A few thoughts about Justin Verlander and his two no-hitters and why I think Verlander will throw at least more no-hitter before he's finished.
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Thirteen players in baseball history -- including Justin Verlander -- have thrown multiple no-hitters before they turned 29 years old. We'll deal with 11 of those here. This is not to discount the other two -- Christy Mathewson and Dutch Leonard. Mathewson is obviously one of the best pitchers ever, and Dutch Leonard in 1914 had an 0.96 ERA, the lowest for a qualifier in baseball history. But they both pitched their best during Deadball, and that doesn't really relate to what we're talking about here.
So we have eleven pitchers left. Justin Verlander is one of the 11, and he's our focal point, so let's leave him to the end. That leaves us with 10 pitchers to focus on.
The 10 are (as ranked by WAR):
1. Nolan Ryan (84.8 WAR) was actually something of a circus freak when he was 28 years old. He already had set the single-season strikeout record with 383 and had three times struck out 325 or more. He had also thrown FOUR no-hitters. But he had also led the league in walks three times, including his ground-breaking 202 walks in 1973. (In the century, only Bob Feller had walked 200 in a season. Feller will re-enter our story in a minute).
Point is, nobody at that point knew if Ryan was a GREAT pitcher or merely a singular one. It is certainly true that nobody had ever seen a pitcher quite like him. And yet his 105-98 record and 111 ERA+ suggested he was more fascinating than masterly, more impressive than effective.
Had Ryan burned out as a pitcher after 28 as, say, Sam McDowell did, he probably would be viewed (like McDowell) more as an oddity than an all-time great. Look:
Nolan Ryan at 28: 105-98, 3.06 ERA, 1,758 Ks, 111 ERA+.
Sam McDowell at 28: 122-109, 2.99 ERA, 2,159 Ks, 119 ERA+.
McDowell had more strikeouts at 28 than any pitcher ever. He burned out because of his own demons. Ryan, though, kept pitching in his difficult-to-catalogue way until his mid-30s, and then in perhaps the most shocking turn of his shocking career, he became an even better pitcher in his late 30s and early 40s. That's the final and most compelling surprise of his career. The best old starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame are probably Phil Niekro, Warren Spahn, Cy Young and Nolan Ryan -- and Ryan was quite unlike the other three.
Anyway, Ryan threw three more no-hitters after he turned 29.
2. Bob Feller (66 WAR) was already legendary by 28, even though he had missed almost four full seasons for World War II. Well, his story is one of the most famous in baseball history -- from walking off an Iowa farm into the big leagues at 17, to his dominance in the three years before the war, to his epic return to baseball in 1946.
Feller's 1946 season -- 42 starts, 36 complete games, 348 Ks, 371 innings, 10 shutouts, and so on -- is one of the best ever for for a pitcher; it might be the best pitcher's year between Walter Johnson's 1913 and Sandy Koufax's 1963. Anyway, by the time he was 28 he had led the league in strikeouts six times, shutouts four times, innings pitched five times and so on.
He had also thrown two no-hitters by then. He would throw a third in 1951, when he was 32 and fading. Feller would only have two or three more good seasons and no transcendent ones after he turned 29.
3. Sandy Koufax (54.5 WAR) was, at 28, probably the best pitcher in baseball -- but only just. He had become a terrific pitcher by the early 1960s, but his breakout year of 1963 had happened when he was 27. He won what some people like to call the pitcher's Triple Crown -- he led the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts.*
*What a shame ... the pitcher's triple crowd is as uninteresting and unrevealing as the hitters' Triple Crown.
Koufax pitched brilliantly for two more years and famously retired at 30. He also threw a fourth no-hitter.
4. Jim Maloney (34.7 WAR) seemed on the path for a Hall of Famer career when injuries crashed his career at 29. He is unquestionably a caution for those of us who believe Verlander will continue to pitch at a high level and will throw more no-hitters. Maloney was probably the third-best pitcher in baseball from 1963-66, though few noticed because the two best pitchers were fairly noticeable: Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal.
