Will a Royals pitcher ever again throw a no-hitter?
The last no-no by a Kansas City pitcher occurred 30 years ago this week. On August 26, 1991, Bret Saberhagen, in his final season as a Royal, put the big hurt on the Chicago White Sox. Saberhagen was known for having pinpoint control, a trait that no one on the Royals’ current staff will ever be accused of. Saberhagen knew warming up that night that he had good stuff. He said his command of his fastball was spot on and his curve was biting.
The game had some controversy. With one out in the fifth, Dan Pasqua hit a deep liner to the left-center gap. Kirk Gibson, playing left field for the Royals that night, lumbered after the ball and seemed to have a bead on it. The ball caromed off Gibson’s glove as Pasqua steamed into second base. The official scorer, Del Black, initially ruled it a hit, but after watching replays, reversed his call and gave Gibson an error. Of course, in the fifthinning, not many people would have been thinking about a no-hitter. Had the play occurred in the eighth or ninth, it would have been highly controversial.
The Sox never threatened again. Saberhagen walked two and struck out five. He got Frank Thomas, always a dangerous hitter, on a grounder to second for the final out. And that was it. There have been some one-hitters since then, but the no-no streak is at 30 and counting.
Given the propensity of reduced pitch counts and the Royals' inability to get a starting pitcher into even the seventh inning, what hope do we have of seeing another no-hitter? No-hitters are special. They are cool. There is a certain cachet to seeing a pitcher on your favorite team throw one.
I remember well the first three in club history:
April 27th, 1973 – Steve Busby against the Detroit Tigers
June 19th, 1974 – Steve Busby against the Milwaukee Brewers
May 14th, 1977 – Jim Colborn against the Texas Rangers
Busby was a star in the making who had terrific stuff. He was often, and rightly, compared to a young Tom Seaver. The Colborn no-hitter was a complete surprise. Colborn was acquired along with Darrell Porter from Milwaukee in what proved to be an excellent trade for the Royals. Prior to joining Kansas City, Colborn had a career record of 61-62. It was hoped that he could pick up some innings lost when Busby was unable to come back from his injury. He did more than that. Colborn went 18-14 while making 35 starts and throwing 239 innings. He ended with a respectable 3.62 ERA. He pitched 8 games in Kansas City in 1978 before being traded to the Mariners for outfielder Steve Braun.
2021 has been the year of the no-hitter. As of this writing, there have been eight complete game no-hitters and two seven-inning no-hitters (which technically don’t even count as no-hitters!). Baseball has never seen a year quite like this. With batters focusing more on three outcome plate appearances (home run, walk or strikeout) and pitchers throwing harder than ever, you can see why no-hitters are more commonplace.
The crazy thing is, it’s not the stars throwing the no-hitters. Sure, Madison Bumgarner got one, but this is 2021 Bumgarner were talking about, not the 2012-2016 peak Bumgarner. Plus, his was only seven innings. The remaining pitchers – Joe Musgrove, Carlos Rodon, John Means, Wade Miley, Spencer Turnbull, Corey Kluber and Tyler Gilbert will never be confused with Bob Gibson or Nolan Ryan. According to Jayson Stark of the Athletic, Gilbert now has more no-hitters in his career than Greg Maddux, Steve Carlton, Roger Clemons, Tom Glavine, CC Sabathia, Zach Greinke and John Smoltz combined. Gilbert did his in his first career start no less. Baseball is a weird and beautiful game sometimes. The Cubs used four pitchers to no-hit the Dodgers back on June 24th. Tampa used five pitchers in their 7-inning no-no against the Indians.
Yet Kansas City is stuck on 30 years and counting.
Understand, I would rather have winning seasons than no-hitters. We haven’t had that many of those either, but that’s for another column.
When Busby threw his first no-hitter in 1973, the Royals staff had 40 complete games and threw six shutouts. When Busby twirled his second no-no in 1974, the Royals staff had an astounding 54 complete games! They also had ten shutouts that summer.
During Colborn’s no-hit season of 1977, the Royals staff had 41 complete games and 10 shutouts.
The numbers started to drop by the time Saberhagen shut down the White Sox. The 1991 staff threw 17 complete games (Saberhagen had 7 of those) and 7 shutouts.
I’ve written before about Roger Nelson’s 1972 season and it bears mentioning here again, only for the context that we may never see a season like that in our lifetimes. Nelson was a non-roster invitee to spring training that season. He won a job in the bullpen and didn’t even move into the rotation until the Fourth of July. From that point on, he was unstoppable.
Nelson, who looked a bit like a high school math teacher, only started 19 games that summer, but he went 11-6 with a still club record 2.08 ERA over 173 innings. He had ten complete games and threw another still standing club-record six shutouts. Among his complete games, he had two 4 hitters, two 3-hitters, a 2-hitter and a 1-hitter. The 1-hitter was on August 23rd in a game at Municipal against the Red Sox. Only a two-out eighth inning single marred the game, which scored a 93 for Nelson. What a performance by Nelson!
