“When you hit the ball good, that’s talent. When nobody is able to catch it, that’s luck.” —Ralph Garr, 1971
Until the last liner settled into a glove, the odds still seemed stacked against Tyler Gilbert. With two outs in the ninth inning of a no-hit attempt on Saturday, the Diamondbacks southpaw pitched to the Padres’ Tommy Pham, whose three walks were the only blights on Gilbert’s line. Pham sliced a centered first-pitch cutter to the outfield, and for a heart-stopping instant, no-hitter and ball both hung in the air. Pause the video as the ball leaps off the bat and Gilbert, fearing the worst, whips his head around. Pause it again the second the broadcast cuts to the camera behind home plate. At either moment, you’d swear you were watching a single. Then press play and goggle as gravity switches off for a second, allowing center fielder Ketel Marte, who got a good jump, to flip probability the bird. Statcast said the ball had a .750 hit probability. The box score says otherwise.
“I did think it was going to go down [for a hit], but it kind of carried a little bit,” Gilbert said. “I saw it hanging in the air, and I’m like, ‘OK, this is it. That’s happening.’ So that’s cool.”
It was, in fact, quite cool. Gilbert, who debuted for the Diamondbacks on August 3 and had totaled three scoreless innings across three relief outings, was making his first major league start. It went well. As soon as the 7-0 win was official, bedlam broke loose at Chase Field. On the mound, his teammates manhandled him. In the stands, his parents and girlfriend wept. For one day, the team with the worst record had baseball’s best story.
This is the year of no-hitters: Gilbert’s was the eighth one this season (not counting two seven-inning hitless games), which broke the modern record and tied the all-time record set in 1884. But Gilbert’s was the first solo no-no in almost three months, probably because batters, buoyed by warmer weather and MLB’s crackdown on sticky stuff, have combined to bat .248 since the start of June, up from .236 through the end of May. On Saturday, the Mets’ Taijuan Walker took a no-hitter into the seventh against the Dodgers, and Philly’s Matt Moore and Héctor Neris held Cincinnati hitless for seven innings. On Sunday in Detroit, Cleveland’s Triston McKenzie had a perfect game going two outs into the eighth. None of those near no-nos panned out. Only Gilbert got to celebrate.
I know you know this was improbable. Every no-hitter is. I also know you know a no-no is especially far-fetched for a 27-year-old, nearly unknown pitcher who’s making his starting debut. But no matter how slim you think Gilbert’s chances were, you’re probably underselling the statistical unlikelihood of what transpired on Saturday.
First, a bit of background. The Phillies selected Gilbert in the sixth round of the 2015 draft, and he climbed as high as Triple-A before being traded to the Dodgers in February 2020. The pandemic prevented him from pitching—he wasn’t invited to the Dodgers’ alternate site—so he spent the summer working with his electrician dad. All the Dodgers had to do to bring him back this season was keep him on their Triple-A roster. They didn’t do it, which left him exposed in the Triple-A portion of last December’s Rule 5 draft. The Diamondbacks plucked him out of their division rival’s system and convinced him to try starting, which he hadn’t done regularly since his season in the Sally League in 2016.
The 27-year-old rookie doesn’t appear among FanGraphs’ 47 ranked Diamondbacks prospects (though merely by making the majors, he’s already accrued more value than many of the favored 47 ever will). A glance at his pitch profile explains why. In his historic start, Gilbert relied almost entirely on cutters, sinkers, and four-seamers, all of which had average velocities that started with an “8.” His hardest pitch of the night was 91.4 mph, a full tick below the baseline four-seamer thrown by a lefty starter this season.
Only two other pitchers in the National or American Leagues have thrown a no-hitter in their first career start: Bumpus Jones for the 1892 Reds (the year before the mound moved back to its current distance), and Bobo Holloman for the 1953 Browns. The only reason you’ve heard of Bumpus and Bobo, aside from the fact that they sound like circus escapees, is that they threw those no-nos on their first tries. Neither got many more tries after that: Bumpus won only one more major league game, and Bobo didn’t last past his first season. The two combined for a 6.31 ERA in 107 career innings. Gilbert isn’t that bad: He should, at least, last long enough to fall below Bumpus and Bobo on the career list of least likely pitchers to have thrown no-hitters. For the rest of this season, Gilbert projects to be one of the D-Backs’ better pitchers, which says more about Arizona’s staff than it does about him, but still suggests he deserves to be a big leaguer. Just not the kind with no-hit stuff.
Fine, we get it: Gilbert’s not great. If he were, he would have made his first start sooner. But even a non-overpowering pitcher can be his best self in any given game. Maybe Gilbert hit all his spots, missed a bunch of bats, and minimized balls in play? No, not really: He walked three (one more than any other pitcher who’s thrown a solo no-hitter this year) and struck out five (two fewer). Perhaps he allowed a lot of weak contact? Far from it. Anyone whose heart had stopped every time Gilbert gave up a near-hit would have flatlined long before Pham reached the plate for the fourth time. Gilbert’s big night was a sports semi-miracle because of who he is and because of how he pitched.
Gilbert was pitching at Chase Field, which over the past three years has inflated hit totals more than all but three other ballparks. Throw in the fact that the Padres have one of baseball’s top 10 team batting averages—although .300 hitter Fernando Tatis Jr. wouldn’t return to the lineup until the next night—and the forecast called for hard-hit balls, some of which were bound to elude the defense. The first part of that prophecy came true. The second somehow didn’t.
En route to his no-hitter, Gilbert allowed 10 batted balls above the 95 mph threshold that MLB defines as “hard hit” (plus a pair at 94.7 and 94.6). His no-hitter was one of 135 starts this season in which a starter allowed 10 hard-hit batted balls. The cumulative batting average allowed on those hard-hit balls in the other 134 outings was .495. Of course, Gilbert’s on Saturday was .000, with only the Tigers’ Tarik Skubal similarly unscathed in a start against the Astros on June 27.
