The Numbers Behind MLB No-Hitters in 2021

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By Catherine Wu and Clare McMullen

As the 2021 MLB season propels full speed out of its third month, we are here with an important look at the numbers behind one of the record-breaking events happening across the league. Yes, it’s about pitching; no, it’s not about “sticky stuff”… It’s about the fact that MLB pitchers have had seven incredible outings in which the Seattle Mariners, Cleveland Indians, Texas Rangers, and LA Dodgers have amassed a total of 0 hits (yes, that’s twice for some teams). The combined effort from the Chicago Cubs pitching staff against the Dodgers on June 24th marks the seventh no-no of 2021, tying the modern day record for number of no-hitters in a season and setting the fastest rate to reach number seven in MLB history.

Of course, there’s no perfect explanation for what turns a good outing into an exceptional one; highlight-reel defense, batting misses, and a bunch of good luck do take some of the credit. However, the remaining reasons -hopefully something analyzable- are what we want to dive into here. This article will present some stats, trends, and maybe one or two of our own educated guesses as we try to explore how offense, defense, and pitching have evolved and combined to lead us to the historic start of this MLB season.

OFFENSE

As we start exploring the numbers behind this no-hitter phenomenon, we begin with a look into offense. Stats that focus on hits and contact are ones that we have considered most relevant to the analysis of offensive output for no-hit scenarios. Looking into team-specific stats first, we focus on their strikeout rate, batting average, and batting average on balls in play.

A quick rundown:

The chart below shows these offensive stats with their respective rankings in 2021 for the four teams that have been no-hit so far this season.

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Ranking quite low across the board, the offensive performance of the Rangers, Mariners, and Indians definitely affirms that poor offense leads to increased chances at being no-hit (twice in two months!). 

However, we can also see that the Dodgers offense is quite strong so this may be where situation and game-specific luck and outcomes come into play. The Cubs starter threw 6.0 no-hit innings against their offense, but gave up three hard-hit balls (> 100 MPH) and several other outs that had expected batting averages of over 0.500. Although none of these batted balls dropped in for a hit, the Dodgers offense was able to knock Davies out of the game after the 6th inning by taking 5 walks and forcing his pitch count to 94. The strong Cubs relievers then came in and could shut down the offense for the remainder of this game.

So instead of hyper-focusing on specific teams and whether their offense will lead them to be no-hit, we’ll shift focus to league-wide offensive output and get a better sense of the trends in all MLB batting and contact that have led to seven no-hitters in such a short period. Since 1910, the year in which K% tracking began, we can see a gradual increase over time in strikeout rates paired with a decline in batting average.

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These trends, combined with the knowledge that the teams who have gotten no-hit generally rank poorly in these league-wide offensive stats, help confirm that modern-day batters are struggling, and thus, no-hitter chances are inflated.

So why have offensive stats themselves been trending downwards? Let’s try to tackle this by taking a look at pitching and defense.  

PITCHING

Importantly, given the incompatible comparisons between starting and relief pitchers’ data, the charts for this section are separated as follows:

  1. The first six no-hitters in which a starter completed the entire game

  2. The Cubs vs. Dodgers game in which four pitchers, Zach Davie, Ryan Tepera, Andrew Chafin, and Craig Kimbrel, combined their efforts

The pitchers who have thrown no-hitters this season are shown below, along with a few of their 2021 stats. 

  • Opponent’s Batting Average (AVG): The rate of hits given up by a pitchers to opposing teams 

  • Home Runs per 9 innings (HR / 9): The number of home runs a pitcher gives up for every 9 innings

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These stats, focused on contact from the pitching perspective, allow us to see that these pitchers are largely above average in their ability to maintain low and weak contact. High K% reveals that the pitcher often gets an out with no contact; low BABIP, implying that balls hit into play are likely to be fielded to result in an out, indicates weak contact; and low HR/9 and opponent’s AVG just help confirm that these pitchers rarely give up hard-hit balls.

However, these guys are obviously not the only great pitchers in the league -in fact there are probably several pitchers coming to mind who would score better in every one of these stats, yet haven’t thrown a no-hitter.

So let’s take a look at the results from each of the seven no-hitter games themselves to see if anything made these specific starts stand out.