I would love to see someone on the Royals staff throw a no-hitter. For years, I thought that Danny Duffy would be the next to do it. He certainly had the stuff and the mentality needed to throw one. The current staff has some arms that could throw a no-hitter. Would Mike Matheny allow one of his young arms to throw that many pitches?
In 2018, the Royals staff had two complete games, one by Jake Junis and the other by Brad Keller. The staff did not have a shutout that summer.
In 2019, the Royals only had one complete game, an 11-0 win over the White Sox in which Glenn Sparkman was dealing. It took Sparkman 116 pitches to get the job done in what was the club’s only shutout of the season.
In 2020 short season, the Royals once again only had one complete game and one shutout. This came off the arm of Brad Keller on September 13th against the Pirates. Keller threw 111 pitches that night.
As of this writing, the 2021 Royals have not had a complete game or a shutout. Have complete games and shutouts become the new no-hitter?
I understand that pitching, and how teams handle their pitchers has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. Long gone are the days when we’ll see another Bob Gibson, a guy who threw 28 complete games in a season. He did that twice, 1968 and 1969, part of his 255 career complete games. We’ll never see someone like Gibson again, a guy who threw hard for 17 seasons. He had 482 career starts, threw almost 3,900 innings and finished his career with a record of 251-174.
Nolan Ryan pitched for an amazing 27 years during which he threw 222 complete games and nearly 5,400 innings. Ryan was the first “modern era” pitcher to routinely throw in the 90s and low 100’s for the entire game. He was a wonder of the times. Ryan is also the all-time leader in no-hitters with seven, including one against Kansas City in 1973. He and Bob Feller, another fireballer, are tied with the most one-hitters with 12.
Feller was known as the “Heater from Van Meter” and “Rapid Robert”. Feller pitched three no-hitters in his career, including the only opening day no-hitter in baseball history, a 1940 gem against the Chicago White Sox.
There were others in the past who threw hard. J.R. Richards, Sam McDowell and Steve Dalkowski could all bring the heat. McDowell also had one of the great baseball nicknames too: Sudden Sam McDowell. Every team today has at least one guy who can throw hard, including the Royals, who have several.
When will it be? The optimist in me likes to think that we’ll have another one. Like most good things in life, it’ll probably be an unexpected surprise.
Postscript: When I wrote this column on August 19th, it had been 30 years since a Royals pitcher had thrown a no-hitter. When Steve Busby threw his first two, I was 12 and 13 years old, respectively. I was 16 when Jim Colborn threw his and 30 when Bret Saberhagen threw the last one. Now I’m 60 and starting to wonder if I’ll ever see another. Imagine my surprise when I turned on the TV and caught sight of Kris Bubic riding a no-hitter through the sixth inning? For a minute, I thought I’d have to re-write my story. Bubic was cruising and I really thought he had a chance to break the skid. Then Jerry Meals got in the way. Meals, the home plate umpire, decided it was going to rain and ordered the game delayed and the tarp pulled. After 45 minutes of no rain, the tarp was removed and play resumed, but it was clear that the rhythm that Bubic had was now gone. He walked Frank Schwindel leading off the seventh . Bubic was at 84 pitches. I quickly calculated that in order to go the full nine, he’d have to throw a minimum of 130 pitches. Would Matheny let him go that long? Unlikely. It didn’t matter though, as the next hitter, Patrick Wisdom caught all of a hanging curve, blasting it deep into the left field bleachers. It would be the only hit of the day for the Cubs, as Bubic and a trio of relievers closed things out.
Does this ever happen to you, where you tell a friend that something never happens, then it does? You might be bragging that your car never breaks down, then the next day you can’t get the bucket started. For me, it’s rain. Whenever I wash my car, it almost always rains. I’m not sure what the percentage is, but it seems like it’s north of 80%. I’ve even thought about selling my services to farmers. Dry in Kansas you say? For $200 a day (plus expenses of course) I’ll come to your area, wash my car and hang around until it rains.
That’s how I felt watching Bubic mow down the Cubs. If you have any request for columns about things that never happen, say something like how the Royals will never fire Dayton Moore or maybe how the Royals will never win another World Series title in your lifetime, send those ideas to me. Baseball people are a superstitious lot and I’m right there at the front of that line. I’m happy for Bubic though. He pitched a terrific game and deserved better from the umpire crew. I’ve long thought he will end up being the best of the 2018 arms. Many disagree, but I’ve always seen something in him, his stuff certainly, but he also seems to have that little extra bulldog mentality. Time will tell. Until then, we can speculate on who might throw the next no-no.