For the second time in 24 hours — and for the sixth time this season — a pitcher raised his arms and was swarmed by his onrushing teammates, history achieved. Wednesday night was Corey Kluber’s turn to feel that exhilaration, hugging Yankees catcher Kyle Higashioka before he was sprayed with water bottles.
Tigers starter Spencer Turnbull felt that elation the day before, mobbed by his teammates after throwing his own no-hitter. The Padres’ Joe Musgrove got the train rolling in early April with his no-no, and the White Sox’s Carlos Rodon joined the parade soon after. John Means of the Orioles and Wade Miley of the Reds also hopped aboard the runaway engine in recent weeks.
Baseball is one no-hitter away from tying the modern era single-season record of seven. The sport is on pace for more than 20 no-hitters this season — an eye-popping number, considering the all-time record for a full season was eight, set in 1884.
But baseball of old — or baseball of even two decades ago — is different than baseball today. Velocity has never been higher. The attention placed on spin rates, particularly on off-speed pitches, can leave hitters dizzy. And those hitters more times than not come to the plate with one goal in mind: blast the ball out of the ballpark.
Add those factors in a mixing bowl, and this is the result.
“It’s a perfect storm of spectacular stuff by so many pitchers and a generation of hitters now who have been encouraged and incentivized to swing the bat this way,” ESPN baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian told the Washington Times. “Hit as many homers as you can, strikeouts will happen, low-hit games will happen, but we’ll do damage with the home run ball. And that’s ultimately why I think we are where we are with six no-hitters and we’re not even at the end of May.”
As baseball exited the steroid era and entered the analytics era, the longball has remained a way of life for many teams. In 2019, for instance, the 1.39 home runs hit per game were the most in major league history. The logic is clear: one swing, one run. That’s a better return than small ball often yielded.
But pitchers have changed since the mid-1990s, adapting from the steroid era through analytics of their own. While a batter might know what pitch a pitcher is likely to throw in a certain situation by studying all the film and analytics, pitchers know plenty, too. They learned to throw harder, mix in different pitches and know where and where not to throw a pitch to each batter.
Over the last decade, especially, the changes have been most severe. The strikeout rate sat at 17.5% in 2008. And in every year since, that rate has risen — all the way to 24.1% in 2021, the highest ever recorded in baseball history.
Velocity plays a key role in that. In 2002, the average fastball speed was 89 mph. Now, pitchers are averaging 93.4 mph on their heaters, and there are more fireballers than ever. So far this season, there have been 469 pitches thrown at 100 mph or faster. In the 60-game 2020 season, there were just 311 such pitches, a stark increase in a single year.
Meanwhile, batters have been bred to aim for the sky — and the seats beyond the outfield wall. The average launch angle in 2015, the first year MLB recorded such data, was 10.9 degrees. Last year was the highest on record, at 12.7 degrees. The average this season is 12.1 degrees.
“I talk a lot about spin rate on fastballs and breaking balls, they’re a lot higher, they’re better,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “There’s so much value now in hitting the ball out of the ballpark that you tend to miss your pitch, or there’s been so many two-strike counts this year. All that plays into it.”
Even as barrel rates have increased four percentage points since 2015 — an advanced metric that tracks how often hitters find the sweet spot of launch angle and exit velocity — batting average and on-base percentage has declined.
In 1968, also known as the Year of the Pitcher, hitters managed a .237 batting average, the worst on record. But if the way 2021 has started continues, this could become the new Year of the Pitcher. Batters are hitting .236 — now the lowest average ever — with a .312 on-base percentage slotting in as the seventh-worst all-time.
“Take that incredible velocity, and you combine it with even more impressive secondary stuff — sliders, curveballs, cutters, changeups — and hitters don’t have much of a chance today,” Kurkjian said.
That’s helped lead to more no-hitters, as well as more rest between starts and lower pitch counts overall. After Kluber’s 101-pitch no-hitter Wednesday, his season average for pitches thrown each outing rose to just 87.8.
Plus, MLB changed the design of the ball this offseason, attempting to limit the rising surge in home runs. The exact results of that switch are dubious. There are still plenty of dingers — there’s an average of 1.14 a game — but there are fewer balls in play overall, as strikeouts, walks and hit by pitches all rose. In April, there were 1,092 more strikeouts than hits recorded.
“I mean, that’s just, we never had a month like that in baseball history,” Kurkjian said.
Kurkjian won’t take anything away from the pitchers who have thrown no-hitters this year. Nor will Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. But both agree there’s a worrisome trend that comes with more no-hitters.
“To have one happen every night, it seems like it’s probably not good for the game,” Kershaw told The Athletic. “Fans want to see some hits, I get that, and some action, and not many people striking out.”
“It is not healthy for the game that the average batting average is .230,” Kurkjian said. “It’s not healthy for the game that on certain nights our hitters are completely overmatched. I just think we need to get back to thinking that a hard ground ball through a hole somewhere is a good thing, not necessarily a bad thing.”
For the time being, though, the trend is clear. Pitchers have dominated so far in 2021, and there doesn’t seem to be a slowdown in sight.
“This has been building. This has been building for close to 20 years,” Kurkjian said. “We still hit our share of homers, but on a nightly basis, our hitters are more overmatched than I’ve ever seen in all the years I’ve been covering.”