in the rotation likely wouldn’t be until after this weekend.
So, who does that leave us with? The Detroit Tigers. Detroit is tied for second-to-last in expected batting average (.226) and is second-to-last by itself in xwOBA (.297). In addition, the Tigers have a top 10 BABIP, so regression must be coming soon.
The Red Sox have already tangled with the Tigers this season, but they have another three-game set, this time in Detroit, during the first week of August. It’s tough to know exactly who will start those three games for the Red Sox at this point, but if everything holds (it won’t), there is a better than 50 percent chance Pivetta would pitch in the series.
So, with all that written, I am prepared to announce that Nick Pivetta will throw a no-hitter against the Detroit Tigers on Aug. 3 (or whichever day he pitches in that series, assuming he does). You heard it here first.
All statistics are from before games played on May 25.