Henderson Alvarez threw a no-hitter, the fifth in Marlins history, yesterday. It was an amazing accomplishment, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. The four previous owners of no-hitters in Marlins history also had memorable times on the mound, but each went on to do good things in the future. Marlins fans have to be wondering if this harbors good things forthcoming for Alvarez as the Fish move on to 2014 and beyond.
Let' take a look at each of these old no-hitters and see how each pitcher's career developed since then.
Al Leiter (1996)
Prior to the 1996 season, Al Leiter was just another aging guy who was signed as a free agent by the Fish before that season. He was expected to fill a prominent role in the rotation, but he had a career 4.35 ERA and significant issues with walks (career 13.2 percent walk rate) before that season.
Of course, in 1996, Leiter turned it up a notch and was very good for the entire campaign, throwing 215 1/3 innings of 2.93 ERA and 3.97 FIP ball. He ended the season with an All-Star appearance (one of two of his career) and a ninth-place showing in the Cy Young voting. But he still had walk problems (13.3 percent walk rate) and even his no-hitter involved four walks with just six strikeouts.
However, maybe his time in Miami was a springboard for success. When he was traded to the New York Mets, he suddenly began taking control of his walk problems. He walked just 9.0 percent of batters faced in 1998, and went on to post a 3.68 ERA and 4.03 FIP for the remainder of his career. He had a difficult 1997 season with the championship-winning Marlins, but after arriving as a Met, he walked just 10 percent of batters faced while maintaining his usual 18.7 percent strikeout rate.
After Leiter's no-hitter, it seemed like he became a better pitcher, even at the older age of 29. But that does not tell us much about Alvarez, as Alvarez's game differs drastically from Leiter. While both pitchers were similarly mediocre, Leiter was older and his ascent far less likely.
Kevin Brown (1997)
Kevin Brown, like Leiter, was a decent pitcher who signed with the Marlins in 1996 and got better. Of course, Brown went from passable to elite, having posted the best pitcher season by a Marlin in history in 1996. The 1997 no-hitter was only a part of the dominant 1997 season he had, as Brown threw 237 1/3 innings and posted a 2.69 and 2.94 FIP.
After a pair of dominant campaigns, Brown went on to have his best season of his career with the San Diego Padres before signing a landmark $100 million-plus contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. For three seasons, he remained one of the best pitchers on the planet. Then an arm injury suffered in 2002 limited his effectiveness in future seasons, and three years later he retired. In 1335 innings after the 1997 season that had the no-hitter, he posted a 3.07 ERA and 3.09 FIP,
By the time Brown threw his no-hitter, he had already turned into an elite pitcher. Despite a solid 2013, Alvarez is not even close to elite yet.
A.J. Burnett (2001)
Burnett may be the closest comparison to Alvarez in terms of experience in the majors before his no-hitter. Burnett was just in his first full season (third overall year) in the majors when the no-hitter happened in 2001; he was only 24 in the no-hitter season, compared to Alvarez being 23 in 2013. By that point, he was still a raw pitcher who, like Leiter, struggled with walks (11.8 percent). But he was a former top prospect (20th-ranked prospect heading into 2000 by Baseball America) and was still well-considered as he was given the reins to a rotation spot.
Burnett's no-hitter was infamous because he walked nine hitters while striking out just seven, and to this day it remains one of the more ugly no-hitters in history. Nevertheless, it happened, and directly afterward it seemed Burnett turned on the jets and became a good pitcher. He threw 204 1/3 innings of 3.30 ERA and 3.19 FIP, good for a four-plus win season by most measures in 2002. He missed almost all of 2003 with injury, but came back in the next two years with similar results. Overall, he threw 556 1/3 innings with the Marlins by 2005 and posted a 3.49 ERA with an improved 9,7 percent walk rate and 23.1 percent strikeout rate.
But like Leiter, his ceiling remains higher than Alvarez's because of his elite strikeout stuff. Burnett was also something of a groundball artist (50.4 percent career groundball rate) who has only gotten better at that over the years. However, he also went through a series of rough seasons that were questionable due to poor effort or other possible "intagible" reasons for his struggles. Overall, since 2002, Burnett has posted a 3.96 ERA and 3.77 FIP in 2056 1/3 innings. A future like this would be nice for Alvarez, but it is less likely because his skillset does not match Burnett's.
Anibal Sanchez (2006)
Sanchez was a rookie when he threw his no-hitter, making his the most unexpected of no-hitters until yesterday. He was the same age as Burnett when he threw a no-hitter, and like Burnett, he was suffering from some issues with control. Early in his career, he did not show off the impressive strikeout rates or ground ball numbers that Burnett did either, so it felt as though Sanchez had a lower ceiling than Burnett. In that sense, he is more similar to Alvarez.
But after two aborted seasons dealing with his torn labrum injury, Sanchez came back and was a completely different pitcher. His velocity increased and was up to around 92 on average. He started striking out hitters and he drastically cut down on the walks. When he was back for good in 2010 after those injury-racked years, he went on to post an strong 3.43 ERA and 3.16 FIP, making him one of the better pitchers since 2010 (sixth in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement).
Does Alvarez fit the mold with Sanchez? Sanchez was never a ground ball guy and outside of his rookie year, he did not often struggle with strikeouts. His rookie season was similar to that of Alvarez's, but outside of that, Sanchez appears to not be similar to Alvarez either.
None of the pitchers who threw no-hitters for Miami offer much insight as to what the future holds for Alvarez. And indeed, throwing a no-hitter itself proves to be no predictor of success. For every Kevin Brown or Anibal Sanchez, there are many more Bud Smith, Dallas Braden, or Jonathan Sanchez types who run into no-hitters but otherwise have uninteresting careers. Essentially, throwing a no-hitter is often more associated with successful pitchers like the ones the Marlins have had, but it is no sure-fire way to success. Marlins fans should not count on Alvarez somehow being elite in 2014.