Maloney had a Verlander-like fastball -- or, more correctly, Verlander has a Maloney type fastball -- he could pump it up near 100 and stay there until the end of games. He threw five or more shutouts four times, struck out 200-plus four times, and as he was turning 30 he had a 120 ERA+ and almost 1,600 strikeouts. He also had those two no-hitters -- one of them a 10-inning no-hitter (with 12 strikeouts and 10 walks, yikes), the other a 13-strikeout game.
Those injuries wrecked him. He not only never threw another no-hitter after 29, he never won a big league game he turned 30.
5. Dean Chance (31.9) counts, of course, but he gets in on a technicality. Not only was one of his no-hitters just five perfect innings on a rainy day in Minnesota, he allowed a run in his GOOD no-hitter (allowed it in the second inning on two walks, an error on Cesar Tovar, and a wild pitch). Chance was a very good pitcher, and without exaggeration he threw at least a dozen games in his career that were better than his nine-inning no-hitter, and 70-plus games that had a higher Game Score than his five inning no-hitter.
Chance at age 23 probably had the best year for any American League pitcher in the decade. He threw an amazing 11 shutouts, posted a 1.65 ERA, and won 20. He was never again that good, but he was still a very good pitcher in 1967 and 1968. He had a painful-looking windup and he battled with injuries and ineffectiveness after he turned 28. He threw two one-hitters and nine two-hitters in his career. When he was mowing them down, he was mowing them down.
6. Don Wilson (30.2 WAR) is one of the sadder stories in baseball history. Wilson died at 29, while sitting in his running Ford Thunderbird in the garage. The death was ruled an accident (his young son in the house also died, and his wife and daughter were hospitalized) and it remains a tragic mystery.
Wilson was a good pitcher who had thrown his second no-hitter by the time he was 24. He also had an 18 strikeout game. It certainly looked like there would be other no-hitters, and he did throw a one-hitter in 1971* but he never again threw another no-no.
*That was a weird game. The hit was a double given up to Tony Perez in the second inning, so there was never really a no-hitter threat. After Perez's double, Wilson walked Bernie Carbo, hit George Foster with a pitch, and walked Pat Corrales to allow a run. Darrel Chaney promptly hit into a triple play, and Wilson did not give up a hit the rest of the way.
7. Ken Holtzman (27.5 WAR) was traded by the Cubs to Oakland for Rick Monday before the 1972 season, and at that point he was mostly known just as the slightly above average pitcher who had thrown two no-hitters. He was actually one of the better pitchers in the league in 1970, but few noticed because his 17-11 record and 3.38 ERA didn't get anyone too excited. He was 75-69 with a blah-looking 3.59 ERA in Chicago. Thing is, he was better than his numbers. He pitched half his games at the hitter-friendly confines of Wrigley Field, and he was playing for a doomed Cubs team.
After a poor 1971 season, he was traded to Oakland where suddenly he was pitching in a fabulous pitchers park for a team that would win the next three World Series.Voila: he suddenly "became" a great pitcher. He went 59-41 with a 2.85 ERA those three years and made his only two All-Star appearances.
Was Holtzman a better pitcher in Oakland than in Chicago? Probably not. HIs two best WAR seasons are 1969 and 1970 in Chicago. What seems to have happened is that, with a better defensive team behind him, in a much better hitting ballpark, he simply threw the ball over the plate (his strikeouts plummeted, and so did his walks) and batted balls were turned into outs. And the team scored more runs for him. He never threw another no-hitter after 29, and never really came particularly close to throwing one.
8. Johnny Vandermeer (22.5 WAR), of course, threw back-to-back no-hitters in 1938, the first against the Boston Braves, the second against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Vandermeer was just 23 years old, and he had a great fastball (he would yet lead the league in strikeouts three times) and he certainly looked like a future great. During an eight-game stretch that year -- which included the two no-hitters -- he went 8-0 with a 1.38 ERA and the league hit .139 against him.
