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.

Joe West explains the fan interference call he clearly blew

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One of the biggest plays in a game full of big plays in last night’s Red Sox-Astros game was the call of fan interference that took a home run away from Jose Altuve.

Well, actually, it didn’t technically take a home run away, because right field umpire Joe West never called it a home run to begin with. He called it, sorta, tentatively, fan interference and it was thrown in the lap of replay officials.

For my part — and, it seems to me, for the part of most folks watching the game — West blew the call. The fan in question did not reach out onto the field of play — Mookie Betts‘ glove entered the stands — and the rules clearly state that no interference is called if a spectator comes in contact with a batted or thrown ball without reaching onto the field of play. It’s only if he or she reaches out onto the field. If the ball is in the stands, all’s fair in love and souvenir-snagging.

After the game, West was interviewed about the call. Here is how he explained it.

 

Q. What did you see that prompted the initial call of fan interference?
JOE WEST: Well, when he jumped up to reach for the ball, the spectator reached out of the stands and hit him over the playing field and closed his glove.

Q. So the ball had not yet crossed the railing?
JOE WEST: No.

Q. And Betts’ glove had not yet crossed the railing, do you believe?
JOE WEST: No.

Q. Okay. Did the fan —
JOE WEST: Here’s the whole play, here’s the whole play. He hit the ball to right field. He jumped up to try to make a catch. The fan interfered with him over the playing field. That’s why I called spectator interference.

Q. So it’s a clear call in your mind?
JOE WEST: Yes.

Q. Were there already — was there a single call that you saw, that the replay officials saw on replay that confirmed —
JOE WEST: I don’t know what he saw. He just — the replay official said I was right.

Q. Okay.
JOE WEST: That’s all. He said I have nothing that can change it.

That last bit is not entirely true, by the way. They didn’t say, specifically, that West was right. Rather, they could not find sufficient evidence to overturn West, so the call stood. Which is an important distinction: if the ruling was that West was definitively correct, the ruling would’ve been that West’s call was “confirmed.” That is not what they said. They said the call “stands,” which meant that they didn’t have enough evidence to overturn West.

That’s a different issue in its entirety, by the way: the deference given to the field umpires and the high burden replay officials have to overturn them. Here, I suspect it was a matter of them not having sufficient camera angles establishing that the fan had not reached onto the field. I think that’s nuts given what even the primary view and some basic common sense showed — Betts did not run to the wall and then jump straight up, failing to break the plane into the stands — but the current replay system places a high burden on replay guys overruling the field umpires.

That whole setup is dumb. This is not the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and guys like Joe West should not be treated like District Court judges to whom deference should always be granted. Replay officials have better views almost every single time and they should be able to simply substitute their judgment rather than meet some high burden aimed, I suspect, at making field umpires feel like they’re not losing power now that baseball takes a 21st century approach to officiating rather than a 19th century approach.

Unfortunately for the Astros, that is not how the replay rule works. Unfortunately for the Astros, Joe West’s judgment was to be deferred to. Unfortunately for the Astros, West blew that call and, unfortunately for the Astros, it cost them a two-run homer that could’ve changed the outcome of this game.