Rick Porcello’s 0-walk, 0-strikeout shutout was miraculous

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If you go back to 1914 — which is how far back Baseball Reference’s amazing Pitching Game Finder goes back — you will find that 67 different pitchers have thrown shutouts without walking or striking out a single batter. The list includes Hall of Famers like Christy Mathewson and Eppa Rixey and Jesse Haines along with a handful pitchers you probably do not know. It has always been a rare feat — the zero-walk, zero-strikeout shutout.

But these days it’s not rare. It’s all but impossible. In fact, if you had asked me I would have said it IS impossible in today’s game. But apparently it’s not. Detroit’s Rick Porcello pulled it off Tuesday night.

How crazy was Porcello’s game? Well … crazy. Let’s put it this way: Do you know how many pitchers last year threw a complete game without striking out anybody or walking anybody — I’m not talking shutouts here I’m just talking any game with zero walks, zero Ks. Answer: 0.

2012: 0.
2011: 0.
2010: 0.
2009: 0

In fact, the only person since 2000 to throw a complete game without walking or striking out anybody was Seattle’s Joe Pineiro back in 2006. He gave up two runs. Before that, you have to go back to Pedro Astacio in 1994.

As mentioned, these zero-walk, zero-strikeout shutouts — let’s call them Porcellos to make it simple — these Porcellos used to be rare but they did happen. If you go back to 1969 — that expansion year championship series in each league — there have been nine Porcelllos pitched:

July 18, 1971: Cincinnati’s Ross Grimsley throws three-hit shutout against Padres.

June 4, 1974: Kansas City’s Al Fitzmorris throws three-hit shutout against Baltimore.

July 23, 1976: San Francisco’s Jim Barr throws four-hit shutout against Astros.

May 26, 1978: Cubs’ Dave Roberts throws seven-hit shutout against Cardinals.

June 4, 1979: Milwaukee’s Mike Caldwell scatters eight hits against White Sox.

July 20, 1986: White Sox Neil Allen throws two-hitter against Yankees.

July 21, 1987: Boston’s Roger Clemens pitches five-hit shutout against Angels.

August 21,1989: Baltimore’s Jeff Ballard gives up seven hits against Brewers.

July 1, 2014: Detroit’s Rick Porcello throws 95 pitches and gives up four hits to A’s.

Well, you can see that’s a 25-year gap between Ballard and Porcello. What did you expect? Shutouts are way down. Strikeouts are way up. Math is math. The only pitcher in the last decade to throw a shutout without a strikeout was Derek Lowe a couple of years ago — he walked four batters. You would never expect this Porcello thing to happen in today’s age.

Here’s why: If you let hitters put the ball in play in 2014, you are almost certainly going to get hurt. It’s really that simple. See, when players actually hit the ball, they are hitting it much harder than they ever have. You probably know about BABIP — Batting Average on Balls in Play — and that gets talked about a lot. It stays pretty constant. But what’s easy to forget is that BABIP does not include home runs. Home runs are not in play, so they are excluded from the average.

If you include home runs, batting averages DO NOT stay constant. The batting averages on balls hit has skyrocketed the last 20 or so years. In fact, 22 of the top 23 averages on balls hit have occurred since the 1994 strike year. The only other year to sneak on the list was 1930, which you might recall was this crazy offensive season where Bill Terry hit .400 and Hack Wilson drove in 191 RBIs and Chuck Klein hit 59 doubles and so on.

In 1989, the last time anyone threw a Porcello, batters hit .305 when they hit the ball. In 1978, when Dave Roberts had his Porcello, batters barely hit .300 when they hit the ball. My friend Al Fitzmorris, who threw a Porcello in 1974, has talked often about his approach as a pitcher which was basically: Keep the ball low and let them hit it. That year, 1974, was his best season: He struck out 53 batters ALL YEAR. Well, batters were hitting .301 when they hit the ball. You could get away with that back then.

In 2014, though — and remember, this is a year dominated by pitching — batters are hitting .324 when they hit the ball. And, of course, they are hitting with a lot more power too. So, as a pitcher, you really CAN’T let them put the ball in play. And that is a big factor in what the game has become.

Here’s a quick timeline of what I think has happened the last 20 or so years:

1. Batters started to get stronger — both through a new emphasis on working out and various performance enhancers both legal and illegal — and began swinging harder to take advantage of smaller strike zones, better bats, more home-run friendly ballparks.

2. Batters started hitting the ball much harder and setting all sorts of records.

3. Baseball began testing for PEDs, deadened the ball (I think) and expanded the strike zone through various means.

4. Pitchers (and managers) realized their one defense against these harder-swinging batters was to strike them out. So they began throwing much harder and in much shorter spurts.

5. Strikeouts went way, way up as hitters kept swinging hard and found themselves unable to adapt to the new environment.

6. Pitchers began blowing out their arms in greater numbers.

That seems to be where we are now. Strikeouts are at an all-time high. Tommy John surgeries seem to be a growth industry. And the whole “throw strikes and rely on your defense” strategy kind of went out the window.

