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After Corey Kluber’s no-no, who’s next?

A high strikeout rate and low expected batting average on contact are the keys to preventing a single hit on any particular night.

New York Yankees v Texas Rangers Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

With the historic preponderance of no-hitters already this season, there’s no question that MLB is due for another — and perhaps a few more. Still, considering the randomness inherent in recording 27 outs without allowing a base hit, it’s impossible to know who might next become a part of history.

Even so, taking under consideration the anatomy of a no-hitter — namely, a lack of hits — we can assume that the pitchers who allow hits at the lowest frequency ought to be among the most likely to earn the next no-no. While all hits in the pursuit of a no-hitter are created equal from no-doubt homers to Texas Leaguers, all outs are not. Poorly-struck bloops might have a worse chance of falling in than a smoked liner, but as all bloop beneficiaries have been told, “A hit’s a hit.”

Conversely, strikeouts are king when it comes to hit prevention. If a batter fails to put the ball in play, we can say with 100-percent certainty that they won’t record a hit. Broadly speaking, strikeouts evade randomness in a way that batted balls don’t. So when Clayton Kershaw was at the height of his powers in 2014, it was completely unsurprising to see him no-hit the Rockies with 15 K’s along the way:

Therefore, the pitchers who are most capable of racking up high-strikeout totals while generating the worst contact when batters do put balls in play ought to be the favorites to record the next no-hitter. K% informs exactly how often a pitcher strikes out batters, and xBACON tells us about the quality of contact he allows when batters make contact.

Some pitchers, like Shane Bieber this season, strike out batters at elite rates (35.5 K%), but get hit hard when they don’t (.371 xBACON). Others, like Zach Plesac, fail to fan hitters enough often enough (16.2 K%), but earn their keep by inducing tons of terrible contact (.286) — at least when they’re not suffering embarrassing injuries anyway. A pitcher is most likely to go an entire game without allowing a hit when he’s doing both at an elite level.

When graphing 2021 qualified pitchers’ K% against their xBACON, those on the upper left have displayed the qualities of pitching a no-hitter with the greatest consistency this season. Specifically, Freddy Peralta and Trevor Bauer have been the two best qualified pitchers in baseball at both striking batters out and preventing hard contact.

However, Peralta has struggled to keep his pitch counts down while working through games, only reaching the seventh in one of his nine starts despite exceeding 90 pitches five times. If Peralta were in the position to complete a no-no, he may very well be given the freedom to attempt to do so. That being said, having little experience remaining sharp past the century mark could limit his effectiveness in the final frames.

Bauer is a better candidate, given his ability to go deeper into games. Just this season, he has comfortably reached six innings in all but one of his ten starts, cleared at least seven three times, and finished eight once. Across his 10-year career, he’s pitched three nine-inning complete games. Seemingly able to fire bullets all day long without fear of an IL stint, Bauer has thrown as many as 126 pitches this season, reached 100 six times, and hasn’t thrown fewer than 90. Also, Bauer’s peripherals this season closely match those of last year, suggesting that his steady improvements are no fluke. Given his ease in throwing his hardest while notching high-inning totals — along with his extended track record of dominance — Bauer is one of the more likely active pitchers to throw a no-hitter in 2021.

When loosening the requirements for a qualified pitcher on this season’s chart to just 100 plate appearances, two names actually rise above the rest:

Jacob deGrom and Corbin Burnes have been so good this season that they basically shift the entire chart down below them. They each have strikeout rates more than five percentage points better than Peralta or Bauer’s despite marginally inferior xBACONs. deGrom has occasionally battled nicks and bruises in the past few seasons, but he has been far and away the best starting pitcher in baseball. For a proof of concept, deGrom once twirled a one-hit complete game shutout where the only knock came on a bleeder up the middle by the opposing pitcher, Zach Eflin.

With a refurbished arsenal based on his jacked-up cutter usage, Corbin Burnes has been the only other arm in deGrom’s stratosphere. He spent a spell on the COVID-19 list, preventing him from reaching the innings limit to qualify for current leaderboards, but he’s come back just as strong as before, throwing a pair of stellar starts since returning. If anyone is dominant enough to open the door to a the possibility of a no-hitter, these two fit the bill.

By considering a pitcher’s body of work beyond just the first part of this season, a few other names merit temperate consideration, including the Yankees’ own Gerrit Cole. The same tendency that allows the ace to pitch deep into games — his penchant for attacking the zone early and often — occasionally bites him. While Cole has maintained one of the game’s best strikeout rates in each of the past three seasons, he has done so while being hit harder than some of the aforementioned names. His 2019 season is the farthest to the right of the three dots highlighted in red, with this season just below to its left, and 2020 below it:

To a similar effect, even though he hasn’t been as good this year, Bieber’s ceiling is plenty high enough to be capable of throwing a no-no. Acknowledging the caveats of the shortened 2020, he posted the highest single-season strikeout rate of the past three years during his Cy Young Award-winning campaign:

Max Scherzer is another candidate to repeat the feat, given the fact that he’s obviously proven capable on multiple occasions, and has yet to show signs of decline despite approaching age 37. Scherzer is one of two active pitchers to record at least 18 strikeouts in a nine-inning game, the other being recent no-hit artist Corey Kluber himself, though the Klubot did so before his shoulder injuries.

Since throwing a no-hitter is by definition an aberrant event where dominance and luck collide on a single night, it’s more important to have an astronomically high ceiling than a consistently elevated floor. Nolan Ryan has more than double the no-hitters of any pitcher outside of Sandy Koufax, but the all-time leader in strikeouts and walks was occasionally too wild to pitch up to his full potential in any particular start. His lack of consistent control prevented him from ever winning a Cy Young despite leading the majors in strikeouts per nine innings 10 times, and hits per nine innings 11 times.

Nonetheless, Ryan’s obscene no-hitter record shows just how much more valuable peak performance is than reliability when it comes to making history. Burnes, deGrom, and Bauer are probably the most likely current candidates to next join the no-hit roll call, but as most fans know, if a pitcher is at the very top of his game on a given night, sometimes being Wade Miley is good enough.