Dave Stieb and his multiple pursuits of no hitters and perfection were before my time, so I never had that experience. I was around for Roger Clemens, but really too young to fully appreciate those outings, and though I remember plenty of dominant outings (one 15 strikeout outing really sticks in my mind), I don’t recall him ever coming that close to a ni-hitter.
I know I was watching when Roy Halladay took a no-hitter into the 9th in his second MLB start the last weekend of the 1998 season, because I vividly remember when Bobby Higginson hit the fly ball that with two out that carried over the fence to Stieb in the bullpen that spoiled the no-hitter, shutout, almost the lead. But again, I was too young to truly appreciate it.
Likewise, I can remember a lot of excellent Halladay outings over the ensuing decade, but none come to mind as seriously flirting with a no-hitter. I only caught the last inning of his perfect day in May 2010 with the Phillies, and though I listened to Brandon Morrow almost no-hitting Tampa later that summer on the radio, I didn’t see that either.
But that October, I did watch Halladay’s playoff no-hitter from the beginning, and for me it’s probably the most indelibly dominant pitching outing I’ve seen. I very much had the sense early on that a no-hitter was realistically in play, and frankly it almost seemed inevitable. Since then, there also been two Justin Verlander no-hitters against the Jays, and Marco Estrada took a couple into the late innings.
I thought Alek Manoah had no-hit type stuff last night. From about the third inning on, I had that same palpable sense that it was a real possibility as when watching that Halladay game a decade ago. As I mentioned in the recap last night, in the first couple innings I think Manoah’s slider was even better than he thought or realized, and it was finishing too much to get chases. He made the adjustment, and then basically sailed along in dominating fashion.
Of course, in a chronological sense he didn’t get that close, as Joey Wendle broke the perfect game just over the halfway mark with two outs in the 5th after the first 14 were retired. But thinking back right afterwards, it occurred to me that looking at the quality of contact, Manoah really wasn’t that far off. Let’s drill down further into Manoah’s dominance of the Rays.
Manoah faced 26 batters on the evening, with Wendle the only one to reach on the single and 8th inning first pitch hit-by-pitch. With the one free pass and 10 strikeouts, that left 15 balls in play.
There two instances of clear good contact. The Wendle single was not absolutely crushed (90 MPH exit velocity), but was well optimally squared up. In the immediately aftermath last night, I had forgot about the other instance when Ji-Man Choi lined out to first. Again, it wasn’t crushed in an absolute sense at 92 MPH, but very well squared up. It just a little too low, and right at someone. With a 60% estimated hit expectancy, it was the only other ball above 50% where you can say Manoah got away with one (and it was before Manoah really settled into his stuff and the mind turned to a potentially special outing).
One thing that was particularly interesting to me was that Manoah only had three balls in the air. He doesn’t have an extreme fly ball profile or anything, but I’ve noticed that when he’s going well, he gets a lot of routine outs in the air. Here too last night, none of contact was very threatening, with two very weak: a 30 foot popout (hit expectancy: 0%), a shallow sky out by Austin Meadows (HE: 1%).
There was one ball that was a bit more substantial, as Meadows flew out in the 4th. The hit expectancy was put at 38%, but for me that overestimates the threat. It got some distance, but hung up long enough to be pretty easily tracked down (even without a four man outfield). Most of the value generated on a ball like this would come from it going out to the corners, and in this case Manoah kept the ball away from Meadow’s power and he hit it the other way.
That left 10 balls on the ground. In the bigger picture, almost any ball on the ground no matter how hard hit is a win for a pitcher since it’s usually just a single or occasionally a double. That’s more complicated in the case of chasing perfection, since the name of the game is avoiding all hits and the probability of hits.
Five of those ground balls were truly routine, with hit probabilities of less than 10%. There were no deserved hits here. That leaves five other ground balls on which the hit probability was given at between 21% and 40%:
Four of those balls were hit at greater than 100 MPH, but the best launch angle of those was -2 degrees (Choi, the four one in the video). The one hit at a decent angle, Wendle at an okay 3 degree launch angle, was the softest (92 MPH). In fact, that’s the correlation on all these balls—the harder they were hit, the more they were mishit and driven downwards. That’s exactly what a pitcher wants.
There’s some decent contact here, and maybe I’m biased because I want to believe Manoah came closer to a very special historic outing, but in my view none of those were particularly close. Cumulatively, sure, you might expect one of those to get through rather than being hit right at guys. But individually none was particularly close to a hit. No-hitters necessarily involve improbable odds. It seems to me that if some of the best contact mustered is balls like these, the pitcher is optimizing the very slim odds.
In total, Manoah threw 97 pitches, 62 for strikes. Rays’ batters swung at 48, missing 17 times for a strong 35% whiff rate. He threw 38 sliders, of each 20 were swung at and 13 of those were missed. Just two were put in play.
His fastballs weren’t dominant statistically on these metrics (four whiffs on 24 swings from 50 pitches), but carried the burden of generating most of that weak contact. Finally, he didn’t use his change-up that much, but it flashed nicely a few times when he did, and having it on back pocket likely helped keep the lefty heavy lineup honest.
The contrast to Manoah heavily suppressing quality contact was what the Jays were doing at the plate, as they piled up 16 hits that were consistently hammered. Consider the hit expectancies of the main contributors last night:
- Teoscar Hernandez (five hits): 25%, 79%, 72%, 64%, 46%. Total 3.86 expected hits
- Lourdes Gurriel (3): 95%, 74%, 54%, and 84% on the ball Kiermayer stole. Total 3.07 expected hits
- Brevic Valera (3): 57%, 73%, 58%
- Randal Grichuk (3): 35%, 27%, 72%
Grichuk was arguably the “luckiest”, having the cheapest hit of the night in beating out the chopper to short. His 35% hit was a smash down the line for a double, and I don’t think that ball is actually an out two out of three times (regardless of the angle it’s hit).