Which brings us back to Porcello’s great shutout (his second in a row). It’s was a fascinating performance from another time — it began with four ground ball outs. He gave up a double to Jed Lowrie and a deep fly ball to Steven Vogt, but then the game settled down again. The Tigers shifted on John Jaso and that worked a couple of times. The A’s managed a couple of decently hit balls. But generally it was groundballs and pop-ups, groundballs and pop-ups. In the ninth, Jaso, Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss all got the ball into the air but not deep enough and that was that. It was like something out of the 1970s. And it was pretty great.

There is a theory I’ve heard from several people working in baseball that hitting — the actual talent of hitting line drives and ground balls to all fields — is the next big commodity in baseball. Power has been the hot market for a long time — and hitters took hold of the game with their free-swinging homers. But now pitchers have taken back the game with their swing-and-miss pitches and bullpens filled with 100-mph flamethrowers. The theory is that teams will start to place big value again on hitters who are smaller and quicker guys who can hit .300, who will not strike out, who cannot be shifted against.

I don’t know if that’s really where the game is going … but I hope it goes that way at least a little bit. The Porcello game was a reminder that baseball is pretty great when there’s action, when balls are in play and fielders are moving and base runners are in motion. The game lasted two hours and 13 minutes, and it was crisp baseball. Hey, strikeouts are great. And walks are a powerful offensive weapon. But I think most fans would be just fine with just a few less of each.

Miguel Cabrera has two herniated discs in his back

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Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera underwent an MRI which revealed two herniated discs in his back, MLB.com’s Jason Beck reports. With six games remaining in the season, if Cabrera plays again, it will be as a designated hitter.

The back issues shed a lot of light on Cabrera’s uncharacteristically subpar season. He’s batting .249/.329/.399 with 16 home runs and 60 RBI in 529 plate appearances this season. He carries an adjusted OPS of 92, which is eight points below the league average and 14 points below his previous career low set in 2003 with the Marlins.

Cabrera, 34, is signed through 2023 and is owed a minimum of $192 million through the end of his contract.

MLB managers weigh in on anthem protests

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No other Major League Baseball player has taken a knee during the National Anthem since Athletics’ catcher Bruce Maxwell‘s protest on Saturday night. The demonstration was sparked by President Donald Trump’s call for the boycott of the National Football League and the firing of any player who chose not to stand during the anthem. The comments drew harsh criticism from many NFL players, coaches and owners and more than a few in MLB have also lended their support. There is still one game left to play on Sunday, but it’s unclear whether any of Maxwell’s league-mates will show their solidarity by refusing to stand as well.

Given a baseball culture that tends toward conformity more often than not, it seems unlikely. But it’s something league managers are prepared for — even if they don’t all agree with the demonstrations themselves.

White Sox’ skipper Rick Renteria specifically addressed Maxwell’s protest on Sunday, speaking to the league’s policy of inclusivity:

None of the White Sox knelt prior to their series finale against the Royals. Neither did members of the Pirates or the Cardinals, though St. Louis manager Mike Matheny and Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington both weighed in on the situation.

Matheny called the president’s comments “hurtful” and, like the Cubs’ Joe Maddon, appeared content to leave the decision to protest up to each player.

The Pirates, meanwhile, took a firmer tone. “We appreciate our players’ desire and ability to express their opinions respectfully and when done properly,” GM Huntington told Elizabeth Bloom of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “When done appropriately and properly, we certainly have respect for our players’ ability to voice their opinion.”

Just what the Pirates consider “appropriate and proper” protocol was left up in the air, and club president Frank Coonelly offered no further insights in a separate statement to the press. Setting strict parameters for players to voice their opinions kind of puts them in a gray area, one they’ll have to clear up should someone elect to protest in the days to come, either with a bent knee and a hand over their heart or in some other fashion.

Equally ambiguous were comments from Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts, who claimed to oppose the movement for personal, if misguided reasons, but also respected the right of his players to make an “educated” statement in protest.

The Indians’ Terry Francona took what was perhaps the most balanced approach of the entire group:

“It’s easy for me to sit here and say, ‘Well, I think this is the greatest country in the world,’ because I do,” Francona told MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian. “But, I also haven’t walked in other people’s shoes. So, until I think, not just our country, but our world, until we realize that, hey, people are actually equal — it shouldn’t be a revelation — and the different doesn’t mean less. It’s just different. We’ve got work to do.”

These may all be moot points. Maxwell may be the only player to formally protest Trump’s comments, despite the good intentions of his teammates and fellow players around the league. Others may feel too ambivalent, threatened or uncomfortable to protest what the A’s catcher referred to as a “racial divide,” especially in a way that is routinely perceived as unpatriotic.

Even if the protests made by NFL players and Bruce Maxwell fail to gain momentum, however, the underlying issues they speak to are not going away anytime soon. Here, then, is where MLB managers can help foster a more inclusive environment throughout the league, not only by showing respect for a player’s decision to stand against racism but by actively partnering with those who do so. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a start.