What’s a no-hitter worth?

Last night, Minnesota Twins’ pitcher Francisco Liriano threw the first no-hitter of the 2011 Major League Baseball season. No-nos are so rare that they are entrenched in baseball lore alongside the perfect game. With new statistics developed over the last twenty years, the no-hitters value is changing.

Famous baseball statistician Bill James created the GameScore. The tool seeks to measure a pitcher’s value over the course of a single game. The GameScore has since been translated to position players under a different formula and name, but James’ formula remains the go-to for evaluating a pitcher’s performance.

Warning: some math will follow. The formula itself begins with the number 50. 50 represents the average score of a single game. Any final score above 50 is an above average performance, while anything below 50 is sub-average. Then outs, innings pitched, and strikeouts are added to the number while hits, earned runs, unearned runs, and walks are subtracted from the number. All put together, the formula = 50 + 1* Outs (recorded) + 2*IP after the 4th + 1*K – 2*H – 4*ER – 2*Unearned Runs – 1*BB.

Liriano’s no-hitter scored an 83 on James’ formula. An 83 doesn’t sound too bad, right? That’s good enough for a B in grade school and college. But it’s only the fourteenth best game pitched this season. Four pitchers have scored 90 or above this season: Cliff Lee with the season’s best (to date) 92, Dan Haren and Ian Kennedy each with a 91 score game, and Tim Hudson with a 90 (he just finished that game about an hour ago).

Francisco Liriano

Other pitchers ahead of Liriano include Anibal Sanchez (89), Josh Beckett (87), Kyle Lohse (87), Dice-K Matsuzaka (86), Jaime Garcia (86), Carlos Zambrano (85), Chad Billingsley (85), Jason Marquis (84), James Shields (84), Roy Halladay (83), Shields again (83), and Yovani Gallardo (83). Obviously, Liriano is in a four-way ties for fourteenth, but the fact remains that his no-hitter is not worth as much as the aura that surrounds the unique feat.

So what brought down Liriano’s score? Obviously it wasn’t the outs recorded or the number of innings pitched past the fourth inning. His low strikeout total (2 for the game) hurt. In fact, of the twenty best games pitched this season, only Gallardo had an equally low strikeout total. No other pitcher in the top twenty games struck out less than six. Another element that doomed Liriano was his high walk total. He issued six free passes to the White Sox in the game which accounted for twice as much as any other pitcher in the the top twenty games.

In 2010, there were five no-hitters (not counting Halladay’s post-season no-no). Ubaldo Jimenez, Roy Halladay, Dallas Braden, Edwin Jackson, and Matt Garza each accomplished the feat during MLB’s 162 game season. Yet, only three of those fantastic performances made the top twenty pitched games according to GameScore: Halladay second with a 98, Braden tied for fourth with a 93, and Garza tied for seventh with a 92. Halladay’s playoff no-hitter scored a 94. The very next day, Giants’ ace Tim Lincecum scored a 96 for a two-hit shutout over the Atlanta Braves.

Roy Halladay

Avoiding the GameScore metric for just a second, all of these games are well-pitched and deserve recognition. However, if you asked the average fan, which of the games is better, I’m betting they’d pick the no-hitter 99 times out of 100. And their choice may be justified. Then again, they may be choosing the worse performance (I know, really nit-picking here).

The point, though, is that baseball fans and statisticians have introduced interesting new measures of a player’s effectiveness over the last two decades. Tradition will continue to favor the no-hitter. Baseball has been around for nearly 150 years, and that doesn’t go away over a single game or twenty years of new formulas.

No-hitters are great to watch. They have everything a fan wants: heart-pounding excitement, anticipation, a great defensive play or two saving the game, etc. Just know, they’re not the only way to gauge a pitcher’s performance.

If you’d like to follow GameScore throughout the season, click here.