It's no mystery that I'm a fan of baseball. My first vocational aspiration - at age 6 - was to play baseball for the Boston Red Sox. I never quite understood why my first grade teacher laughed when I announced that on "what do you want to be when you grow up" day. But it was a knowing, loving laugh. So I was good with it.
My first grade teacher knew something that I didn't pay attention to at the time. I was good at the three Rs. My destiny was most definitely in another direction.
Fast forward to this geek reading an article written by Joe Posnanski during lunch. I spend most of my time programming or designing experimental protocols. I need the brain junk food. So when I found this article, I jumped in.
The motivation of the article was a no-hitter pitched by a former neighbor, Goochland County's own Justin Verlander. It wasn't his first, and it was a dominating performance by his Tigers against a hapless Chicago White Sox team. I happened to be listening to the Red Sox game at the time, but occasionally look at the scoreboards online. I saw this no-hitter in the making, and witnessed it online and on XM Radio through the last few innings.
After the accolades are given for this rare sports event, the next preoccupation is how well the pitcher who accomplished the feat performs in the subsequent pitching start. Is the recent past in this case a good predictor of the immediate future? Persistence in performance is logical, right? Or are no-hitters freakish events, as likely to happen to one halfway decent pitcher as the next? If the latter, then we'd expect a relatively normal performance afterwards.
The following questions were asked of sportswriter Joe Posnanski. Did he prognosticate based on his "expert" opinion? That seems to be the gold standard amongst our fellow martial artists. Someone is proclaimed an expert, and they develop a following who dissect their every word. Well... Joe didn't fall into that trap.
Joe Posnanski wrote:
This is not EXACTLY about follow-up games to no-hitters … but there will be a lot in here about those. You will get your fill of follow-up games, if that’s the sort of thing that interests you like it interests me. Who was the last person to follow up a no-hitter with a complete game? A shutout? Do pitchers throw better after perfect games than after no-hitters? How did Nolan Ryan do after each of his seven no-nos? All those answers and more follow.
But the main point here is this: I found all those answers. It didn’t take too long. My editor called on Wednesday evening and wondered if I would have any interest in doing something on no-hitter follow-up games, and upon first blush I managed to count only 59,485 things I would rather do. But, of course, my editor is smarter than I am, and he certainly knew that just throwing out an open-ended question like, “How do pitchers fare after no-hitters?” would gnaw on my mind until, just out of curiosity, I fired up the computer and went to the incomparable Baseball-Reference.com and began to look back at a few pitchers who threw no-hitters and then looked at a few more and then …
… suddenly I had a spreadsheet with every follow-up game to a no-hitter since 1970, and every follow-up to a regular-season perfect game from the last 75 years.
This is a new development, of course, this easy access to sports information. Bill James used to do his seminal baseball work using box scores clipped out of The Sporting News. How long would it have taken me to find every post-no-hitter from the last 40 years using that clip-and-file system? I can’t even imagine. A week? A month? Longer? I’ll tell you exactly how long it would have taken: Forever. Because I never would have even started the project. I’m interested, but I’m not THAT interested.
Now, the information is there, easy to find, easy to sort. It took me three mouse clicks per player to find the game I wanted.
"What?" you say. "He didn't spit out information based on recall and his personal experience "being there" game after game after game... over a fraction of the number of games played in the history of the sport? Nope... He looked it up. Back in the day, you couldn't. But in my world when someone asks a medical question, I can look at the experience of tens of millions over 3 years with a day's worth of programming and a night for the server to crunch on the data. Joe's work is even simpler, but it's the same task. Once someone takes the trouble to document reality, it takes very little time to torture the data and make them confess.
I'll let Joe tell the story to you below - if you are interested. But I will tell you this. Joe's work confirms why I've always felt that Nolan Ryan was perhaps the best pitcher/athlete ever. Having done some reading about him and having looked at a small amount of sports data, I had that feeling. He nailed it.
Here though is the most poignant part of the article. It is one that I know my friend Rory (and perhaps Van as well) will be nodding their heads after reading it. THIS is what martial artists who believe in their own myths should recite to themselves over and over again.
Joe Posnanski wrote:
The easy access to all these answers fits my mindset. I like to know. On the other hand, this easy access to answers does flatten the landscape. In 1988, after Tom Browning followed up his perfect game with eight innings of one-run ball, I guarantee that more than one person wrote about how the perfect game had changed Browning as a pitcher, how that one great game had given him more confidence, how throwing a no-hitter can do that for a pitcher, how pitchers often carry the momentum from their no-hitter into their next start. Well, there was no easy way — or even a difficult way — to look up every no-hitter follow-up game. So you could say things like that and feel confident that you were right, or at least right enough. Truth is, before the latest explosion of information you could say almost anything that SOUNDED true and feel confident that you were right enough.
And there’s just so much like that in sports, stuff that sounds true, stuff that should be true, stuff that would make our games more fascinating if it were true. Can a player throughout a career consistently hit better in the big moments than he does in the not-so-big moments? Is there really such a thing as basketball players getting the hot shooting hand? Are there really quarterbacks who aren’t good statistically but know how to win? There’s no evidence I know of that supports any of that. But for so many years people kept hammering those points home, over and over, based on quotes and feelings and the gut instincts of people who watch sports.
Now, the stats will often pour the cold water of reality over our most beloved myths. And many people don’t like that. They prefer a little bit of myth over a cold shower of reality. I can understand that. I prefer a little bit of myth myself. I have the same instinct to downplay the effects of luck and the weather and the small and boring things that shouldn’t matter and instead believe in a storyline.* It makes sense to me that a pitcher who has just thrown a no-hitter will go out the next time and be overflowing with confidence and will feel locked in and will pitch great. It makes so much sense. It just so happens that ...
- BillNo-Hitter Follow-Up Acts