By now the whole world has heard about the masterpiece Blue Jays prospect T.J. Zeuch spun last night for the Bisons in Rochester, going the distance on 114 pitches without allowing a hit and facing two over the minimum to power Buffalo to a critical win against a divisional rival in a tight playoff race. A no-hitter preserved by a terrific catch by Jonathan Davis in the 9th:
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the no-hitter is that with just three strikeouts (and neither of the two runners erased on the basepaths), that meant there were 24 outs on balls in play, with none finding a hole somewhere. Just for context, assuming independence of events and a 30% chance of a ball in play going for a hit, the chance of 24 all being turned into outs is about one-in-five-thousand (0.02%).
There were some close calls, punctuated by the aforementioned Davis catch of a soft line drive flare. But beyond that, the no-hitter could well have been ended almost at the outset, as the second batter of the game hit a ground ball back up the middle. Zeuch got a piece of it but couldn’t field it, which often results in an infield hit, but fortuitously it deflected right to Santiago Espinal at short who got it over to first.
But for the most part, those ball in play outs were honestly earned as Zeuch was a master of weak contact. 15 of the 24 balls in play were on the ground, none of them sharply struck and overall as routine as could be. He got one popout and five routine flyouts, leaving three balls that were real threats: the Davis catch, a very sharp lineout to second base leading off the 4th, and a reasonably well struck line drive right at left fielder Forrest Wall in the 8th.
Not surprisingly given all those ground balls, Zeuch had the sinker working with his signature big downhill place, about 70% fastballs. I only saw a handful of changeups, the bulk of the off-speed being breaking balls. There wasn’t much in the way of velocity readings, but he hit 94 MPH on his second last pitch of the game so he wasn’t completely gassed and limping to the finish line.
The slider and curveball were quite effective weapons in keeping Red Wings hitters off balance and from timing up the fastball. In a sense, they’re more one pitch with a similar shape thrown at different speeds (the slider in the low-80s vs. mid/high-70s on the curve and thus with less vertical depth). The slider got him a few swings and misses, the curve got several of the flyouts and dropped in for called strikes to get ahead. That was most exemplified when he dropped in three straight to dispatch Ramon Flores for the second out of the 7th inning.
The biggest positive was really the much better control. In previous seasons, Zeuch has limited walks to about 6% of batters, of critical importance when pitching to and managing contact. Coming into last night, his walk rate in Buffalo had doubled to 12% as he simply struggled to consistently stay in the zone. So it was good to see just the two free passes, especially since the walk came after a 2-2 slider that looked awfully good but didn’t get Mike Miller rung up.
That said, Zeuch didn’t have pinpoint control even last night. He only got ahead of 11 of the 23 hitters who didn’t swing on the first pitch (and hit one, so that’s another out of the zone), with a pedestrian balls/called strike ratio. He worked a number of three ball counts, and eight batters took him to at least six pitches, which is less than optimal efficiency. As the three strikeouts suggest, he wasn’t overpowering Rochester either, with just seven whiffs on 54 swings (87% contact rate). But he simply avoided being squared up on all those swings.
Overall, the first Bison no-hitter since Bartolo Colon in 1990 was essentially the apotheosis of Zeuch as a pitcher: mix in the offspeed pitches, but rely on a dominant sinker to generate weak contact mostly on the ground.