Sunday, June 2, 2013

One-Hit Games in Baseball History

On Friday, May 31st, 2013, both the Tampa Bay Rays (9-2 over the Indians) and the Cincinnati Reds (6-0 over the Pittsburgh Pirates) had one-hit games. Neither of these games was a complete game--in the Rays case, a lengthy rain delay effectively scratched starter Matt Moore, and for Cincinnati, Johnny Cueto was relieved in the 9th inning after throwing only 103 pitches, not exactly a hallmark of Dusty Baker as a manager. I commented on these items briefly in my post discussing the games of that day but decided to expand the discussion as I did more research.

Since 1916 there have been 1,095 one-hit games, and the incidence of these games is relatively stable over time:

Notice that last bar on the far right--that's 2013, 11 one-hitters so far and only about one-third through the season. If this rate holds up, it would be the highest incidence of one-hit games since the tail end of the Dead Ball Era. That likely won't happen, but this next chart illustrates it's not just an early-season-pitcher-has-the-advantage thing--this shows one-hitters by month:

Any one-hitters thrown in October (14) are included in the September column.

Multiple one-hitters on a day aren't THAT unusual--it's the second time this year (both the Cardinals and Red Sox had them on May 10th), and it happened in 2012 (Angels and Orioles on June 16th), 2009 (Angels and Padres on September 30th) and 2007 (Cubs and Mets on September 29th). 

What got my attention was the percent of one-hit games that AREN'T complete games. Since I don't devour baseball shows on ESPN or elsewhere, there could be any number of individual reasons why pitchers don't finish out, but whatever the reason, it IS increasing over time. This graph shows the percent of one-hit games that were complete games:

It's no mystery that complete games are rarities in modern baseball--this chart shows the percent of games that are complete games, shutouts and saves:

It's become routine that if a pitcher doesn't have a compelling reason to finish a game, he won't. I don't know if fans truly appreciate that complete games didn't disappear in the last 20 years or so but much longer ago than that--as far back as the 1960s pitchers were only throwing complete games in about 30% of starts.

Here are the career leaders in pitching one-hit games--the years listed are the years they threw the games and not necessarily their career span:

Is it any real surprise the leader in no-hitters would be the leader in one-hitters as well? It's similar to Jack Nicklaus in major tournaments--20 victories (6 Masters, 5 PGA, 4 US Opens, 3 British Opens and 2 US Amateurs--a very nice symmetry) and 19 2nd place finishes.

Pitching one-hitters (or no-hitters, for that matter) isn't a skill--it's not something a pitcher can accomplish at will or when his team really needs it, but as you look at that one-hit list, most (if not all) are considered among the best pitchers in baseball history. Using FanGraph WAR values, the lowest-rated of these ten is Maloney. Just for fun, here's how they all rank:
Nolan Ryan                             106.1 (6)
Bob Feller                                  69.9 (30)
Steve Carlton                          108.8 (8)
Bobo Newsom                         62.2 (49)
Tom Seaver                               97.4 (11)
Jim Maloney                            37.0 (129)
Bert Blyleven                         105.0 (7)
Don Sutton                               85.4 (17)
Dave Stieb                                46.2 (70)
Jim Palmer                               51.5 (64)

If you look back at that first chart, other than a couple of spikes, the incidence of one-hitters hit a trough in the 1990s and early 2000s, before beginning a gradual increase around 2009. This is another marker of the change in offense that's occurred in the past five years or so, one likely to be with us for quite some time--very few new ball parks are in the planning stage, PED testing in the minor leagues is wide spread and effective, and stringent penalties at the major league level appear to have reduced their use, save a very interesting case in 2011. Will the increase in no-hit and one-hit games continue? That's hard to say, but nothing suggests they will decrease.

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