Saturday, June 16, 2012

Can a Team Pitch a No Hitter?

This week the Seattle Mariners pitched a no hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

What does that mean?

You can compare it with Matt Cain's fourteen strike out perfect game in the same week. Like many perfect games, Cain just dominated as a pitcher, and although perfect games occur much more often now than in the days when they would be spaced 20 years apart, they distill the essence of how baseball assigns ultimate responsibility to the pitcher. No one says the Giants pitched a perfect game; all the praise goes to Cain. Although no hitters are not nearly as impressive we usually say the same thing like Roy Halladay pitched the no hitter.

Our language assigns responsibility in no hitters and perfect games—the language resolutely pinpoints the pitcher as responsible for the game. Yet the reality is much more complex, and the Mariner’s no hitter reveals this complexity.

The Mariners fashioned a no hitter using six pitchers. As of Sunday they were still trying to whom to award the game ball? Only once in the history of baseball have six pitchers carved out a no hitter, Houston in 2003. It had never happened in the American League.

Only ten times in baseball history—345,000 games and counting—has this happened. Yet part of me feels cheated. How can a committee of pitchers pitch a no hitter? Where is the responsibility and clarity for the win and the no hitter?

There are two points here. First, a no hitter is important and very rare, but not a perfect game. In a no hitter, no one gets a hit. People walk and people commit errors. In the Mariner’s most imperfect no hitter, they issued three walks and Charlie Furbush committed a throwing error that let a man reach second base. In a no hitter more balls have been in play and more people have been on base. The probabilities of people scoring rises incredibly when folks get on base, so the role of team defense rises proportionately Hypothetically a team could lose a no hitter by walking in a man after loading the bases with walks. And being baseball it has happened. Twice teams have lost no hitters!

So Kevin Millwood left the game after six wonderful strong innings with a pulled groin. Millwood provided an example of when to leave a game when he called the coach out "I couldn't push off," he said. "It would have been stupid to stay out there." As I have talked about before, this  is a strong ethical reason to leave a game, not to protect oneself, but to help the team from one’s limitations.

The second point of the game is that the six headed hydra illustrates the incredible team nature of any no hitter. Pitch calling by the catcher; fielder placement by the coaches; execution under pressure—Brendan Ryan threw out a batter by a micro-step in the ninth inning; pitchers resilience and cool focus as the zeroes add up on the scoreboard, thee all contribute to the success. It helps to have individual initiative such as Ichiro’s steal to put himself in position to score along with late inning defensive substitutions.

No other team sport assigns responsibility for wins and losses to just one person. Football does not assign wins and losses to quarterbacks nor does volleyball to setters or basketball to point guards. The language of responsibility in baseball has its own history and reasons, but that is another story, but the staunch insistence upon how to talk about pitcher's accountability hides the real truth of the game.

A wag suggested that the Mariners issue a six headed bobble-head. It might be fun, but to get to the real truth this historical game revealed, it should be a a true hydra with new heads spouting for each one cut off, in this case 17 players.

The loquacious Brendan Ryan was spot on, “It was kind of fun to get so many people involved…It just felt like a really collective team effort.”

Ryan’s comment really covers any no hitter or any game; only our language of assigning wins and losses to pitchers hides that.

Mariner relief pitcher Charlie Furbush got to the essence of the issue “We got to all celebrate together because everyone got to do their job and be part of it.”   He just described every no hitter in history, whether pitched by one or six.

A team pitches every no hitter.

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