When Francisco Liriano broke in with Minnesota, it was easy to envision him as an ace, the kind of pitcher who could throw a no-hitter on any given night.
It was much harder to imagine that he might inspire discussion of the worst no-hitters of all time.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Liriano’s 9.13 ERA for the season entering Tuesday night’s game was the highest for any pitcher coming into his no-hit start (minimum: 5 starts).
In his first 32 games, eighteen of them starts, Liriano had an ERA of 2.60, with 170 strikeouts and a WHIP of 0.98 in 138.2 innings. Since returning from Tommy John surgery, he has been generally effective but far more ordinary.
Despite allowing no hits, he was shockingly close to ordinary on Tuesday. He walked six and struck out just two – the fewest strikeouts by a no-hit pitcher since 1980. He allowed several deep flies, and he threw 66 strikes against 57 balls – an uncomfortably even distribution. (“Strikes” includes balls out of the strike zone if a batter swings; there were 13 such pitches according to Pitch f/x data on fangraphs.com.)
Was Liriano lucky? Yes, certainly. Is it the worst no-hitter ever pitched? Hardly. It’s not even the worst no-hitter of the decade. Consider the following candidates for the worst no-hitters ever:
Edwin Jackson, 2010: Liriano’s opponent Tuesday night may have been having flashbacks. Slightly more than ten months ago, Jackson walked eight, threw a wild pitch and hit one batter while holding Tampa Bay hitless (one Ray reached on an error). In the first three innings, Tampa Bay put runners on first and third, first and second, and all three bases (the last one with no outs), but failed to score. Jackson made it hard on himself, but he did get the job done, winning 1-0. Arizona was so impressed that it dealt him to the White Sox a month later.
A.J. Burnett, 2001: Like Jackson, Burnett had just three 1-2-3 innings in his “gem,” walking 9 and hitting one batter. Excluding the pitcher, everyone in the San Diego starting lineup reached base against the Marlins’ hurler; six of them got into scoring position, but none scored in the 3-0 Florida victory. Burnett threw 65 strikes, 64 balls – the closest to even among all no-hitters for which baseball-reference.com has pitch data.
Andy Hawkins, 1990: There were six official no-hitters thrown in 1990 – Hawkins’ game was the third in a 48-hour period, but you won’t find it on the official list, perhaps because of its sheer improbability. The game was scoreless with two outs in the bottom of the 8th when Sammy Sosa reached on an error. Hawkins walked the next two batters, and got Robin Ventura to hit a fly ball to rookie outfielder Jim Leyritz — who dropped it, scoring all three runners. For good measure, right fielder Jesse Barfield lost the next fly ball in the sun for another error and Chicago’s fourth run. The 4-0 final represents the most runs allowed in a no-hit effort. The game is not officially recognized as a no-hitter because there was no bottom of the ninth, which is stupid: Hawkins pitched a complete, official, nine-inning game played to its conclusion, and allowed no hits. Q.E.D.
Dock Ellis, 1970: Eight walks and a hit batter marred the no-hit effort of the 25-year-old Pirate, but it was still a pretty fine effort considering that he was under the influence of LSD.
Jim Maloney, 1965: When Major League Baseball officially removed games like Hawkins’s from its list of no-hitters, it also dropped games where a pitcher threw nine no-hit innings but gave up a hit in extra innings. Maloney, a fireballer for Cincinnati, had one such effort in June ’65 against the Mets, allowing no hits in ten innings but losing the game 1-0 on a home run in the tenth; he struck out 18 batters and walked one on the night. Two months later, he again held a team hitless for ten innings, but this time his team had the decency to score in the extra inning for a 1-0 victory. Maloney struck out 12 but walked 10 and hit a batter; the ten-inning no-hitter that wasn’t was a much better effort than the one that was.
Steve Barber and Stu Miller, 1967: It’s a shame to drag Stu Miller into this mess; all he did was induce two ground balls that should have gotten the Orioles out of the ninth inning in a tie game, but for an unlikely error by second baseman Mark Belanger. The significant damage was done by lefty Steve Barber, who walked ten while striking out just three, hit two batters, threw two wild pitches, and committed an error of his own. Yet he had a 1-0 lead entering the ninth, when he allowed two walks, saw a sacrifice advance the runners, induced a foul out to the catcher, then with one out to go threw a wild pitch that brought in the tying run; his subsequent walk set the stage for Belanger’s killing miscue. All in all, the worst no-hit performance of all time.
Honorable mention: Bobo Holloman, 1953: Holloman was only pitcher in the 20th century to throw a no-hitter in his first major league start. (Ted Breitenstein and Bumpus Jones did so in 1891 and 1892, respectively.) His team’s owner, Bill Veeck, described it in Veeck as in Wreck: “Everything he threw up was belted. And everywhere the ball went, there was a [St. Louis Brown] there to catch it. It was such a hot and humid and heavy night that long fly balls which seemed to be heading out of the park would die and be caught against the fence. Just when Bobo loked as if he was tiring, a shower would sweep across the field, delaying the game long enough for him to get a rest….On the final out of the eighth inning, Billy Hunter made an impossible diving stop on a ground ball behind second, and an even more impossible throw. With two out in the ninth, a ground ball was rifled down the first-base line – right at our first baseman, Vic Wertz. Big Bobo had pitched the quaintest no-hitter in the history of the game.” Bobo wound up 3-7 with a 5.23 ERA in his only big-league season. (For the record, Veeck never let facts interfere with a good story: The first few innings were played in a steady rain, but the game was never halted or delayed. And Wertz, the right fielder, caught a fly ball for the final out.)