Friday, May 21, 2021

Everyone Gets a No-Hitter

George Bradley
(seated in center)
If you follow baseball closely, you know there has been much discussion this year about "fixing the game." Even low-scoring 9-inning games are long and dull. Strikeout numbers are higher than ever, and batting average and slugging percentage numbers are trending downward. There have been 6 no-hitters just 6 weeks into the 2021 season. To put this in perspective, Corey Kluber's no-no from two days ago was the 311th in MLB history, going back to July 15, 1876, when George Bradley of the St. Louis Brown Stockings no-hit the Hartford Dark Blues 2-0.

Bradley made 64 starts for the Brown Stockings that season — every game the team played — and finished 63 of them. RF Joe Blong pitched 4 innings in the one game Bradley didn't finish. He finished with a record of 45-19 and an ERA of 1.23. Bradley pitched 573 innings and only gave up 3 HR. He depended on his fielders for his success. Bradley only struck out 103 men all season for an average of 1.6 k/9. But he only allowed 470 H and 38 BB, good for a sparkling WHIP of 0.89. He was also the fourth-best hitter on the team by OPS+. He was the Jacob deGrom of the Brown Stockings. SABR has a great biography of the man if you're interested. The pic above was "borrowed" from their page on Bradley's no-hitter.

A couple of years after Bradley's great season in St. Louis, he would move on to toe the rubber for the Troy, NY Trojans. Bradley would start 54 games, finishing 53 of them, but his ERA ballooned to 2.85. He went 13-40 in that unsuccessful campaign. In the 4 seasons from 1875 - 1879, Bradley made 228 starts with 220 complete games. He averaged just a tick under 500 innings per year. Perhaps that explains why he was never quite the same pitcher again. He would pitch 5 more seasons and average "only" 190 innings per season. I'll bet he was on a pitch count, too.

Of course, when Bradley plied his trade, the baseball was constructed out of pre-owned women's corsets and whale blubber and used until it literally fell apart. The Brown Stockings hit only 2 homers as a team over the entire season. While Bradley's 1.23 ERA was no doubt minuscule, it helped that only 78 of the 229 runs scored against the man were earned. In fairness to Bradley's fielders, most players were fielding without gloves back then.

The admittedly roundabout point that I'm making here is that baseball has been around a long time. The game has essentially reinvented itself many dozens of times in the intervening century-and-a-half. There have been times when it was very low-scoring, other times when runs rang up on the scoreboard with the frenzy of a pinball machine.

When I started watching the game, it was a rather low-scoring era. Those early-70s Mets teams were weak offensively for even that time. Strikeout totals were much lower, but the game featured a veritable plethora of soft ground balls and routine fly balls. Most of the pitchers pitched to contact, but much of that contact was not particularly well struck. Was it more interesting watching a guy hit a routine grounder to second or a can of corn fly ball to the left fielder? Maybe a little, but not remarkably so.

I thought the changes in the game in the late 1970s through the decade of the eighties offered a much better game to watch. The days of the slick-fielding infielder whose light hitting made him pretty much a second pitcher in the lineup were over. It seemed like there was a decent mix between hitters selling out for power and higher-average hitters looking to get on base. The pitchers who would ring up double-digits in strikeouts were also the elite power pitchers. There weren't quite as many complete games as there had been in the Era of the Pitcher, but we didn't see constant pitching changes like in today's game.

Baseball continued to evolve. Steroids changed the game in the 1990s and the early years of this century. Strikeouts continued to climb even after steroid testing put an end to some of the insanity with inflated slugging numbers. Recent breakthroughs in the technologies that allow pitchers to perfect their pitches and rev up their spin rates have put hitters at a disadvantage. Letting a significant number of pitchers cheat with almost cartoonishly sticky substances that allow unprecedented spin rates for even middling relievers has been a larger factor.

MLB quite obviously juiced the baseball trying to get more offense around 2017. From that year until 2020, I remember countless baseballs I expected to see caught by an outfielder sail on into the stands. There were a good number of cheap home runs, including by Mets hitters. Finally, MLB announced some changes to the ball this offseason to cut down on the number of balls flying out. The idea seemed to be that fewer balls going out would make for more balls put into play, hence more action.

We've seen fewer home runs, but we've also averaged a no-hitter per week and just ridiculous numbers of strikeouts. We also see a league-wide batting average that's lower than even the early 1970s. Watching this Mets club and their futility with the bat brings me back to those light-swinging Mets of that era. I can almost smell the Clearasil from my teen years while I'm watching the broadcast.

Andy Warhol famously once proclaimed that "in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." We haven't quite got to that point yet, but I'm starting to believe that 2021 will be the season when every MLB pitcher will pitch a no-hitter. If Jacob deGrom, Marcus Stroman, or any other Mets pitcher does accomplish that feat, it's really going to feel just a little less special.

When runs were at a premium in the late 1960s into the 1970s, at least the games were a lot quicker. Back then, if a game lasted 3 hours, that seemed notably long. Today a 3-hour game seems briskly played in comparison to the norm.

There are many reasons why a game of baseball is much more boring than it used to be. Yet MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is looking at some radical changes to make the game more interesting. Move the mound back... Make the bases larger... Ban the shifts... How about expanding that runner on second rule to the entire game? Seems to me that it would be smart to look at the simplest ones first.

There is no doubt that advanced technology to help a pitcher develop has jumped ahead in leaps and bounds from even just a few years ago. Still, one of the worst-kept secrets in baseball is the use of extremely sticky substances by pitchers to allow them to impart unprecedented spin on the baseball. This leads to pitches that look more like a wiffleball pitch than a baseball one. The effect on pitching has been compared to how players cheating with steroids inflated hitting numbers.

Before Manfred and MLB consider radical changes to the game of baseball, there should be a serious attempt made to regulate the substances pitchers use. What would make sense would be to legalize moderately tacky substances that enhance grip without allowing pitchers to put superhuman spin onto a ball. Rosin and suntan lotion is an example of what might be allowable. Anything beyond that has to be strictly prohibited, and the rules have to be enforced. People need to be punished for breaking them.

Once you bring spin rates back down to earth a bit, you'll undoubtedly see fewer strikeouts. If the new ball continues to suppress home run numbers, you could see fewer hitters selling out to the launch angle swing and more balls put back into play organically. As it always has done for more than 150 years, the game is bound to evolve without resorting to radical rule changes. MLB has been as slow to address the rampant cheating with sticky substances as they were with stopping PED use two decades ago. Yet that may be the one thing they could do that would change the game for the better.

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I'm tempted to make some intelligent observation, or at least a bad joke, about the spate of injuries that just doesn't seem to quit. Frankly, I'm completely at a loss for words with the news that Pete Alonso and Tommy Hunter are taking turns on the IL. It's tempting to make sweeping comments about the Mets training staff, but keep in mind that Alonso's problem goes back to being hit on the hand with a pitch. Hunter apparently has a bad back.

This has been an awful start to the season and, if it continues, the season will undoubtedly go down the tubes. No team can survive having so many on the IL at one time. As I noted in my last post, many of these injuries were like Alonso's. Just stuff that happens in a baseball game. Bad luck is bad luck. Still, though, I'd be surprised if Zack Scott and the rest of the front office didn't take a hard look at everything they're doing to keep the players on the field. It would be foolish not to. However, it's just as foolish to make sweeping generalizations based on what really is a large amount of bad luck. Smart analysis, not overreaction, is definitely what's called for.

Please stay safe, be well, and take care.


 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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