Thursday, June 26, 2014

Freaky No-Hitters

Freaky No-Hitters

            Yesterday, June 25, 2014, Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants threw his second career no-hitter, both of which occurred against the same team, the San Diego Padres, within one calendar year. Only two pitchers have thrown two no-hitters, have at least two Cy Young Awards, and have at least two World Series Championships; Sandy Koufax and Lincecum. The two also have another interesting connection, both were dominant for only a short period of time, albeit for very different reasons. Koufax pitched twelve seasons, dominating in the latter half of his career, despite having arthritis problems that would eventually lead to him retiring at the age of thirty. Many consider Koufax the greatest pitcher of all-time, if not at least one of the greatest of all-time. Lincecum, currently thirty, has gone the opposite direction, joining the Giants in 2007 and having great seasons until 2012. While his 2008 and 2009 Cy Young Award-winning seasons are absolutely dominating (ERA+ of 168 in 2008 and 171 in 2009, with a K/9 over 10 both years), he probably will not be remembered a tenth as well as Koufax in the future. Koufax was great for six seasons (and quite possibly the best pitcher in the game during that stretch) and good for four others. Lincecum was great for two seasons and good for three others.

While the obvious objection is Tim Lincecum is only thirty years old, he has been on a downward trend since 2011, posting not league average seasons, but outright bad seasons. His ERA+ in 2012 was 68, with an ERA of 5.18 in 186 innings pitched. That season also saw his walk rate spike, going from 3.6 in 2011 to 4.4 in 2012. At the time it was considered that it was just a fluke bad season for Lincecum, but 2013 and 2014 concur with 2012. Lincecum’s ERA+ in 2013 was 78 and is currently at 77 in 2014 (and that is including his no-hitter yesterday). Keep in mind that an ERA+ of 100 is league average. So why exactly has Tim Lincecum thrown two no-hitters in two of his three worst seasons in his career? This may surprise some, but there is no real objective answer here. Is it just mere luck? Is nature on his side? Is it the work of God? A no-hitter, or even a perfect game, does not necessarily indicate anything other than a pitcher had a very good day and pitched well.

In 2012, Phillip Humber threw a perfect game for the Chicago White Sox, striking out nine in just 96 pitches. That year Humber posted an ERA+ of 66. Humber currently struggles on the Oakland Athletics AAA team. In 2010, Edwin Jackson threw a no-hitter for the Arizona Diamondbacks, walking eighth batter, even hitting one batter with a pitch, but accomplished the feat after 149 pitches. Jackson was traded to the Chicago White Sox later that season, posting an ERA+ of 82 with the Arizona Diamondbacks and 95 total for the 2010 season. On Mother’s Day in 2010, Twenty-six year old Dallas Braden of the Oakland Athletics pitched a perfect game, striking out six in the process of throwing 109 pitches. Braden posted an ERA+ of 117 that year. Three games into the 2011 season he left with a shoulder injury and never pitched another inning again. On July 10, 2009, struggling fifth starter Jonathan Sanchez pitched a no-hitter for the San Francisco Giants, walking none, making it one of the rare no-hitters where only an error stopped it from being a perfect game. For that 2009 season, Sanchez posted an ERA+ of 100, exactly league average. He followed that year up with a pretty good 2010, posting an ERA+ of 127, allowing a career low 6.6 hits per nine innings. Sanchez’s 2011 was disappointing prior to his foot injury that happened mid-season, posting an ERA+ of 82. 2012 and 2013 saw limited innings for Sanchez because he was just such a poor pitcher, posting an ERA+ of 53 in 2012 and 31 in 2013. He is currently struggling with the Chicago Cubs AAA team. In his second year in the major leagues, 1999, Eric Milton pitched a no-hitter for the Minnesota Twins, leading to him having his best career major league year with an ERA+ of 113. Milton struggled in mediocrity, with a career ERA of 4.99, until he retired in 2009.

Of course, on the flip side of the coin, tons of all-time MLB greats have pitched no-hitters or perfect games. Randy Johnson, Cy Young, Addie Joss, Nolan Ryan, and Tom Seaver among the endless list of Hall of Famers or future Hall of Famers who have completed the task. Lincecum is more likely to be grouped in with the Humber, Braden, and Sanchez, among the many that have thrown no-hitters or perfect games at this point. His peak was phenomenal, but it was only two seasons. Randy Johnson had more than two phenomenal seasons. Cy Young had a ton of phenomenal seasons. Nolan Ryan had a ton of phenomenal seasons. Could Lincecum join that second group of Hall of Famers still? It is possible, but unlikely. Lincecum is and has struggled seemingly every other start in the past few seasons. His last start before the no-hitter had him give up four earned runs in six innings. That is not a one off thing for Lincecum this season or for 2012 or 2013. He has clearly lost a step, as he is giving up more walks per nine, less strikeouts per nine, and more home runs per nine these past few years than he did during his glory years. Way back in 2008 and 2009, it was talked about how his delivery would impact the longevity of his career and it appears it has. From time to time these days, however we do get glimpses of the sure thing that was Tim Lincecum years ago. These glimpses appear to be nothing more than just that, glimpses, not signs of recovering into the pitcher he once was. It would take a herculean improvement in the years to come to be truly compared to whom many are comparing him to after yesterday’s performance, Sandy Koufax, which is unlikely. While he may never be that killer arm once again, two no-hitters against the same team in a calendar year is still a great accomplishment. The others to accomplish such a feat are Virgil Trucks, Johnny Vander Meer (no-hitters in back-to-back starts), Allie Reynolds, Nolan Ryan, and Roy Halladay. A mixed group in terms of overall career trajectory, regardless Lincecum joined a very rare club Wednesday afternoon. 

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