Gilbert’s overall expected batting average allowed in his no-hitter, per Statcast’s assessment of the Padres’ contact quality and speed, was .243. The MLB batting average through Sunday is .242. In other words, based on the batted balls he gave up and the speed of the batters who hit them, Gilbert “should” have been no better than average at preventing hits. Yet the Padres went without one, DIPS be damned. Of the 20 other starts since the advent of Statcast in 2015 in which a pitcher faced at least 28 batters (Gilbert’s tally) without allowing a hit, none allowed an expected batting average as high as Gilbert’s .243. The next-highest was .216, by the Cubs’ Alec Mills, who allowed 11 hard-hit balls in his no-hitter last September. The only other figure over .200 was the .206 posted by Joe Musgrove—the Padres pitcher opposing Gilbert on Saturday—this past April. The average was .147.
Gilbert’s outperformance of his expected batting average wasn’t just anomalous among no-hitters. It was one of the biggest negative gaps between batting average and expected batting average in any regular-season or postseason start since 2015. As the table below shows, no starter on record has beaten batted-ball expectations to such a great degree while facing as many batters or allowing more batted balls.
It’s extremely rare for a pitcher to throw a complete game without allowing at least one batted ball that’s more likely than not to be a hit. It’s unheard of for a pitcher to go the distance without the combined hit probability of all of his batted balls adding up to at least one expected hit. To throw a no-hitter, then, a pitcher almost always needs his fielders to make some spectacular plays; it’s a team accomplishment that we tend to credit entirely to the pitcher.
Even so, Gilbert was unusually indebted to his defense. Pham’s game-ending liner wasn’t the batted ball with the highest expected average; that distinction went to Manny Machado’s 112.2 mph rope in the fourth, which David Peralta snagged despite an .810 xBA.
In the second, Eric Hosmer tattooed a 106.6 mph, .630 xBA one-hopper that almost ate up Josh VanMeter on the outfield grass.
Just prior to that play, VanMeter had been perfectly positioned to stop a 105.3 mph, .593 xBA Austin Nola smash up the middle.
In the fourth, first baseman Pavin Smith was standing in just the right spot to double off Pham after corralling a .587 xBA blur off the bat of Adam Frazier.
And in the fifth, Gilbert robbed Hosmer himself, though shortstop Nick Ahmed likely could have handled the .560 xBA liner if it had gone by Gilbert.
Those are only the examples that Statcast deems probable hits. There was also the Drew Ellis dive in the seventh to deprive Frazier:
And the fly by Nola that pushed Peralta to the wall to lead off the eighth …
… which was followed by a Hosmer hard hopper …
… and the eighth-inning-ending Wil Myers drive to the track in the deepest part of the park.
Even the batted balls with sub-.500 xBAs added up to two expected hits. “It was just one of those days,” Gilbert acknowledged after the game. “I know balls were getting hit around, but they were getting hit to guys.”
What makes this stranger still is that the Diamondbacks are not normally a good defensive team. According to Jeremy Frank, the Snakes—who had a 37-80 record entering Saturday—were the worst team by winning percentage to throw a no-hitter at least 40 games into the season since the 1916 Philadelphia A’s. Fielding has been part of the problem. Entering Saturday, the Diamondbacks had allowed a batting average 16 points higher than their xBA, which tied them with the Red Sox for the biggest gap in the wrong direction. They’ve turned batted balls against them into outs at the NL’s lowest rate, and while that’s probably partly the park, they’re also well below average in both the standard and Statcast-enhanced flavors of defensive runs saved, while rating right around par in MLB’s outs above average.
Even by the standards of a sport ruled by randomness, Gilbert’s glorious no-no is a monument to the vagaries of fickle batted balls. Knowing what the numbers say may make his claim to fame seem less like it stemmed solely from skill. But it also helps us appreciate just how much had to happen to produce a moment that meant a lot to him, his family, and fans of a team that haven’t had much to cheer for. The Diamondbacks are 6-23 in one-run games. They’ve lost a higher percentage of their projected performance to injury than any team besides the Mets and Mariners. And Gilbert waited a long time to get his shot. He and his club were in line for a little luck. “For me, it’s what Major League Baseball or the game of baseball is all about—as long as you have a uniform, as long as you give the right effort, anything’s possible,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo told reporters on Saturday. “It lined up perfectly for him today.”
In Hall of Fame owner Bill Veeck’s 1962 autobiography, Veeck As In Wreck, Veeck and coauthor Ed Linn described the circumstances that contributed to Holloman’s no-hitter for Veeck’s ’53 Browns. See if this sounds familiar.
Big Bobo went out and pitched against the Athletics, the softest competition we could find, and everything he threw up was belted. And everywhere the ball went, there was a Brownie there to catch it. It was such a hot and humid heavy night that long fly balls that seemed to be heading out of the park would die and be caught against the fence. Just when Bobo looked as if he was tiring, a shower would sweep across the field, delaying the game long enough for him to get a rest. Allie Clark hit one into the left field stands that curved foul at the last second. A bunt just rolled foul on the last spin. Our fielding was superb. The game went into the final innings and nobody had got a base hit off Big Bobo. On the final out of the eighth inning, Billy Hunter made an impossible diving stop on a ground ball behind second base and an even more impossible throw. With two out in the ninth, a ground ball was rifled down the first base line—right at our first baseman, Vic Wertz. Big Bobo had pitched the quaintest no-hitter in the history of the game.
We’ll never know Bobo’s xBAs. But Gilbert has laid claim to the quaintest no-no we can quantify.