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May 27

Josh Beckett and Dodgers No-Hitters

On Sunday, May 25th, Josh Beckett threw the 21st no-hitter in Los Angeles Dodgers history.  For a franchise that has been around since 1883, starting out as the Brooklyn Atlantics, 21 no-hitters in 131 years is pretty impressive.  Of course, four of those no-hitters happened before the 1900s (validated thanks to Henry Chadwick inventing the box score in 1859) and before anyone knew what a baseball really was, but if the Dodgers want to count those it’s their right.

Personally, I love no-hitters.  As a kid, hearing of a no-hitter seemed like the peak of pitching dominance (now I know there’s a lot of luck and/or official scorer interpretations, eh Johan Santana, involved), and that’s mostly due to Little League.  One or two kids were always demonstratively better than those around them, so naturally they’d throw harder, strike more kids out, and turn each inning into a 9-pitch embarrassment.  Bigger, stronger players make puny guys pay for their audacity.  Voila!  The association stuck.  So, in my mind, a no-hitter is a coronation ceremony for a pitcher making the leap into greatness.

It’s a silly, quaint notion.

Josh Beckett has had a celebrated career for sure.  He has made the All Star team three times, won two World Series titles (one in 2003 with Marlins and another in 2007 with the Red Sox), won World Series MVP in 2003 and ALCS MVP in 2007, and for his career has accumulated 35.1 bWAR.  If his last few years have been anything but superfantastic (in three of his last four years he’s finished with negative bWAR) and if he’s no longer considered a dominant pitcher, Sunday’s no-hitter is still a fine feather in his woolen baseball cap.

But, with a franchise so rich in pitching history, just where does Beckett’s triumph rank in Dodgers lore?  My dad grew up a Sandy Koufax fan, and I remember him regaling me with stories of the ace lefty.  Could anyone compare to Koufax, especially when discussing a Dodgers no-hitter?  I grew up believing Dwight Gooden was just about the best the world could offer, so maybe dad’s stories were his remembering a giant when the reality was merely a man.

With Father’s Day a little under three weeks away, I write this post to one, find out just where Beckett falls in the Dodgers hierarchy of singular pitching greatness; two, see who was the unlikeliest of heroes for this storied franchise; and three, prove dad was right for all those years, Koufax is the bee’s knees.  So, to bastardize Milton, this post will be used to justify the raise of Gods from men.

Before I begin, let me explain my methodology.  First, I looked up a pitcher’s three year cumulative bWAR for his respective peak and when the no-hitter occurred.  I found this to be interesting since it would mitigate a fluke season but would also illustrate whether the pitcher was at the peak of his respective career.  In other words, would you expect that sort of thing?  I also used Bill James’s Game Score to attach a relative value to the no-hitter.  Not all no-hitters are created equally, and if a pitcher struck out only one batter (this happened twice for the Dodgers by the way) then that means a lot of balls found fielders’ mitts.

Player Peak WAR 3/yr WAR 3/yr During Game Score Date
Sam Kimber 0.7 0.7 ? 10/04/1884
Adonis Terry 10 4.2 ? 07/24/1886
Adonis Terry 10 8.4 ? 05/27/1888
Tom Lovett 9.4 9.4 ? 06/22/1891
Mal Eason 1.2 -0.6 ? 07/20/1906
Nap Rucker 24.1 9.5 ? 09/05/1908
Dazzy Vance 22.9 21.1 93 09/13/1925
Tex Carleton 8.7 4.2 89 04/30/1940
Ed Head 3.8 3.5 85 04/23/1946
Rex Barney 4.5 2.7 89 09/09/1948
Carl Erskine 11.1 4.5 87 06/19/1952
Carl Erskine 11.1 5.9 88 05/12/1956
Sal Maglie 15.8 5.2 88 09/25/1956
Sandy Koufax 26.2 11.6 95 06/30/1962
Sandy Koufax 26.2 20.8 89 05/11/1963
Sandy Koufax 26.2 22.5 98 06/04/1964
Sandy Koufax 26.2 26.2 101 09/09/1965
Bill Singer 0.3 0.1 97 07/20/1970
Jerry Reuss 11.2 5 89 06/27/1980
Fernando Valenzuela 14.9 1 91 06/29/1990
Kevin Gross 9.5 5.1 91 08/17/1992
Ramon Martinez 10.1 10.1 94 07/14/1995
Hideo Nomo 11.1 9.3 91 09/17/1996
Josh Beckett 14.9 1.7 90 05/25/2014

The first thing that jumped out at me is that Sandy Koufax was ridiculously great.  A three year run of 26.2 bWAR is like three years of Greg Maddux in 1994 good.  1961 was the year Koufax officially put it all together, delivering 5.7 bWAR, so his 3 year for ’62 might seem a little low (because 11.6 is low, right), but his game score of 95 is fourth (he also owns the top two spots).  The most important Koufax related no-hitter, however, is the one in ’65.  That game just so happens to be the only perfect game in Dodgers history, and Koufax’s brilliance can’t be overstated.  He struck out 14 Cubs, but he sort of needed to.  The Dodgers won 1-0.  That game is also the last time the Cubs were no hit, which is pretty impressive given their recent history.

