No-Hitters — and Pitching — Have Changed in a Century

Christy Mathewson, Pitcher for the New York Giants Baseball TeamIn pitching his second no-hitter in less than a year, Tim Lincecum joins some elite company in Giants history. Only one other Giant pitcher threw two no-hitters for the team, and looking at the no-hitters thrown by the two pitchers reveals the changes that have occurred over the last century in pitching at the major-league level.

In Lincecum’s first no-hitter, against San Diego on July 13, 2013, he struck out 13 Padres batters, while walking four. That strike-out total, while on the high end, reflects that in today’s game there usually are a lot of strikeouts in a no-hitter, just as there are more strikeouts generally than ever before in the game’s history. It is Lincecum’s second no-hitter, earlier this week, in which he struck out only six Padres batters, while allowing a walk, that the Freak’s pitching line harkens back to an earlier time.

The standard myth is that Christy Mathewson was an indifferent pitcher before John McGraw joined the Giants as manager in 1902. Yet Big Six was already recognized as one of the outstanding stars of the National League in 1901, when he pitched 336 innings and struck out 215, with an ERA+ of 138. On July 15 of that year, Matty threw a no-hitter in a 5-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, striking out four Cardinals, while allowing four walks.

In his book, Pitching in a Pinch, Mathewson explained how he would conserve his energy and make sparing use of his best pitch, the fadeaway (sort of a screwball that broke away from a left-handed batter). “I have always been against a twirler pitching himself out,” he wrote, “when there is no necessity for it, as so many youngsters do. They burn them through for eight innings and then, when the pinch comes, something is lacking. . . . A man should always hold something in reserve, a surprise to spring when things get tight.”

The advice was solid for the period before the advent of Babe Ruth, when batters were unlikely to drive the ball for distance. Today, when nearly every batter swings for the fences and is undaunted by the prospect of striking out, the pinch is likely to be met by three or four relievers. Matty could ease up on the seventh- and eighth-place batters, as National League pitchers still can on the nine spot.

On June 13, 1905, Mathewson threw his second no-hitter, a 1-0 win against the Chicago Cubs. Only two Cubs reached base, both on errors. What leaps out at today’s fan, reviewing the 1905 box score, is that Mathewson only struck out two, one fewer than did the losing pitcher, Mordecai Brown. We don’t know how many pitches either pitcher threw that day, but their combined efficiency (and the lack of breaks for TV commercials or late-inning pitching changes) made for a game that lasted one hour and twenty-five minutes. I’m not usually one who longs for an older, simpler game, but games in 1905 did have that one virtue.

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