Vandermeer had injury issues in 1939 and 1940, then put together those three seasons when he led the league in strikeouts. In those three seasons, he had nine games where he allowed three hits or less, though he never again threw a no-hitter. He went to fight in the war in 1943, and he was not the same pitcher when he returned in 1946.
9. Steve Busby (15.5 WAR) threw his two no-hitters in his first two full seasons -- the only pitcher to do that -- and I suspect he would have thrown at least one more had he stayed healthy. He had a great defensive team behind him, he refused to come out of games (he threw 38 complete games in those two years and stories of his refusals to leave are legendary), and he seemed to be improving as a pitcher. Then he tore his rotator cuff and though he was the first to have rotator cuff surgery and he actually returned to baseball, he was never again entirely healthy or effective.
10. Bill Stoneman (7.7 WAR) almost certainly had the least-effective career among those who had throw multiple no-hitters as a young pitcher. He was already viewed a subpar pitcher at 28 -- he had a great arm, but he had only made a name for his ability not to control his fastball. He had twice led the league in walks, and twice more led the league in hitting batters. When he was on, he was on -- he threw 15 shutouts in his career, tying him with Blue Moon Odom for the most among non-Deadball-pitchers with a 90 or worse ERA+. After 28, his career would collapse entirely. He went 5-16 with a 6.55 ERA in two painful years.
So that's all of them. What does this tell us about Verlander? Well, first we have to ask what kind of pitcher Justin Verlander is: In his career, he is 86-55 with a 118 ERA+, he had led the league in strikeouts and he has thrown 100 mph fastballs in the ninth inning of games. I actually think Verlander's been even better than that -- his record and ERA+ are marred by his one bad season, 2008, when things just didn't go well. Take away that season, as I'm sure he would like to, and he's actually 75-38 with a 125 ERA+ and a better than 3-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio.
My understanding is that Jack Morris took Verlander to task a bit the other day, called him a bit too infatuated with the strikeout, suggested that he has underachieved. Morris was a near-great pitcher and he has seen Verlander pitch much more than I have, so I don't doubt his analysis. But I also think he might be a bit hard on the kid. Verlander's been pretty darned good, and he only turned 28 in February.
I think Verlander at this point would probably compare with the top half of the multiple-no hitter list. Jim Maloney seems the best direct comparison, but Verlander throws about as hard as anybody ever including those top three guys, Ryan, Feller and Koufax. I think if you throw that hard, low-hit games are just a natural part of things. Look at some of the starters generally viewed to have the greatest fastballs:
-- Nolan Ryan (seven no-hitters)
-- Sandy Koufax (four no-hitters)
-- Bob Feller (three no-hitters)
-- Randy Johnson (two no-hitters)
-- Walter Johnson (one no-hitter)
-- Pedro Martinez (nine perfect innings, lost perfecto in 10th)
-- Sam McDowell (zero no-hitters but four one-hitters)
-- Roger Clemens (zero no-hitters but two 20-strikeout, zero-walk games)
And so on. Clemens' lack of a no-hitter is kind of stunning -- in fact, he only had a single one-hitter in his career. And if Roger Clemens can go a whole career with his stuff and never throw a no-hitter, well, that tells you how hard and random no-hitters can be.
But I expect that if Justin Verlander can stay healthy, if he can maintain his stuff for a while longer, he will be in position to throw more no-hitters. And he has shown that if he is in position to do it, he can finish the job. In his first no-hitter, he got two strikeouts and a fly ball in the final inning. In his last, he finished the job off with a strikeout of Rajai Davis with an 88-mph slider. Two pitches earlier, he had thrown a 100 mph fastball.
You never can predict health, and you never can predict the vagaries of pitching. But I think a healthy Justin Verlander will be one of the best pitchers in baseball for a while. And I think he will throw another no-no before he's through.