Pitching is making a comeback -- but the question is: Why?
What's next? Vuvuzelas at the ballpark? So thoroughly have pitchers put their imprint on the 2010 season that it has become difficult to tell a Cubs-White Sox game from a France-Uruguay match, except, for the time being, anyway, those incessant noisemakers that only make soccer more unwatchable for Americans.
The Cubs-Sox game on Sunday night stood nil-nil through six -- that's hit totals, folks, not just runs. The duel between
The Cubs won, 1-0. It was the 19th game this year in which only one run was scored -- on pace for the most 1-0 games since 1992.
What in the name of Mr. Fister (that would be Doug, he of the 2.45 ERA for Seattle, and not the soundalike '80s band) is going on in baseball? Pitchers have rolled back offense to early 1990s levels -- almost two decades, two expansions and a Steroid Era ago. Most key league indicators (runs per game, batting average, home runs) haven't been this low in a full season since 1992 or 1993.
(Standard disclaimer here: offense might always pick up in the hotter summer months -- except last year in the NL it didn't; it went down. So who knows?)
Here's what we do know: With about 40 percent of the season played, the rise of pitching has been the biggest storyline of the year. Already we have seen three no-hitters, including two perfect games, not including what should have been a third perfect game but for a blown call on the 27th out. We have seen
This week began with 25 pitchers sporting an ERA under 3.00. No one expects that many to finish the season under 3.00, but here's some perspective: Last year only 11 pitchers went sub-three. In 2007 there was only one such pitcher. Suppose only 14 pitchers out of the current 25 finish the year below 3.00; that would still be the most since 1992.
It's not quite The Year of the Pitcher, not as long as we have 1968, which was for pitching what 1998 was for Winstrol. But it is The Year Pitching Returned. If it is a trend in baseball, of course, then it must be explained, and for the American-trained mind, the fewer explanations the better -- as in one.
But the major leagues began testing in 2003 and with firm penalties in 2006. And only now is the testing program depressing offense? And what, no pitchers were juicing back then? The PED cleanup is a factor, but not as great as you might think.
And the more attention we pay to these random, big events, the more we want to believe that something big is going on. And then we notice the near no-nos more, too. Starting on May 9, there were seven no-hitters or one-hitters in a 32-day span -- as many as occurred in the 2008 or 2009 seasons.
The biggest problem with hitting, however, is the ineptitude of four teams: the Mariners, Astros, Orioles and Pirates. They are putrid. All four of those teams are scoring no better than 3.51 runs per game. We haven't seen
Of course, maybe they'll get better. Or not. In any case, here is some perspective about how things have changed: the 2000 Phillies were the worst scoring team in baseball 10 years ago. Today they would be better than 11 teams.
Of the eight pitchers to throw a no-hitter or one-hitter this year, seven are in their 20s (Jimenez,
Likewise, five of the top six ERAs in baseball belong to homegrown starters in their 20s (Jimenez,
And then there is Strasburg, whose development began with coach
• Prior exceeded 123 pitches 12 times in his first 52 starts (postseason included), including six times in his last nine starts of 2003, when the Cubs pushed him 67 innings beyond his previous threshold. He hasn't pitched since 2006 because of arm problems.
• Wood averaged 109 pitches per start at age 21, exceeding 120 pitches eight times -- and then broke down with arm trouble.
• Gooden averaged 257 innings a year from ages 19-21, then broke down with drug issues and arm problems.
• Valenzuela was 99-68 with a 2.94 ERA and 84 complete games in 200 starts from age 19 through 25 . Arm weary, he went 74-85 with a 4.25 ERA over the rest of his career.
• Fidrych threw 24 complete games in 29 starts as a 21-year-old rookie, suffered shoulder problems the next season and was never the same.
• Spooner threw 270 pitches in his first two games, both shutouts. He pitched one more season before he was finished due to arm problems.
None of that treatment would happen today. Given the informed manner in which he will be treated, Strasburg is nothing like those six.
A great generation of aces aged and washed out of the game in recent years, including pitchers such as
But if you are a major league owner, you might not be so enthralled with what this year portends. Outside of the rare phenom like Strasburg, pitching doesn't sell. Attendance is down three percent this year, and that's coming off a down year last year. Across general baseball history, spikes in attendance have dovetailed with planned spikes in offense (introduction of the live ball, the lowering of the mound, the DH, expansion, smaller ballpark boom, etc.).
Like it or not, though, pitching is the story of the season.