The Astros had quite a day on Tuesday, and not just because they reunited with Justin Verlander via a trade with the Mets, nine months after he helped them win a World Series. In another callback to last year’s success, they showcased the quality of their homegrown starting pitching as Framber Valdez no-hit the Guardians. Unlike last year, when Cristian Javier threw combined no-hitters (plural!) against the Yankees on June 25 and the Phillies in Game 4 of the World Series on November 2, Valdez did it solo — making him the first Astro to throw a complete-game no-hitter since Verlander himself, on September 1, 2019.
Prior to Tuesday night, the 29-year-old Valdez had already stepped into the breach to front the Astros’ rotation after Verlander’s offseason departure. He earned All-Star honors for the second year in a row, his 3.19 FIP and 3.2 WAR both led the staff’s starters, and his 3.29 ERA trailed only rookie J.P. France, who had thrown 34.1 fewer innings (91.2 to 126). He had even notched a complete-game shutout already, on May 21 against the A’s. It was the second of his career; he had one against the Tigers last September 12.
Still, on Tuesday night Valdez was even more dominant than in those shutouts. He “only” struck out seven batters, but six of them were from among the first 12 Guardians he faced, as if to make it abundantly clear this wasn’t Cleveland’s night. He only went to a three-ball count twice, and walked just one batter: Oscar Gonzalez, who led off the fifth by winning an eight-pitch battle, a particularly tenacious plate appearance for a hacker who entered the night with a .229 on-base percentage and a 3.6% walk rate. Five pitches and one out later, Gonzalez was erased by a 4-6-3 double play off the bat of Will Brennan, meaning Valdez faced the minimum of 27 on the night.
To the point of the double play, Valdez had thrown 60 pitches, an average of 12 per inning, with a high of 14 in the third. The Guardians seemed to go on autopilot thereafter, as he needed just 11 to complete the sixth and seventh combined, and 33 across the last four frames, an average of 8.25. After Gonzalez’s walk, the only plate appearances that lasted more than four pitches were those of Gonzalez to lead off the eighth (a five-pitch strikeout) and Gabriel Arias to lead off the ninth. On the sixth pitch of the latter’s plate appearance, he hit the hardest ball of any Guardian all night, a 103.8 mph at-’em shot, right to second baseman Jose Altuve on the edge of the infield dirt, about two Altuves to the right of second base.
Valdez allowed just five hard-hit balls all night, four of them groundouts. A 98.8 mph up-the-middle chopper by José Ramírez with two outs in the sixth was the only one that looked like a challenging defensive play. It deflected off Valdez’s glove, but shortstop Jeremy Peña was all over it nonetheless.
The Guardians didn’t barrel a single ball, and in terms of expected batting average (xBA), which takes into account launch angle and exit velocity but does not account for direction, they put only five balls into play that even topped .300, with Steven Kwan’s 97.5 mph groundout leading the pack at .420. That one was a burner, but hit right to the perfectly-positioned Altuve.
Here’s the full highlight reel from MLB.com:
Valdez was totally in sync with catcher Martín Maldonado, who ran his career total of no-hitters caught to three, with last year’s Javier-Yankees combo and a 2019 combo headed by Aaron Sanchez against the Mariners being the other two. Only Jason Varitek and Carlos Ruiz have caught more, with four apiece, while Maldonado is one of 16 with three no-hitters caught, according to MLB.com’s Sarah Langs. None of the other three-peaters are active, with Wilson Ramos and Buster Posey the most recent to retire.
Pitch-wise, Valdez netted 11 whiffs from among his 42 curveballs, 25 of which the Guardians swung at; he got just four other whiffs, three from among his 11 changeups and one from among his 34 sinkers. He didn’t throw a single four-seam fastball, and according to Statcast has thrown just six such pitches all season. He did get 12 called strikes via his sinker, which averaged 95.2 mph. His 33% Called Strike and Walk rate (CSW%) was good but hardly remarkable, ranking sixth among the 10 complete-game no-hitters since the start of 2021, with the Yankees’ Domingo Germán (37.6%) leading the way via his perfect game against the A’s on June 28, and the Diamondbacks’ Tyler Gilbert (22.5%) trailing the pack via his no-no against the Padres on August 14, 2021.
