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What’s more Improbable: a No-hitter or no No-hitters?

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Johan Santana threw the first no-hitter in New York Mets history on June 1. It took the Mets 51 seasons and 8,020 games to get their first no-no, so it’s been a long time coming. Believe me, prior to Friday a significant portion of Mets fans counted down from 27 until the opposing team got their first hit every single game. I know I did.

A no-hitter is a rarity. It’s an unbelievable attraction that can spark a team, lift a fan base, and give meaning to an entire season. Just listen for Ron Darling’s yelp when you watch Johan get the final strike. As far as I’m concerned, my team won the World Series on Friday. But when you’ve been playing as long as the Mets have is it more improbable that they finally got a no-hitter or that it took until now to get it?

Ironically enough, Baseball Prospectus published an article about the unlikelihood of the Mets not having a no-hitter just three days before Johan’s occurred. BP used a (relatively) simple equation to calculate the probability and ended up with this: “Between the birth of the Mets in 1962 and May 27th, 2012, there were 209,764 starts made by major-league pitchers, with 131 ending up as no-hitters. This gives us a p(no-hitter) of .000625.” Based on those odds as well as a more complicated model used by Rob Neyer and Bill James, the Mets should have thrown five no-hitters through their first 8,008 games. Should.

But looking past the raw numbers is when the real fun (or agony) begins. Major League Baseball officially recognizes 275 no-hitters between 1876 and 2012, including Johan’s. Over the same time period, a player has hit for the cycle 293 times, which makes the two feats near equally common. The Mets have never had a problem with the latter accomplishment. Ten players have hit for the cycle while wearing a Mets uniform, the most recent being Scott Hairston on April 27.

Furthermore, of the 275 no-hitters in history, 24 were thrown by pitchers who played for the Mets at some point in their careers. Most notable is Nolan Ryan, who threw seven no-hitters after leaving the team, but Dwight Gooden, Tom Seaver, David Cone, Mike Scott, and Phillip Humber each got one after their Mets career ended. Additionally, Al Leiter, Don Cardwell, Brett Saberhagen, Dock Ellis, Kenny Rogers, John Candelaria, Scott Erickson, and Dean Chance threw one, and Warren Spahn two no-hitters before coming to the Mets. Just to pile it on, Hideo Nomo threw two no-hitters as well, one before and one after playing for the Mets. Let’s just keep piling it on: A.J. Burnett, who was drafted by the Mets (although he never played for them), threw a no-no in 2001, while Alejandro Pena and Octavio Dotel combined with others for no-hitters in 1991 and 2003 respectively; which, of course, was after they’d left the Mets.

But wait, there’s more! Do you know who the Mets traded Nolan Ryan for? Of course not, because it’s Jim Fregosi, who had an astonishing five home runs and 32 RBI in 146 games over a season and a half with the team. Young Met superstars Gooden and Cone pitched their no-hitters for the cross-town rival Yankees. Perhaps most egregious of all, Tom Seaver, who pitched for the Mets for over a decade and was accurately nicknamed “The Franchise” (he remains the only player wearing a Mets hat on his Hall of Fame plaque), threw his no-hitter in 1978, his first full season on another team.

Don’t worry, I’m still not done. The Mets have collected 35 one-hitters over the years. Seaver had five of those, and three were no-hit bids that he lost in the ninth inning. Damn you Jimmy Qualls! The team’s most recent one-hitter came from R.A. Dickey on August 13, 2010. Whoever got the lone hit in that game? Why, starting pitcher Cole Hamels of course. Yes, you read that right. Starting pitcher Cole Hamels.

Just one more story. This whole drought/half-century of misery thing could have been avoided but for a Joe Amalfitano single in the Mets’ very first season. In June 1962, rookie pitcher Al Jackson gave up that single in the first inning of a double header before “settling down.” He  went the next nine innings without giving up a hit. The New York Times headline the following day: “A Single in First Spoils No-Hitter.”

There you have it, a much-abridged version of our tale of anguish. So please don’t roll your eyes every time you read that the Mets “finally got a no-hitter,” even when “finally” is in italics. And don’t you dare say the team (and its fans) didn’t earn or deserve it, even if Carlos Beltran’s ball did hit the line.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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One of Baseball’s Wacky Rules

I saw the Mets play the Padres on Friday, and something strange happened. I’d always thought a run that scored on an inning-ending play only counted if the third out had been made on a tag. A force out means no run, right? Wrong.

