When Phillip Humber tossed a perfect game a few days ago, I was so happy for him after everything he has gone through over the course of his journeyman pro career. But, I admit, that was only the second thought that came to my mind. The first was “Thank God it wasn’t the Rays this time.” The Rays have been no-hit four times over the course of their 2281-game history (entering today’s game), with Derek Lowe (2002), Mark Buerhle (2009), Dallas Braden (2010), and Edwin Jackson (2010), doing the honors and Buerhle and Braden tossing perfect games. That seems like an awful lot. Looking at the data on no-hitters across baseball (for the teams still in existence in some form today), that definitely seems to be the case.
(No-Hitters For/NH= no-hitters thrown by that team, No-Hitters Against/NHA= no-hitters thrown against that team)
The Rays getting no-hit 4 times in 2281 amounts to a .00180 no-hitters against to total games ratio, nearly three times the league average of .0006517 across baseball and .0006727 per team. Given the sample size of 2281 games, not insignificant at all, the probability of that occurring by chance alone is just .016, meaning that we can say with 98% confidence (at an α=.02 significance level) that the true proportion that the Rays should be no-hit is higher than the league proportion. The only team within the Rays’ stratosphere in terms of proportion of games in which they got no-hit was the San Diego Padres, and even they were 55.6% less. Why do the Rays get no-hit so often?
The knee-jerk reaction is to say that the Rays get no-hit so often is pure offensive ineptitude. Indeed, the 2002 Devil Rays were absolutely pathetic as they lost 106 games and finished 12th in the AL in batting average, 13th in OBP, and 14th in slugging percentage. But in 2009 and 2010, the Rays were not that bad, finishing 4th in the AL in OPS in 2009 and 8th in the AL in OPS in 2010. However, even in 2009 they finished 8th in batting average, and in 2010 they were a ghastly 13th. The Rays have gotten on base on hit for some solid power the last handful of years, but they haven’t succeeded at making contact. In 2009, the Rays ranked 2nd in the AL in strikeouts while in 2010 they led the league. When they put the ball into play those two years, they actually got hits more often that average, posting a .303 BAbip in 2009 compared to the .299 league average and a .295 BAbip in 2010 compared to the .293 league average. However, the Rays’ hits were more dependent on power and flyballs than your average MLB team. In 2009, the Rays hit 48.9% of their batted balls in the air, exempting balls classified line drives, compared to the league average of 47.5%. In 2010, 51.7% of the Rays batted balls were non-line drive flyballs compared to the 46.8% league average. The Rays’ line drive rates were right around average during those two seasons, but their increased dependence on flyballs kept their team batting average down. That also left them more vulnerable to no-hitters.
Let’s quantify that by delving into the perfect games themselves. On April 27th, 2002, Derek Lowe no-hit the Devil Rays in a 10-0 Red Sox victory. He walked one batter, Brent Abernathy leading off the 3rd inning, while striking out 6. He allowed 13 groundballs, 8 flyballs, and not a single line drive, all of which obviously turned into outs. Good batted ball splits data isn’t available from 2002 from Baseball-Reference, so we’ll just tip our cap to Lowe and move on to the more recent no-no’s against the Rays, where the data is available.
Being a flyball hitting team doesn’t just mean that you hit for a lower BAbip overall. If you’re attempting the hit the ball in the air and instead hit a groundball, it’s more likely to be a routine play rather than a groundball of the harder variety. For example, in 2009, major league hitters posted a .236 BAbip on groundballs, a .138 BAbip on flyballs (illustrating how hitting too many flyballs brings your batting average down), and a .726 BAbip on line drives. The 2009 Rays had a .229 BAbip on groundballs despite their speed, a .119 BAbip on flyballs, indicating that they were uppercutting for additional power but often getting under pitches (more of their flyballs went for home runs compared to the league average as well), and a .731 BAbip on line drives. Based on those batted ball tendencies, let’s break down how likely Humber’s ex-teammate Mark Buerhle’s 2009 perfect game and no-hitter was more likely to happen versus the Rays compared to your average 2009 MLB team.
Buerhle struck out 6 in his perfect game, and he allowed 11 groundballs, 8 flyballs, and 2 line drives in the process, all of which were caught (especially in the case of the Dewayne Wise play, Buerhle was definitely lucky). Based on the Rays’ BAbip’s, the probability of 11 straight groundballs going for outs was .0572. The probability of 8 straight flyballs going for outs was .363. And the probability of two straight line drives being gloved was .072. Multiplying those together, we get a probability of .0015 that Buerhle’s no-hitter (and perfect game) would occur based on the batted balls he allowed. That seems very small, but for the league average, the probability of a no-hitter occuring was .0012, a 27% difference. The odds of the Rays actually getting no-hit was still extremely small, but it gave Buerhle a slight edge, and with some help from luck and outstanding defense, the perfect game did indeed happen.
When Dallas Braden perfect-gamed the Rays on 5/9/10, he struck out 6 and allowed 7 groundballs, 9 flyballs, and 5 line drives. Based on the Rays’ BAbip by batted ball type (.228 on groundballs, .124 on flyballs, and .733 on line drives), the probability of the Rays getting no-hit (and perfect-gamed) was .000067 (it was so low because of the five line drives). Based on the league BAbip tendencies based on hit trajectory (.234 on groundballs, .138 on flyballs, and .718 on line drives, the probability of Braden throwing a no-hitter based on the batted balls he allowed was .000073, actually a bit higher, but that was purely because Braden allowed line drives, the only batted ball type (other than bunts) that the Rays were above the league average, and even so, the values were the same to five decimal places, illustrating just how poor the Rays BAbip tendencies were on groundballs and flyballs.
And now we get to the bizarre case of Edwin Jackson’s no-hitter against his former team which occurred on June 25th of that same 2010 season. He used a scary 149 pitches in his 9 frames, walking 8, hitting two more batters, and striking out (you guessed it) 6 without allowing a single hit. (What are the odds that in all four no-hitters against the Rays, the pitcher struck out 6?) Jackson allowed 11 groundballs, 8 flyballs, and 2 line drives. Using the same BAbip tendencies above, the probability of the Rays getting no-hit in this one was .00143. For the league, it was .00129. That’s an 11% difference.
But we can’t end this post without talking about the one no-hitter that went the Rays way: Matt Garza‘s gem on July 26th, 2010 versus the Detroit Tigers. Garza faced the minimum 27 as he allowed just 1 walk in his 9 no-hit frames, striking out 6 (unbelievable!). He allowed 8 groundballs, 12 flyballs, and 3 line drives. The Tigers posted a .268 BAbip on groundballs, a .109 mark on flyballs, and a .692 BAbip on liners. The probability of Garza tossing his no-hitter versus the Tigers was .00196, but probably slightly higher when factoring in the Rays’ outstanding defense. Against a league average BAbip team, the probability of Garza’s no-no occurring was .00159, 23% less. A lot of things had to go right for Garza’s no-hitter to happen, but good thing it did. Otherwise we’d be staring at a team that had succumbed to a record ratio of no-hitters without tossing a single one themselves.
So the Rays are somewhat susceptible to no-hitters. They’re also at risk, as we see much more often, for nonexistent offensive performances. The Rays offense is at times very inconsistent. Sometimes it looks completely overmatched even against so-so pitching and at other times we think to ourselves “when did the offense get this good?” Luckily, the Rays offense is good enough for them to be a team that has made the playoffs 3 of the last 4 years and has a chance to be as good and even better this season. This no-hitters business is just something to laugh about- although another no-hitter, with one of our pitchers doing the honors, would be nice.