Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

Zeroes

In Baseball, Long form on August 15, 2011 at 9:41 am

He had to change his name. There couldn’t be two Johan Santanas pitching in the American league. He was Johan Santana, a rookie pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels. The one who played for the Minnesota Twins was a Cy Young award winner, and maybe the best pitcher in baseball. (Guess who got to keep the name?) But the Angels roster still needed a name for RHP 54. “I just came up with Ervin. Ervin Santana, that sounds good.”

It didn’t really hit him until the sixth inning. Maybe the seventh, but definitely not before the sixth. In the sixth, he had retired Kipnis, Kearns and Carrera on nine pitches. It was a good inning, and he’d looked strong striking out Izturis, but hitters were always toughest the third time through the batting order.

The first two times through the order, you could catch guys off guard, especially if they hadn’t seen your stuff in a while. But by the third time, they’d seen enough pitches to adjust their timing.

Brantley, Cabrera and Hafner were due up in the seventh, and that’s what convinced him. Nine pitches for three outs, and Hafner had looked at three strikes to end the inning. The sixth could have been a few lucky pitches. The seventh was artistry.

It always seems like no-hitters are spoiled late in the game. The pitcher becomes aware of what he’s chasing and starts to think. The thinking becomes hesitance, and the hesitance becomes a bloop single to center field.

Ervin Santana knew what he was chasing, but he wasn’t thinking about it. He couldn’t. The game had started out too rocky for him to think about no-hitters. An error, a stolen base and a wild pitch left the Angels behind 1-0. It was an unearned run, and Erick Aybar should have handled the play. But the shortstop didn’t earn the loss, the pitcher did.

What happened next was brilliance — pure pitching brilliance. The errors of the first inning became the remainder of the game’s routine ground balls, and pitches that had been fouled off in the first became called third strikes. The thinking — the hesitance — of that first inning melted away, leaving behind only the pitcher’s mound. ESPN called it “dominant,” but Santana’s line score described it better: 9IP / 0H.

Ervin Santana didn’t jog out to the pitcher’s mound at Progressive Field in the bottom of the first inning expecting to pitch a no-hitter. No pitcher does. After the final out of his 1962 no-hitter with the Angels, Bo Belinski said, “If I’d known I was going to pitch a no-hitter, I would have gotten a haircut.”

Most so-called great plays in baseball are subjective. One player’s brilliance on the field is another’s luck. The no-hitter is different. A pitcher who throws a no-hitter objectively displays that, for one game — nine innings on some idle afternoon in a forgotten summer — he was the best pitcher in baseball.

Bo Belinski pitched for seven seasons after his no-hitter. He never won more than nine games in a season, and he lost more often than he won. Some are destined to be great, whether it’s due to talent or intelligence or determination or some other equally ambiguous gift. But brilliance rarely comes with a warning. Sometimes it strikes those already on the path to greatness. And sometimes it strikes a 28-year-old journeyman on a pitcher’s mound in Cleveland.

No-hitters are rare. That’s trite. It’s also a fact. During the 2010 season, 30 teams combined to play 2,430 games. More than 200,000 games have been played since the beginning of baseball’s modern era in 1900. 229 of those games have been no-hitters, and only 180 have occurred in the live-ball era. That’s less than .001 percent.

On the subject of no-hitters, Sandy Koufax said, “You’ve got to be lucky, but if you have good stuff, it’s easier to be lucky.” He should know — he threw four of them during his Hall of Fame career.

But luck doesn’t always pick the pitcher with the best stuff. More often than not, it picks the bottom-of-the-rotation starter over the Hall-of-Fame talent. There are 70 pitchers in the Baseball Hall of Fame; 21 of them pitched no-hitters. Johnny Vander Meer pitched two no-hitters in five days for the Cincinnati Reds in 1938.

That’s more than Pedro Martínez, Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens combined, during their Cy Young award-winning careers.

There is a sabermetric pitching statistic called, “Adjusted ERA+.” Most people shorten it to ERA+. It modifies a pitcher’s traditional ERA by taking into account the pitcher’s ballpark and the league’s ERA. A score over 100 is indicative of an above-average performance; under 100, below average. 100 is exactly average, a hypotheticallyaverage pitcher in an average park.

Ervin Santana is that hypothetical pitcher. His pitches have always been good but not great. He gets out of jams but never overpowers batters. He wins games but not by enough to impress. He loses games, but not by enough to be cut.

He has enough talent. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t play baseball. And that’s what he is — a baseball player. But that’s all he’ll ever be.

We never expect to see brilliance when we witness it. We only really recognize it once it’s passed.

Fathers will never relay the story of the time they saw Ervin Santana pitch to their sons, who will never sit starry-eyed, listening to a story that — if told — would necessarily be more myth than memory. Players won’t recall that fateful at-bat 50 years before where they got the better of the great Ervin Santana. Fans will never wax poetic that, if only their team had Ervin Santana, another world championship banner would fly above the grandstand. But still, for one day, Ervin Santana was the best pitcher in baseball.

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