In that list, the nearest comparison to Josh Beckett is Fernando Valenzuela.  Both players were highly celebrated during their early years, both made the All Star team multiple times, and both won a World Series.  Also, both peaked at 14.9 bWAR, and during the time of their no-hitter both were no longer anywhere near that apex.  In fact, as you can see, Beckett absolutely belongs on that list as a worthy contributor to the Dodger legacy.  Perhaps he didn’t accumulate those years of value with the Dodgers, but his 14.9 peak places him tied for fifth with Valenzuela on the list.  Essentially, Beckett’s no-hitter wasn’t a fluky day by a fringe player.  I like to consider it more of an outlier by a player rediscovering his past glory.

A few more notes before I continue.  Clearly, the flukes on this list would have to be Mal Eason and Bill Singer.  What blows me away about Singer is that he’s third on the game score list with a 97.  On that day in 1970 against the Phillies Singer really tapped into something special, eh?  He struck out ten, walked none, and hit one batter.  For his career, Singer only had one year where he accumulated positive bWAR, but I doubt if he ever forgot his day of pitching greatness.

Well, onto the individual game scores.

Player IP H R ER BB SO HR HBP
Dazzy Vance 9 0 1 0 1 9 0 0
Tex Carleton 9 0 0 0 2 4 0 0
Ed Head 9 0 0 0 3 1 0 0
Rex Barney 9 0 0 0 2 4 0 0
Carl Erskine 9 0 0 0 1 1 0 0
Carl Erskine 9 0 0 0 2 3 0 0
Sal Maglie 9 0 0 0 2 3 0 0
Sandy Koufax 9 0 0 0 5 13 0 0
Sandy Koufax 9 0 0 0 2 4 0 0
Sandy Koufax 9 0 0 0 1 12 0 0
Sandy Koufax 9 0 0 0 0 14 0 0
Bill Singer 9 0 0 0 0 10 0 0
Jerry Reuss 9 0 0 0 0 2 0 0
Fernando Valenzuela 9 0 0 0 3 7 0 0
Kevin Gross 9 0 0 0 2 6 0 0
Ramon Martinez 9 0 0 0 1 8 0 0
Hideo Nomo 9 0 0 0 4 8 0 0
Josh Beckett 9 0 0 0 3 6 0 0

Really, the only thing to be said about this list is that Koufax once again was the most dominant, but that shouldn’t be a surprise anymore.  Of the four double-digit strike out games, Koufax owned three of them (Singer the fourth), and as I mentioned earlier Koufax is one, two, and fourth for game scores (Singer is third).  Beckett’s game score of 90 falls 10th on the list and is just below the average score of 91.38 and median of 90.5 but it is above the mode of 89.

I think it’s cool to see Ramon Martinez fifth on the list with a score of 94.  He’s now most famous for being Pedro’s brother, but Ramon was a really good player in his own right (as his 10.1 peak can attest) and he was still an excellent pitcher when he struck out eight Marlins.  Also noteworthy on that season is that Pedro had a no-hitter broken up in the 10th inning.  Brothers each throwing a no-hitter has happened once before in baseball history (the Forsches), but it’s never happened where each brother threw one in the same season.

In recent years, Beckett lost quite a bit of luster with his antics in Boston, but that doesn’t mean I can’t take delight in his achievement.  Like older players tend to do, Beckett has dealt with adversity as he’s aged and his stuff has diminished, and watching him find success while reinventing himself as a pitcher seems both gratifying and empowering in a purely selfish sort of way.  I don’t want to see players I grew up with grow old and be forgotten.

Maybe 2003 was supposed to be the year we saw a Cubs and Red Sox World Series; maybe Beckett and the Marlins ruined those plans and made the championship their own.  Then again, the Marlins did beat the Yankees, and Beckett was an absolute terror in that series, throwing 16 1/3 innings while giving eight hits, two earned runs, and striking out 19, so there’s that, right? Sunday might not have been a coronation of greatness, but it certainly was a pitcher reliving days of past glory.

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