Cubs’ combined no-hitter a sign of the times

We’ve seen a change in how combined no-hitters came about that fits in with an era of fewer hits, more relievers and closer attention to pitch counts.

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Cubs starter Zach Davies combined with relievers Ryan Tepera, Andrew Chafin and Craig Kimbrel to no-hit the Dodgers last week.

Cubs starter Zach Davies combined with relievers Ryan Tepera, Andrew Chafin and Craig Kimbrel to no-hit the Dodgers last week.

Kelvin Kuo/AP

It might just be a coincidence that the Cubs pitched a combined no-hitter in a time of plummeting batting averages.

It might just be a coincidence that six of the 15 combined no-hitters in major-league history have come since 2012, a time of shorter stints for starters and more innings for relievers.

After all, 15 games is a minuscule sample. Any combined no-hitter is an outlier in any era, including the Cubs’ 4-0 victory Thursday with Zach Davies, Ryan Tepera, Andrew Chafin and Craig Kimbrel holding the Dodgers hitless.

Still, we’ve seen a change in how combined no-hitters came about that fits in with an era of fewer hits, more relievers and closer attention to pitch counts.

So far in 2021, the major-league batting average is .238. Only the .237 in 1968 was lower.

In 2021, starting pitchers are averaging 5.1 innings per game. In the first combined no-hitter in 1917, Babe Ruth walked the first batter, argued and was thrown out of the game. Ernie Shore then pitched nine hitless innings in the Red Sox’ 4-0 victory against the Senators. Pitchers in 1917 averaged 7.3 innings per start.

The next combined no-hitter was 50 years later, when the Orioles’ Steve Barber and Stu Miller no-hit the Tigers but lost 2-1. Starters averaged 6.4 innings at that time.

Starter innings remained at that level with a 6.5 average in 1976, when the White Sox’ ‘‘Blue Moon’’ Odom and Francisco Barrios allowed a run but no hits in beating the Athletics 2-1.

By the time the current run of six combined no-hitters started in 2012, innings per start had dropped to 5.9. That decline has accelerated to the current 5.1.

In that 2012 game, the Mariners’ Kevin Millwood, Charlie Furbush, Stephen Pryor, Lucas Luetge, Brandon League and Tom Wilhelmsen combined to stop the Dodgers 1-0.

Millwood left after six innings with a strainedgroin muscle. Injuries also were why the Orioles’ Bob Milacki in 1991 and the Astros’ Roy Oswalt in 2003 left no-hitters early.

Other times, there were special circumstances. Odom left after starting the sixth inning with his ninth walk. Barber wild-pitched the tying run home in the ninth, then walked the next batter before Miller entered. Ruth, of course, was as special a circumstance as they come, as was Shore’s performance afterward.

Recently, however, changing conditions — including attention to pitch counts — have led to early departures. The Phillies’ Cole Hamels (108 pitches in six innings) in 2014, the Dodgers’ Walker Buehler (93 pitches, six innings) in his first major-league start in 2018 and the Astros’ Aaron Sanchez (92 pitches, six innings) in 2019 would have been allowed to go longer in other eras, but not today. The Angels’ Taylor Cole in 2019 started with two innings as an opener, a role that didn’t exist until recent years.

Davies, with 94 pitches and five walks Thursday, fits into that group, and that just feels right for a time of low batting averages and shorter starts.

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