Get this: in the first inning, Dillon Gee walked the first batter, Will Venable, and got the next one out on a pop-up before giving up a single to Yonder Alonso that moved Venable to third. Then, with runners on the corners and one out, Jesus Guzman hit a shot that looked to be an easy double off the wall, that is, assuming it didn’t clear the fence. Mike Baxter put an end to all that by making the incredible catch you see above before doubling Alonso up at first. Here’s the video.

Venable had crossed the plate before they made the third out, but so what? It was on a force, the run didn’t count, or so I, along with most everyone in the stadium, thought. That “everyone” includes the Mets’ first baseman, Ike Davis, who told the AP, “I gave a first pump because I thought the run wouldn’t count.”

But alas, Ike and I have something in common: we were wrong. Well, that and the fact that we’re both hitting under .200 this year. Then again, I haven’t had 156 at bats (hint: I haven’t had any). Anyway, we both thought the run would be nullified by the double play. It was not, because as is the case with so many of baseball’s finer points, the devil is in the details.

Remember when I told you it was wrong to think a force out means no run? Well, I was lying. See, it’s not that this play was an exception to the rule, that the run counted despite being a force out. Rather, it’s that the second out on a tag up double play like this one isn’t actually a force out. Why, you ask? Well, that requires some definitions. To the rule book, let’s go!

Alright Robin, now that we’ve got our atomic batteries to power and our turbines to speed, I’ll tell you. Rule 2.00 of the Official Baseball Rules states that a force play is one in which “a runner legally loses his right to occupy a base by reason of the batter becoming a runner.” Likewise, Rule 7.08 tell us that “if a following runner is put out on a force play, the force is removed and the runner must be tagged to be put out,” and Rule 7.10(a) states “Any runner shall be called out, on appeal, when after a fly ball is caught, he fails to retouch his original base before he or his original base is tagged.”

So what happened on Friday is this: the force on Alonso was removed when Baxter made that catch, and the third out, which came from the ball getting to first before he could tag up, was technically a tag out. That’s despite it looking so much like a force play.

Funny, isn’t it? Because the definition of a force out is so specific, that of a tag out is the opposite. A tag out doesn’t actually require a runner being tagged with the ball, a base can be “tagged” as well. So basically, a tag out is anything that isn’t a force out. But hey, it’s these little complexities that make baseball so great. It’s one thing for me or Ike Davis to be surprised, we’ve only got 40 years of baseball-watching between us, max. But it’s entirely another that my grandfather, who was there as well, can learn something new about the game he loves after seeing it played for over 75 years. In baseball, there actually is something new under the sun, and that’s what makes it such a beautiful game.

What’s in a Closer?

Closer. It’s one of the toughest jobs in baseball, in all of sports even. Or so we’re led to believe. What is it about getting three outs in the ninth inning that’s so different from getting three outs in the seventh? Why do managers make situational decisions in the seventh (e.g. bringing in lefties to face lefties) but insist on using their pre-assigned “closer” in the ninth? What if the situation in the seventh is far more dire than that of the ninth (e.g. if the three, four, and five hitters are due up or the bases are loaded)? Why isn’t the best pitcher on the mound in the biggest spots?

I’ll tell you why: saves, the only statistic that changes the way the game is played, as well as the way it’s financed. A save situation is the only time a manager makes a decision based on arbitrary numerals rather than what’s going to help his team win. The only time he’d do it on purpose anyway. To quote Michael Lewis in Moneyball:

The central insight that led [Billy Beane] to turn minor league nobodies into successful big league closers and to refuse to pay them the many millions a year they demanded once they became free agents was that it was more efficient to create a closer than to buy one. Established closers were systematically overpriced, in large part because of the statistic by which closers were judged in the marketplace: “saves.” The very word made the guy who achieved them sound vitally important. But the situation typically described by the save—the bases empty in the ninth inning with the team leading—was far less critical than a lot of other situations pitchers faced. The closer’s statistic did not have the power of language; it was just a number. You could take a slightly above average pitcher and drop him into the closer’s role, let him accumulate some gaudy number of saves, and then sell him off. You could, in essence, buy a stock, pump it up with false publicity, and sell it off for much more than you’d paid for it.