In all, Valdez needed just 93 pitches, the fewest by any pitcher throwing a no-hitter since David Cone’s perfect game on July 18, 1999. The pitch count era didn’t begin until 1988, but Baseball Reference has pitch counts for 13 complete-game no-hitters dating as far back as 1948; Dodgers statistician Allan Roth was decades ahead of the curve, and so 10 of those 13, including all four of those by Sandy Koufax, involved the Dodgers on one end or another. By that admittedly incomplete count, only three other complete-game no-hitters on record had lower pitch counts than Valdez’s:
Lowest Pitch Count in a Complete-Game No-Hitter
|Jim Bunning||PHI||NYM||6/21/1964 (1)||27||0||0||10||89*|
Covering pitch count era (all games since 1988) plus unofficial counts from select no-hitters 1948-87.
* = perfect game
Valdez’s no-hitter was the third of the 2023 season, after Germán and a combined no-hitter by the Tigers’ Matt Manning and two relievers against the Blue Jays on July 8. The total of three matches that of last year’s regular season, still far short of the nine from 2021. Remarkably, just four of the last 10 no-hitters dating back to June 24, 2021 have been complete-game ones; before Germán and Valdez came those of Gilbert and the Angels’ Reid Detmers against the Rays on May 10, 2022. If you’re looking to make the case that no-hitters have become so routine that teams are more mindful of pitch counts than of letting a starter etch his name into the history books, that’s your best shot.
Of course it’s important to note that this recent rash of no-hitters, which we might extend to include the two from 2020, the four from ’19, and the three from ’18, owes plenty to an historic dip in the major league-wide batting average. The 2018-23 span encompasses five of the 11 lowest batting averages since the arrival of the live-ball era in 1920. This year’s .248 is the 11th-lowest, last year’s .243 is the third-lowest, with the .244 from 2021 and the .245 from ’20 the fifth- and sixth-lowest, and the .248 from ’18 the 10th-lowest (carrying the decimals further than three digits). Then again, that’s still an imperfect correlation given that only 2019 (.252) is absent from that trailerboard yet produced a respectable total of four no-hitters.
Remarkably, Cleveland has been on the short end of four of the 15 regular season no-hitters since the start of 2021. The White Sox’s Carlos Rodón blanked them on April 14, 2021, the Reds’ Wade Miley did so less than a month later on May 7 of that season, and then the Brewers’ Corbin Burnes and Josh Hader combined for another one on September 11 of that year. Still, there’s been so much lineup turnover in Cleveland during that span that Ramírez is the only Guardian who played in all four games; among current ones, Josh Naylor was part of the first two of those and Myles Straw part of the last two.
This Guardians team is notably weak in terms of its lack of power; its 82 home runs are 12 fewer than any other team, and its .131 ISO is the majors’ lowest mark. The team had five spots place on my lists of Replacement Level Killers this year, a single-season record (one of the principals, DH Josh Bell, was traded on Tuesday), and recently, Davy Andrews discovered that the team’s offense is so meek that opposing outfielders play them shallower than any other team, with seven Guardians occupying the first percentile in terms of depth. Even so, the team’s .252 batting average is 15th in the majors, four points ahead of the big league average and 14 ahead of the 2021 team, which to be fair had only the majors’ 10th-lowest average.
Back to Houston. Valdez’s no-hitter was the 16th in franchise history, the 12th of the complete-game variety, and the first by a lefty. Via Wikipedia — which has a very good resource on the subject — only six franchises have produced more no-hitters, all of them from among the 16 teams that began play no later than 1901, meaning that they all had at least a 61-year head start on the expansion Colt .45s: the Dodgers (26), White Sox (20), Red Sox (18), Cubs, Reds, and Giants (17 apiece). Here are the complete-game ones:
Complete-Game No-Hitters in Colt .45s/Astros History
* = Astros were visiting team.
Note that all but two of those 12 no-hitters have come at home, though “only” six of them came at the Astrodome, which opened in 1965 and was a wasteland for hitters.
Anyway, I know it has become easy in some quarters to shrug off no-hitters because they feel too commonplace. I know it’s even easier to dismiss the accomplishments of any Astro as though they’re all equally complicit in the 2017 trash can banging scheme (note that Valdez didn’t debut until 2018 and didn’t bat until three years later). But even as someone who consumes baseball in mass quantities for a living and who can get jaded by certain facets of the game in the process, I genuinely love no-hitters, regardless of who’s throwing them — in part because I know the players involved love them, too. Valdez and everyone else who participated in Tuesday’s gem will likely remember that night, relive it and tell stories of it, for the remainder of their lives. Guardians fans are certainly excused, but while the rest of us may not feel that strongly, we ignore that joy at our own peril.