No-hitters are special because they are rare. A lot has to go right for the pitcher to get one, and a lot has to go wrong for the hitters to be no-hit. If you put the game's best pitcher against the game's worst lineup, you're not guaranteed or even likely to end up with a no-hitter - and sometimes even poor pitchers end up finding their way to a no-hitter on a night where everything goes their way.
The Orioles, much as their futility in individual games or stretches of games can frustrate us, are not a sad sack offensive team, even in a game like yesterday's no-hitter where the lineup is choked with three ice cold hitters in Ryan Flaherty, Jimmy Paredes, and David Lough.
Seattle's Hisashi Iwakuma has had a nice major league career in the four seasons since he came over from Japan, but even if you woke up yesterday morning knowing with absolute certainty that one of Wednesday's MLB starters would toss a no-no, Iwakuma probably wouldn't have even been in your top five. Clayton Kershaw pitched yesterday. So did Jacob deGrom, Michael Wacha, Jordan Zimmermann, and Gerrit Cole. You could line up nine .200 hitters against any one of those guys and still the better odds would be against a no-hitter happening.
So of all of the pitchers and all of the lineups yesterday, how the heck did it end up with Iwakuma dropping the no-hitter on the Orioles? Of course there's not one answer to the question. Every at-bat is its own story. There is, however, something that I think explains a lot of why it was able to happen. The story is in two tweets that showed up after yesterday's game.
Jones: "He threw a lot of strikes. Can’t cry about it." #Orioles— Eduardo A. Encina (@EddieInTheYard) August 12, 2015
That's Baltimore Sun beat writer Eduardo Encina relaying part of Adam Jones' opinion on getting no-hit in the game. Based on comments like that, you get the impression that Jones feels like Iwakuma was working heavily in the strike zone and the Orioles were just not successfully hitting those pitches that they really should have been hitting.
A cursory consulting of the game's box score bears this out. Iwakuma faced 29 batters in the game and threw 116 pitches, 77 of which went for strikes. That is just a tiny bit shy of throwing a strike two-thirds of the time. Jones is correct in that sense: That is a lot of strikes. BUT...
Great Hisashi Iwakuma stat from today: Threw only 40.5% of his pitches in the strike zone, lowest rate of any of his career starts.— David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield) August 13, 2015
How does that square with the first tweet? Well, the answer is obviously that Jones was wrong, because it turns out that Iwakuma was not throwing a lot of strikes - but the fact that Jones perceived it as a lot of strikes gives us a very telling insight into how Iwakuma was able to execute his game plan against the Orioles.
A deeper look at the lines in the box score reveals that Iwakuma induced 19 swinging strikes in his no-hitter against the Orioles. That works out to a swinging strike on 16.4% of pitches. According to Fangraphs, the MLB average this season is the same as Iwakuma's career mark: 9.7%. Iwakuma in his career works in the strike zone 47.4% of the time.
As ESPN's Schoenfield notes above, in throwing his no-hitter - which was also his first ever MLB career complete game, by the way - Iwakuma threw a smaller percentage of pitches in the strike zone than he has ever thrown in any of his 88 MLB starts. The game was an aberration in his career, in a way that you would think, on the surface, is not a good way.
Yet this was the game where Iwakuma made history, and it's probably because, against a team of aggressive hackers like the Orioles, he threw not-strikes in just the right way to entice swings. The Pitch F/x plot from Brooks Baseball shows just how far out a lot of the Orioles swings were:
The black box is the strike zone. As you can see from the key, it's color coded, with every pitch that Iwakuma threw in the game and its outcome. The light orange boxes are the ones that are showing us something interesting here. Those are your swinging strikes, times the Orioles swung and came up with nothing but air. There are 19 of these pitches and exactly two of them are within the confines of the strike zone.
That means the Orioles swung and missed at 17 balls out of the strike zone. Put another way, about one out of every seven pitches that Iwakuma threw, an Orioles batter chased outside the zone and missed. A fair number of these were very far out of the strike zone. A couple were quite high; several were very low. There are also four pitches below the strike zone that resulted in balls put in play, and the simple fact is that balls in play from down there are probably not going to be very threatening.
That's how a no-hitter in progress makes it to the ninth inning before any of the defending players have to make anything looking remotely like a tough play. In Tuesday's game, this was Kyle Seager running down a foul pop-up to make an over-the-shoulder catch for the first out in the ninth inning. It's almost axiomatic that every no-hitter has "the play" - just an impressive piece of fielding from a player who knows what's on the line and you can almost feel him stretching to his limits to preserve a no-hitter.
And I mean, honestly, as far as "the play" goes in a given no-hitter, this one was not a very exciting one. No one had to leap or dive or perform any physical feat you would have sworn was impossible until the moment you saw it happen. Seager ran, turned around, and caught a crappily-hit baseball off the bat of Lough. Ho-hum. But that's how much Iwakuma was dominating the Orioles. He didn't need his fielders to make tough plays because that's how in control he was.
It was an impressive effort. Even if Iwakuma knew with crystal clarity what to do to mow through the Orioles lineup the way he did, he still had to perfectly execute that plan, and that's exactly what he did. He could start every game against this same Orioles lineup for the rest of his career and he probably wouldn't get another no-hitter against them.
The Orioles would likely never again be this bad, even considering their aggressive tendencies and poor pitch recognition that were both exploited. Iwakuma would likely not again be this good. It all came together for him in a game that meant virtually nothing to his own team even as it meant a whole lot for the O's.
The O's aren't going to change who they are at this point. Even their decent-to-good hitters mostly don't have strong on-base skills. Most nights - at least as far as getting even one measly hit on the scoreboard - that doesn't matter. In a similar vein, most nights the fact that their corner outfield situation has been terrible all season doesn't cause them to be no-hit either.
But, hopefully they can at least be aware enough so that after the fact when a guy throws outside of the strike zone nearly 60% of the time, an explanation offered to the media is not that he threw a lot of strikes. When looking at it that way, the only real surprising thing is that it's taken this long for the Orioles to be no-hit.