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Cain’s No-No Aftermath

There was no suspense as to whether Matt Cain would be the one to finally take a spot next to Johnny Vander Meer in the baseball record books with a second no-hitter in consecutive starts. Mike Trout banged a single to left on Cain’s third pitch of the night Monday against the Angels. Although Cain and the Giants won, the typically consummate righty was far from his sharpest. Cain walked four Angels and allowed six hits and three runs in just five innings. From perfect to not even quality? More common than you might think.

Cain is far from the first pitcher to struggle following a no-hitter (or a perfect game, but for the sake of this exercise we’ll consider no-hitters as a whole). Of the 163 to throw no-hitters since 1922 (including playoffs), 44 have had an ERA of 5.40 (as Cain did Monday night) or higher.

There’s little to no reason to believe a pitcher should perform particularly better following a no-hitter. Still, it strikes as odd since 2003 — Kevin Millwood‘s no-hitter with the Phillies, to be specific — only four pitchers have given up an ERA lower than their full season mark in the start immediately following the no-hitter. It’s not as if the vagaries of the earned run are necessarily at play here either — just six of these pitchers bested their full season FIP.

In the PITCHf/x era, there have been six no-hitters to produce worse results by ERA than Cain’s start Monday night: Mark Buehrle (2009, perfect game), Francisco Liriano (2011), Johan Santana (2012), Phil Humber (2012), Edwin Jackson (2010) and Carlos Zambrano (2008). If something about a no-hitter — the effort exerted (physically or mentally), the sheer number of pitches thrown, etc. — causes a significant difference in stuff, we could be able to see it through the PITCHf/x data.

The result gap is most significant on the four-seam fastball, specifically looking at contact on pitches in the zone:

About 15% of fastballs in the zone are going from strikes (either called or swinging) to in play for hits or runs. This is a far bigger effect than seen on any other pitch.

Such was the case for Cain on Monday night; 38% of his fastballs were called for strikes during his no-hitter, a number that fell to 23.5% against the Angels. The swinging strike rate on the pitch also fell from 10% to 6%. He gave up hits or runs (including a sac fly) on 11.7% of his fastballs.

There would seem to be a number of possibilities for these changes that don’t involve a depreciation in stuff. Hitters scout in advance so they don’t get no-hit again. Pitchers can’t call upon the well of adrenaline that builds up in a no-hitter situation. Umpires don’t expand the zone as much outside of no-hit situations — just examples.

Either way, it appears that the fastball cannot be counted on to the same level as it usually can — particularly for called strikes — in the second time around following a no-hitter. The result? Johnny Vander Meer could be safe for the foreseeable future.

Jim Breen contributed research used in this piece.