Primarily, the pitch breakdown for each of these games is shown here. 

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Given the differences in pitch type and usage between the games, we can probably rule out the factor of specific pitches as vital to generating a no-hitter. Instead, it seems to be the execution of these pitches that matters much more.

Now let’s take a look at some of the statistics from these specific games that can help us better understand how these pitchers were able to elude giving up a single hit. 

Here’s a quick rundown of some of the metrics we’ll present.

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Notably, CSW% is remarkably above average for all these starts, with exception to Miley’s. The high rate of strikes thrown during these games is also reflected in the BIP count, showing that out of the 27 required outs, none of these pitchers needed more than 20 to actually be fielded. Similarly to CSW%, EV and AVG VELO are also generally better than an average start, further cementing the importance of maintaining low contact by either “whiffing” batters with high speed pitches or getting low velocity off the bat.

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From the Cubs staff, we can see that Davies was able to maintain a slightly above average CSW% and keep his AVG EV down, despite giving up a max EV of 104.7 MPH. However, he struggled a bit more than the other starters with the strike zone, allowing 13 balls in play for his required 18 outs, and walking 5 batters. These circumstances unfortunately forced him out of the game and brought in the relief staff who have been excellent all season and achieved their required 9 outs with no issues. Some relief specific observations can also be made here including the elevated AVG VELO and minimal BIP due to their single inning outings.

Now, we’ll turn our attention to a few more league-wide stats and trends to help paint the best possible picture of how pitchers in general may be contributing to the notable league-wide offensive decline. 

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Overall, with the clear rising trend in velocity and declining trend in batting contact, it seems pretty clear that the modern-day game is turned to the favour of pitchers.

DEFENSE

Another major point that is often brought up in discussing the MLB offensive decline is the notion of increased defensive scouting and the use of the shift. These defensive strategies, positioning fielders specifically to take away pull hits from batters (mostly lefties), have been considered one of the major reasons batters hit into outs so easily in today’s game. However, this large generalization requires some analysis -which we did for you. What we found is that since the rise of the shift in 2006, there actually has not been a recognizable decrease in BABIP -the stat which would be key to revealing whether defense was contributing to outs on balls in play. 

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Understanding this trend requires an even deeper look into BABIP. Take a look at this graph showing the league-wide BABIP on left-handed hitters’ ground balls. 

We can clearly see that shifts have made a dent in the batting average on hits to the pull side, but because of the shifted defense on these players, they have been able to also increase their hits to the opposite field; ultimately, evening out the average BABIP value.

Thus, although we love talking up the shift in its ability to take away hits, it seems reasonable to conclude that the swing-and-miss is still affecting offense and increasing no-hitter chances more than the rise of the defensive shift. 

CONCLUSION

If you just skipped to the end to see what we covered, here it is:

  • Offense is on a downward trend across the league: declining BA and batting contact, elevated K% and HRs

  • In general, teams who have gotten no-hit so far are offensively weaker

  • Pitchers who have thrown no-hitters are generally above average in generating strikeouts and weak contact

  • The type of pitch thrown does not seem to factor highly into generating a no-hitter

  • Throwing a no-hitter requires a high percentage of called and swinging strikes (ie. the Blue Jays’ bullpen have no shot)

  • League-wide pitching velocity is on an upward trend across all pitches

  • Defensive shifts have decreased pull hits, but conversely, allow more opposite side hits to go through; thus, having little effect on overall BABIP

Of course. there is still a wide breadth of extended analysis that can be applied to each of these fascinating sections, but hopefully, this brief overview provided you with some insight, or at least some confirmation of factors that have or haven’t contributed to the 2021 MLB season’s record-breaking rate of no-hitters. 
Perhaps changes need to be made or are being made (re: sticky stuff), that can help even out the score between hitters and pitchers. We don’t know what will happen in the future, we also haven’t put the numbers through enough neural nets to try to make a prediction, but we do trust that if baseball continues down these trends, we’ll be seeing many more of these records fall very soon. 

REFERENCES

League-wide offensive and pitching stats and averages retrieved from https://www.fangraphs.com

Game specific stats and defensive data retrieved from https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/

Featured Image via Kamin-Oncea/USA Today Sports, via Reuters