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Formula puts Chris Sale’s shot at no-hitter at 23 percent in 2015

BY JOHN GROCHOWSKI
For the Sun-Times

White Sox fans already know they have an ace in Chris Sale. But how good a chance does he have at that one special day where everything comes together and the opponents go hitless?

A calculation of the pitchers with the best chance to throw a no-hitter is one of the fun little extras in the annual ‘‘Bill James Handbook.’’ It’s a numbers book in the tradition of the ‘‘Baseball Register’’ or the old ‘‘Who’s Who in Baseball,’’ but it takes several steps beyond. Triple Crown stats for all current major-leaguers are there, but so are runs created, pitches per at-bat, line-drive percentage, player projections, managers’ tendencies, park effects and much more.

One yearly feature is a list of pitchers most likely to throw a no-hitter in the coming season. For the second consecutive
year, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw tops the list. Kershaw no-hit the Rockies last season and is listed as having a
25 percent chance of throwing another no-hitter in 2015.

Sale checks in second on that list with a 23 percent chance, followed by the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg at 21 percent and the Indians’ Corey Kluber and the Nationals’ Max Scherzer at 20 percent.

In 2004, James tackled a similar issue. How many no-hitters should have been expected through 2002? Rob Neyer, James’ collaborator on ‘‘The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers,’’ has posted the article at http://robneyer.com/baseball-books/neyer-james-guide-to-pitchers/expected-no-hitters. James calculated that among 136,388 starts by pitchers who averaged between nine and 9.99 hits allowed per nine innings, 58 no-hitters would be expected. There actually were 57.

Among pitchers who allowed fewer hits, the calculation showed those most likely to have thrown no-hitters to that point were Nolan Ryan, Walter Johnson, Tom Seaver, Randy Johnson and Sandy Koufax, all whom did it. There’s so much chance involved that the distribution never can be perfect. The formula’s expectation is that Ryan would throw 2.7 no-hitters in his career, and he threw seven. But it does a pretty good job of zeroing in on the most likely pitchers to throw a no-hitter.

James calculated a pitcher’s out percentage by using the formula (3 x innings pitched)/
((3 x IP) + hits). The next step was to raise the result to the
26th power, not the 27th, because no-hitters include an out on the bases often enough that the 26th works better. The result then was multiplied by the number of career starts.

A peek into the future for active pitchers requires projected starts instead of actual starts.

Sale’s 6.67 hits allowed per nine innings were the third-fewest in the American League last season. He keeps pressure off his defense with strikeouts, leading the AL with 10.76 per nine innings. More strikeouts mean fewer balls in play and fewer chances for hits.

No-hitters are rare enough events that no one is a cinch to throw one in any given season. But to zero in on those with the best chance, Sale is right there near the top.