Big Unit always stingy with hits

Randy Johnson always seems to have no-hitter stuff. So what took him so long to reach perfection?

Originally Published: May 18, 2004
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

I missed Randy Johnson's perfect game Tuesday night.

For the entire two hours and 13 minutes, I was at my son's baseball game. (He pitched one hitless inning, which was pretty exciting for us.) When I got home and found out what had happened in Atlanta, my first reaction was "Damn, I missed it!"

Randy Johnson
Randy Johnson has allowed just seven hits per nine innings in 452 career starts.

My second reaction: "Sheesh, what took him so long to achieve perfection?"

After all, Randy Johnson seems to have no-hitter stuff most every time he takes the mound. I lived in Seattle for a few years when Johnson pitched for the Mariners, and I honestly believed that every time I went to see him pitch at the Kingdome, I might finally see a no-hitter (he had pitched one in 1990, six years before I arrived in the Emerald City).

Yes, in 1938 Johnny Vander Meer threw no-hitters in consecutive starts. In 1952, Virgil Trucks threw two no-hitters (in a season that saw him go 3-19 in the rest of his decisions). In 1973, Nolan Ryan threw a couple of no-hitters.

In fact, Ryan threw seven no-hitters, the first in '73 and the last in 1991, nearly 18 years later. Sounds easy, right?

It's not. Obviously, the pitchers most likely to pitch a no-hitter are those who give up the fewest hits per game. I made a list of the 12 pitchers with the lowest ratio of hits per nine innings, and also counted their games started and their no-hitters. The list begins with Nolan Ryan (6.56 hits per nine innings, seven no-hitters) and ends with Babe Ruth (7.18 hits per nine innings, zero no-hitters). All told, the dozen pitchers combined for 3,671 starts and just 16 no-hitters: 229 starts for every no-hitter.

Remember, these are the stingiest pitchers when it comes to giving up hits. Yet six of them never threw a no-hitter. In addition to Ruth, there's also Sid Fernandez (300 starts, 6.85 hits per nine innings), J.R. Richard (221, 6.88), Andy Messersmith (295, 6.94), Sudden Sam McDowell (346, 7.03), and (so far) Pedro Martinez, who has started 297 games and ranks behind only Ryan on the all-time list with 6.76 hits per nine innings.

So what about Randy Johnson? He's almost smack in the middle of the group. In 452 career starts, he's allowed 7.0 hits per nine innings, seventh all-time. And while the group has averaged 229 starts per no-hitter, Johnson's thrown a no-hitter every 226 starts. So after his brilliant game Tuesday, he's right where he should be (albeit with an extra smiley face on his paper because his second no-hitter was major league baseball's 17th perfect game, and he's the oldest pitcher to throw one).

A few other things about these guys ...

  • Nolan Ryan is probably proof-positive that if you want to throw a no-hitter, you need either a great deal of luck or what looks like a very small edge. The difference between Ryan's 6.56 hits per nine innings and Ruth's 7.18 doesn't look like much, but when you're going for a no-hitter, it's plenty. It's not just good luck that allowed Ryan and Koufax (6.79 hits per nine innings) to combine for 11 no-hitters (and Koufax's ratio was of course even better during his peak seasons).

  • That said, perhaps it's only bad luck that's kept Pedro Martinez from throwing a no-hitter. After all, he's now started nearly as many games as Koufax and has given up slightly fewer hits per nine innings ... yet he's still waiting. Actually, Martinez has thrown a perfect game for nine innings, in 1995. But the game was 0-0 and he gave up a hit in the 10th, so "officially" it doesn't count as a no-hitter (you are, of course, free to call that game whatever you like).

  • Considering the relative brevity of their careers, it's not all that surprising that neither Sid Fernandez nor J.R. Richard nor Andy Messersmith -- who rank fourth, fifth, and sixth on the hits-per-nine list -- ever threw a no-hitter. What's surprising is that as a group they didn't manage a no-hitter, considering they combined for 816 starts, 43 more than Ryan.

    Which brings us back to Lady Luck. You can have all the no-hitter stuff in the world, but it won't do you much good if the baseball gods aren't smiling at you for nine innings. It takes a lot of luck just to see a no-hitter . . . and maybe a lot more to throw one.

    Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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