The Glorious Rarity of a No-Hitter

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Maybe you didn’t jump for joy when Mike Fiers of the Oakland Athletics pitched the 300th no-hitter in Major League Baseball history the other night. Nobody cheers when a freelance coder finishes her 300th gig; or when a pundit publishes his 300th column; or when a politician makes his 300th gaffe. (OK, maybe that last one some do.)

Nevertheless, a no-hitter remains a rare and wonderful gem. As regular readers know, I consider baseball the finest and most pure of professional sports. But you needn’t agree, or even be a sports fan, to admire both the rarity and the wonder of a game in which a pitcher throws nine innings without allowing the other team a single hit. And that rarity and wonder contains an important lesson about life.

The no-hitter, in its slow build and moment-to-moment tension, encapsulates what’s magnificent about the game of baseball itself. Inning by inning the pressure on the pitcher mounts; to borrow from the great Tom Wolfe, it can blow at any seam. As the innings slip by, everyone in the stadium sits on edge, agonizing along with the pitcher, knowing that each time his arm whips around, each time they hear the crack of the bat, each time a fielder dives for the ball, the whole thing could go to pieces, no longer history but a historical non-event, forgotten forever.

I’ve attended a lot of baseball games in my life, but I’ve never been present for a no-hitter. Small surprise. For a pitcher to throw a game where the other team fails to get a base hit isn’t just difficult or unlikely; statistically it’s almost impossible. The chances that a major league team will get at least one hit in any given game are better than 99.9 percent. Most pitchers have already “lost” the chance at a no-hitter in the first inning.

In short, a no-hitter remains among the most difficult feats in the most difficult sport.

Legendary baseball statistician Bill James once calculated, for every pitcher in major-league history, the chances of getting a no-hitter at least once in his career, given the number of games he started and the average number of hits he gave up through nine innings. He discovered something remarkable: There were only four pitchers for whom a no-hitter was a statistical certainty. (All tossed at least one; the great Nolan Ryan, whose numbers said he should have had 2.715 no-hitters, threw seven.)

But many of the greatest pitchers in baseball history never managed the feat: Steve Carlton, Roger Clemens, Don Drysdale, Pedro Martinez, Whitey Ford, names non-fans have heard of — the list of fearsome hurlers who never achieved a no-hitter goes on and on. Even such legends as Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver and Walter Johnson managed only one apiece. For those less skilled, the odds of tossing a no-hitter remain arbitrarily close to zero.

That’s why it’s so exciting when the feat is accomplished by a journeyman like Mike Fiers. Like most baseball fans, I love statistics, and the more advanced the better. And the statistics tell us that over the course of his nine-year career, Fiers doesn’t even have a winning record. His WAR — short for Wins Above Replacement, a measure of how much better a player is than a minor-leaguer called up to play the same position — has in most seasons barely reached positive territory.

Yet this was the second no-hitter of Fiers’s career. No sabermetrician would have predicted that. And the chances are that baseball’s 301st no-hitter will also be pitched by somebody who, unless you’re a big fan, you’ve never heard of.

There’s a lesson here. Part of what makes baseball so fascinating as well as so difficult is how evenly matched the teams tend to be. In football, if the Super Bowl winner opens the next season with a loss to a last-place club, we consider the outcome a huge upset and wonder what’s wrong. But if the World Series champ loses three of its first four to a bad team the following April, we shrug and tell ourselves it’s a long season and they’ll get themselves straightened out.

We’re not surprised when the team left standing at the end of October didn’t even manage to win 60 percent of its contests during the regular season.  Basketball or football would be staggered, because there is pretty much always some team that has managed to win three-quarters or more of its games. (Usually several.) In baseball, that’s happened exactly once.

In 1906.

One of baseball’s many delights is that every game is a microcosm of the season. Pitch-by-pitch, out-by-out, we have trouble guessing what will happen. Writing over half a century ago, the inimitable Roger Angell of the New Yorker got it exactly right: “Baseball’s long, chancy season perfectly matches the slow, tension-building pace of the game on the field.”

That’s why part of baseball’s greatness is how, more than any other sport, it models the virtue of patience. And how, more than any other sport, baseball turns out to be like life itself: unpredictable in the short run but tending to straighten out over the long run. Nobody wins all the time; nobody loses all the time. After the valley is the peak. One day you lose by 10 runs, but you have to pull yourself together because there’s another game tomorrow; and in the final standings, the 3-2 victory counts just the same as the 10-0 defeat.

And no matter how good you may be at whatever you do, chances are you’ll never throw a no-hitter. Neither did most of the guys in the Hall of Fame.

Enjoy your season.

Over a 162-game season, 60 percent would mean 97 wins.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

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