Before I really get started I suppose I should give full disclosure. I’m a Mets fan, woe be upon me, and that’s why this stuff’s on my mind. For some reason Terry Collins insists on calling Frank Francisco his closer. Frank Francisco, he of the 8.59 ERA and 2.05 WHIP. He of the three losses, 14 earned runs, eight walks, and 22 hits in just 14.2 innings pitched. He is our closer, and nobody else. All those questions in the first paragraph, yeah, I’ve been shouting them at my television over the past few days.

Yet it’s not those numbers that most horrify me, it’s these: two years and $12 million, or Frank Frank’s contract. It’s because of them that Francisco remains in his position, “for now.”

Like so many other closers, Francisco has but one man to thank for those numbers. That man is Jerome Holtzman, the sportswriter who invented the save in 1960, leading to it becoming an official statistic in 1969.

There was a time when the best relievers were called “firemen,” and they pitched when they were needed most. Bases loaded with one out in the eighth? That’s fireman time. Closer time is the ninth inning, with a three run lead and nobody on base, which has lead some to call it “the most overrated position in sports.

Those who believe in the sanctity of the closer will tell you the ninth inning is different, there’s more pressure, it gets in your head the way no other inning can. To them I say this: bullshit. Dave Smith of Retrosheet conducted a study of late-inning leads from 1944 to 2003 and an additional 14 seasons prior. He found that regardless of strategy, teams that enter the ninth inning with a lead win 95 percent of the time. The figure doesn’t even vary all that much, the high was 96.7 percent (1909), while the low was 92.5 percent (1941).

Granted, those figures apply to any lead, not just “save situations,” so they’re not really relevant to this discussion, right? Wrong. Smith calculated the figures for those scenarios as well, and they’re not all that different. Going into the ninth inning, a team ahead by one run wins 85 percent of the time, if they’re two runs up it’s 94 percent, and a three-run lead gets you 96 percent.

The problem for most teams is that they obsessively save their closer for the ninth, he might go a week without seeing action during a losing streak. As a result, they lose in the middle innings. The Mets have the exact opposite problem. Their fireman situations often come in the ninth inning, but only because Francisco creates them. They save the guy they think is their best reliever, because he’s making the most money, and waste better pitchers like Bobby Parnell, Tim Byrdak, and Jon Rauch in the middle innings. Now, the Mets think Francisco is their best for a reason, and maybe he is. But he’s not their best right now, and until he is there should be someone else on the hill in critical situations, regardless of what inning it is.

 

 

 

St. Louis Cardinals sign Carlos Beltran to a two-year deal

New York Mets batter Carlos Beltran (R) is congratulated by teammate Jason Bay (44) after Beltran scored his second home run of the day, a two-run homer, against the Colorado Rockies in the seventh inning of their MLB National League baseball game in Denver May 12, 2011. REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

The St. Louis Cardinals knew they weren’t going to be able to replace the most productive player in franchise history in one fell swoop. But netting Carlos Beltran at least somewhat softens the blow of losing Albert Pujols this winter.

According to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Cardinals have reached a two-year, $26 million contract with Beltran. The free agent outfielder batted .300 with a .910 OPS and 22 home runs in 142 games this past season for the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants. He was traded to San Francisco at the deadline for top pitching prospect Zach Wheeler, but he suffered a wrist injury that kept him out a few weeks and the Giants stunk down the stretch. (On a related note, it’s perplexing why the Giants didn’t even attempt to re-sign Beltran when they foolishly gave up their best minor league pitching prospect for what turned out to be a three-month rental.)

Beltran is expected to start in right field but he could move to center once Allen Craig recovers from offseason knee surgery. Craig told reporters earlier this week that he expects to be back by opening day, but the Cardinals will just have to wait and see how his recovery goes. The club also has John Jay, who will start in center when Beltran is playing right and will provide depth once Craig returns.

