Last night, I watched Francisco Liriano throw the first no-hitter of 2011 as the Twins beat the White Sox, 1-0. As a Twins fan, I've seen probably a dozen games, maybe more, in which Liriano has looked better than he did in this one. He threw 123 pitches, and missed the strike zone with 57 of them (plus however many the Sox hitters chased). He walked six batters, tying his career high. He struck out only two -- a career low for any start in which he's gone more than six and a third -- and was bailed out by a stunning running catch by Denard Span in left-center early in the game, as well as several other uncharacteristically good defensive plays.
Don't get me wrong, I was very happy to see it -- after pitching as well as anyone in 2010 and getting only a 3.62 ERA and 14 wins to show for it, it was exactly the sort of thing he deserved -- but there's just no way around the fact that Liriano was much, much more lucky than good last night.
It got me wondering: what were the "worst" no-hitters in history?
It's not a question we can answer very easily. Baseball-Reference's game finder only goes back to 1919 (which, as amazing as that is, leaves out 43 years of NL ball). And that gives you only box scores, which (for the most part) don't include things like ground ball, fly ball or line drive rates. You could probably find next-day newspaper stories of most of them, but you're talking about hours upon hours of extra work for a pretty questionable return, since most beat writers after a no-hitter has already taken place are going to be likely to portray it as something of a masterpiece, no matter what.
So all we've really got is strikeouts and walks. Which also means that we have two variables, and that all this really is is me looking at this list and picking out games that stick out as being particularly unimpressive. Nonetheless, in honor of those six walks, here's a list of six no-hitters that might be the six "worst" of the last 92 seasons:
6. Ken Holtzman, August 19, 1969
Holtzman issued only three walks in his nine hitless innings against the Braves -- and to his credit, it was a lineup that featured Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda and the very dangerous Rico Carty -- but he didn't strike out a single batter, depending almost entirely on his defense (led by Ron Santo at third, Don Kessinger at short and Ernie Banks at first) to get the job done. Of course, just keeping the ball in the yard at Wrigley, and in a year in which Aaron hit 44 of them, is something.
5. Johnny Vander Meer, July 15, 1938
You often hear about Vander Meer and his incredibly unlikely feat of having thrown two consecutive no-hitters, but you're not often told that he walked eleven guys in those two games, eight of them coming in this, the second of the two. He did also rack up seven strikeouts (compared to his three walks and only four strikeouts in no-hitter number one), but still, it wasn't nearly the dominant kind of performance I'd always assumed it was.
4. Bobo Holloman, May 6, 1953
I hate to kick the Browns when they're down, which is forever and always, but Holloman was pitching at home against the A's, who would go on to lose 95 games and had exactly one significantly above average hitter (Gus Zernial, whose .284 batting average that year would be second to Dave Philley's .303). I'm sure there have been better candidates to be no-hit in MLB history, but the 1953 A's were a good one, and Holloman did it while walking five and striking out only three.
3. Francisco Liriano, May 3, 2011
Yep. I think this is about right. Two strikeouts, six walks. The exact reverse of that would be kind of "meh," as no-hitters go.
2a. Edwin Jackson, June 25, 2010
This is an edit because moments after this went up, approximately a thousand people (or four or so) immediately asked "what about Edwin Jackson"? And while the truth is that there are a dozen games that are at least a little like this that probably deserve mention on a much longer list, so leaving one of them off here shouldn't be too surprising, it's also the case that Jackson's was so iffy that on closer inspection, it really belongs on this list. Eight walks and a HBP, against six strikeouts. He even walked the bases loaded before recording an out in the third inning. And he threw 26 more pitches than Liriano (his opponent last night, as it happens) did. I'd say this one was just slightly worse.
2. Lefty Chambers, May 6, 1951
Chambers shut down a team with some pretty good hitters (including Walker Cooper and Earl Torgeson), but he also walked eight of them while striking out only four. He walked Torgeson three times and leadoff hitter Roy Hartfield twice, he threw a wild pitch, and he was helped out by being given two of his 27 outs as sacrifice bunts, one of only two times in history (since 1919, anyway) that a team has recorded more than one sacrifice while being no-hit.
1. A.J. Burnett, May 12, 2001
His seven strikeouts seem high for this spot, but look at, well, everything else. He had a very similar pitch count and strike/ball ratio to Liriano's, but he managed to walk nine men, and hit a batter. He (and catcher Charles Johnson, who was typically very good) also permitted three stolen bases. His stuff must have been awfully good when he got it over the plate, and it's pretty impressive that he did all that in "only" 129 pitches. But then, he was also facing the following lineup: Rickey Henderson (age 42), Mark Kotsay, Ryan Klesko, Dave Magadan, Ben Davis, Bubba Trammell, Damian Jackson, Donaldo Mendez (who?), and pitcher Wascar Serrano (who?). If you looked at each of those guys individually vis-a-vis Burnett (who at the time was just 24 and about an average pitcher), an oh-fer would probably seem like the most likely result. It's still incredibly unlikely that that actually would be the result for all of them, but of course that's always the case, and of all the dozens of games that have turned out that way, I think you'd have to conclude that this one was the worst pitching performance.