On Friday night Johan Santana faced 32 St Louis Cardinal batters. He struck out 8 of those batters and he walked 5 of them. The other 19 Cardinal batters put the ball in play, but none of them reached base safely. Who should get the credit for that fact? Most every sane person would say Santana, but I would disagree.
Pitchers cannot control whether or not balls hit in the field of play become outs. All pitchers can do is record outs by strikes, prevent walks by balls, and try to prevent batters from making contact with their bats that is square enough and forceful enough to make the baseball leave the field of play.
Against St Louis, Santana did the last thing well, but he was merely average on the other two. National League pitchers record 29% of all outs made through strike outs, and that’s exactly the percentage Santana hit on Friday night. Meaning, Santana didn’t make the job of his defense any easier than it would normally be. Thus he did not make a no-hitter more likely by reducing the number of batted balls that the defense had to successfully turn into outs (most multiple no-hit pitchers are power pitchers who make the odds of getting a hit lower by drastically reducing the number of outs the fielders have to make — see, Nolan Ryan).
Don’t get me wrong. Santana had a nice night. He only gave up 5 bases to the Cardinals. That’s above average. I am not criticizing his performance. I am using the occasion of his no-hitter to make the general complaint that most no-hitters are a function of dumb luck and superior field defense, not pitching. Unless a the no-hit pitcher recorded an inordinately high number of strikeouts, he didn’t really do anything to make the no-hitter more likely. He either got lucky because every ball the opposition hit went close enough to a fielder that it could be turned into a routine out, or he was backed by a defense that turned a bunch of “normal hits” into “spectacular outs”. (That’s why, generally speaking, you will have at least one or more really spectacular “he robbed him of a sure hit” outs recorded by the team’s field defense in every no-hitter.)
And I think a little of both happened last night. An unusual number of balls hit in play were of the “playable” variety, and the Mets defense played the other balls superbly.
But who will get the credit in the history books? Of course, that’s a rhetorical question. Today, tomorrow, and 50 years from now (when we can’t even remember who played on the 2012 Mets) the credit will belong solely to Santana. That’s baseball.