Considering Beltran was also fielding offers from the Indians and Blue Jays, this is a nice short-term risk for a St. Louis team that badly needed a bat with the departure of Pujols. Again, Beltran isn’t going to make anyone forget about the former St. Louis superstar, but at least he fills a void in the middle of the lineup. The biggest concern is whether or not he, Matt Holiday, and Lance Berkman can stay healthy. If they can – and if Adam Wainwright can recover from Tommy John surgery – then there’s no reason to think the Cardinals won’t make another run at the postseason this year.

Losing Pujols dramatically alters the club’s lineup, but give general manager John Mozeliak credit for landing one of the top names on the free agent market this winter.

Predicting where the big-name MLB free agents will land

St. Louis Cardinals Albert Pujols comes to bat for the first time to a standing ovation during the last game of the regular season, against the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on September 25, 2011. UPI/Bill Greenblatt

Here are a couple of predictions sure to be wrong this winter. (It’s not that I lack confidence in my prediction abilities. I just have complete confidence that they won’t be right. But hey, let’s have some freaking fun anyway, huh?)

Albert Pujols: St. Louis Cardinals
Do the Cardinals really have any choice but to work out a deal with Pujols? He is their offense, period. Matt Holliday, David Freese and Lance Berkman are all nice players but their games are enhanced with the mere presence of Pujols, who remains the best hitter in baseball. St. Louis is coming off a miraculous World Series run and just lost icon Tony La Russa to retirement. Turning around and losing Pujols to the Cubs or Dodgers is simply unacceptable. I also believe that St. Louis is the only place Pujols wants to play. But he’s already said that he’s not going to take a hometown discount, which he shouldn’t. That said, considering the Cardinals have allowed him to essentially run the clubhouse over the last decade, he might find that the grass isn’t greener on the other side if he decides to leave. This is a marriage that should stick because it works for all parties involved.

Prince Fielder: Chicago Cubs
Seeing as how I don’t buy into the idea of Pujols leaving the Cardinals, the Cubs make the most sense for Fielder if they’re willing to spend. Signing Fielder could be the start of Theo Epstein’s rebuilding project in Chicago. While the Cubs have a couple of bad contracts on their books, Epstein could build his team around Fielder just like he did with Big Papi in Boston. Management would have to approve a $150-plus million contract for this deal to happen, but it’s clear the Cubs want to win. You don’t acquire Theo Epstein and then tell him to sit on his hands. Could you imagine how many home runs Fielder could hit at Wrigley? I think he just hit one deep while typing this…

Jose Reyes: New York Mets
There are plenty of suitors for Reyes, who is young and productive. The Marlins, Giants, Nationals, Phillies, Pirates, Reds, Twins, Rays and Cardinals could all get involved in the Reyes sweepstakes but in the end, I think he’ll return to the Big Apple. He’s a fan favorite and seemed willing to re-sign with the Mets during the season last year but the situation never played itself out. Trading Carlos Beltran during the deadline last year made sense, as does re-signing Reyes to a new long-term deal.

Carlos Beltran: Boston Red Sox
A return to San Francisco certainly makes sense for Beltran. The Giants obviously need hitting and GM Brian Sabean might want to save face after he inexcusably gave away his top pitching prospect for a three-month rental that didn’t even help San Fran make the playoffs. That said, the Giants still have Aaron Rowand and Barry Zito’s awful contracts on their books and once they get done paying Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, they’ll either be unable or unwilling to sign a big-name free agent. Boston, on the other hand, seems like a perfect place for a guy like Beltran to land. They’re always willing to spend and have a void in right field. Plus, they don’t shy away from risks and seeing as how Beltran is a 34-year-old injury concern, he qualifies as a risk. He’ll be their first free agent signing in the post-Epstein era.

C.J. Wilson: New York Yankees
I had the Rangers listed next to Wilson’s name but I have a feeling that the Yankees will do everything in their power to land the top pitcher on this year’s market. They need a top-of-the-rotation arm to complement CC Sabathia and while Wilson struggled mightily in the postseason this year, he still racked up 250 innings over 39 starts and was Texas’ best pitcher. The Yankees have deep pockets and after missing out on Cliff Lee last winter, they’ll pony up for another Ranger this time around.

Other Predictions:

Jimmy Rollins: Phillies
Aramis Ramirez: Orioles
Edwin Jackson: Nationals
Roy Oswalt: Rangers

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