Imperfect Indians since 1981

May 15 marks an unusual anniversary in Cleveland Indians lore. 36 years ago, journeyman right-handed starting pitcher Len Barker braved the cold and rain to throw a 3-0 perfect game against the Toronto Blue Jays. It was the unquestioned peak of his career and a bright spot in an otherwise forgettable 1981 Indians season. Most remarkable about the game is its position as the most recent no hitter in Tribe history.

Despite multiple Cy Young Award winners (CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Corey Kluber) and runs to the World Series (1995, 1997, 2016), no Indians hurler has held an opponent hitless since. This raises the question, why haven’t the Indians had a no hitter or perfect game since 1981?

Major League Baseball has tossed 88 no hitters since Barker’s famous day, and the twenty-nine other MLB teams have each seen a pitcher or staff throw a no-hit game in that span – including the four that did not exist when Rick Manning squeezed the final out in 1981. Surprisingly, despite the drought, the Indians still rank tied for seventh with 14 franchise no hitters. From the venerable Bob Feller and Addie Joss to the obscure Dick Bosman and Bob Rhoads, Cleveland is historically no stranger to exceptional pitching performances.

Curiously, Cleveland has not been on the wrong side of a no hitter often going hitless only 11 times in the modern era. Since 1981, only the Blue Jays’ Dave Stieb (9/2/1990) and the Angels’ Ervin Santana (7/27/11) have befuddled the Tribe bats for a full 27 outs. The Santana no hitter was the only one to occur at Jacobs/Progressive Field since it opened in 1994.

No hitters and perfect games capture the imagination because they can happen at any time. Technically every game begins as a perfect game with only the pitcher(s) and batters deciding whether or not it stays that way. In 2012, baseball blog Minitab estimated the odds of a no-hitter at 1 in 1,548 and the odds of a perfect game at 1 in 29,555.

Since Barker’s Big Night, the Indians have played  5,716 regular season games and 84 playoff games for a total of 5,800 games. If the earlier estimates can be trusted then statistically the Indians should have enjoyed 3.74 no hitters in the past 36 years. You may notice that the stats care little for reality. This is not to say the club hasn’t had close calls.

Earlier this season, sixth starter Mike Clevinger, boosted by a stellar bullpen performance, managed to hold Minnesota to a lone hit in a Sunday matinee. Two seasons ago Carlos Carrasco flirted with history in Tampa Bay. On July 1, Cookie managed to hold the Rays hitless for 26 and 2/3 outs. Needing only one more strike to end the drought he could not locate a fastball against pinch hitter Joey Butler who punched a liner over the out-stretched glove of Jason Kipnis for the Rays’ first hit of the day. Going back to 2009, Cliff Lee carried a perfect game into the seventh inning of a nationally televised home game. Billy Traber one-hit the Yankees in 2003. The list goes on. Despite literally thousands of chances, Len Barker remains the standard.

It should be noted that throwing a no hitter is hard and if it were as simple as instructing a pitcher to “play better” then that message would be written in brail on the ball. The remarkable part of this streak is that the stars have not aligned in almost two generations. A pitcher needs that magical combination of rest, weather, opponent, and having their stuff. We should keep everything here in perspective: 23 big leaguers have thrown a perfect game; 24 people have visited the moon.

There is no telling when another Indians pitcher will hold an opponent hitless. It could be another five years or Cleveland could enjoy three perfect games in the next homestand. That unpredictability combined with its ubiquitous possibility make the notion of a no hitter so exciting for fans. Winning the World Series is hard. Even making the playoffs takes months of coordinated effort from roughly two dozen young men who play well enough independently and together for 162 games to win more games than four other geographically proximate teams. A perfect game takes one man rocking and rolling for two and a half hours. A no hitter could break out in late August between two 60-win clubs. Hell, Dock Ellis once threw a no hitter while tripping on acid.

There is simply no way of knowing. It’s comforting to think that Cleveland’s current pitching pedigree puts them in prime position to finally throw a no hitter or perfect game.  However, if Barker taught us anything it’s that perfection can come from the unlikeliest of places.