Like almost never before, baseball games are much ado about nothing. That's nothing as in shutouts, as in no runs scored by one team, as in the kind of baseball made famous by Walter Johnson, who threw his last pitch 84 years ago.
There have been 72 shutouts thrown already this season, a pace that would leave baseball with more shutouts this year than in any year but two: 1968 and 1972, when offense was so putrid Major League Baseball changed its rules both times to inject more scoring into the game. It lowered the mound in 1969 and added the designated hitter in 1973.
Expansion has brought about far more games overall, of course, but your chances of seeing a shutout are greater now than in any of the 14 seasons with 30 clubs. Here are some of the shutout trends of 2011:
• When Justin Verlander of Detroit threw his no-hitter Saturday, it was just one of a half dozen shutouts on that one day.
• The White Sox shut out the Angels on Monday night, 8-0, marking the 11th straight day with at least one shutout in the majors.
• The Padres have been shut out eight times in their first 35 games, putting them on pace to shatter the record for a 162-game season: 30 by the 1963 Mets.
• At current rates, for the first time since 1992 you will see teams get shut out more times than they score 10 runs.
What in the name of the Big Train -- he of the record 110 shutouts and the 38-26 record in 1-0 games alone -- is going on in baseball? By now you know that baseball turned a corner last year, when the glamour of six no-hitters, including two perfect games, gave rise to the label of Year of the Pitcher. Offense was dialed back to 1993 levels. This season not only is a validation of that season, but also the suggestion that -- unless rules changes are put in place - we may have entered an entirely new era in which pitching and defense continue to take back ground lost during The Steroid Era. The pitching duel has replaced the slugfest.
Testing for performance-enhancing drugs (in place with penalties in the majors since 2004 and in the minors since 2001) and amphetamines (2006) has been an important factor in the decline of offense, though it is just one of several ingredients, including bigger ballparks, the humidor at Coors Field in Denver and most especially a long-overdue cycle of premier young pitching.
Said Giants manager Bruce Bochy, "I know this: I brought one of my middle relievers in the other day, Dan Runzler, and he was throwing 97. There are a lot of power arms in the game right now."
Moreover, just as the onset of drug testing helped suck more than a thousand home runs out of the game in 10 years, teams gained better ways to measure and evaluate defense, leading to a renewed emphasis on defensive skills.
As one GM said to me by text, "Look at all the teams choosing the better fielder, the weaker bat, over the better bat, weaker fielder. Those roster and playing time decisions hurt offense two ways: less ABs to good hitters and better defenses."
Entering this week, teams turned balls in play into outs 70.1 percent of the time -- the best rate of defensive efficiency since 1992. Watching baseball in 2011 is like watching species come off the endangered list: the ballhawk centerfielder (eight teams have an OBP under .300 out of centerfield), the little middle infielder (eight teams don't have more than one home run out of the second base position; 15 of them are equally power-challenged at shortstop), the catch-and-throw backstop (AL average for catchers: .220), etc.
When pitching and defense operate at peak efficiency, you get that eternal symbol of deadball era baseball: the shutout. Nobody is suggesting we're back to 1908, when shutouts were so common Ed Reulbach threw one in both ends of a doubleheader, or even back to wartime, in 1944, when Red Barrett of the Boston Braves shut out Cincinnati with just 58 pitches (two singles, no walks, no strikeouts) in a game that took just 75 minutes. No, but if you compare this season simply to 1999, at the height of The Steroid Era, shutouts are up 75 percent.
Consider the flip side to the shutout: the 10-run game. In 2000, teams scored 10 or more runs 571 times. At this year's rate, teams will score 10 runs only 253 times, or not even half as many times as they did 11 years ago.
There has been only one game this season when a team scored 10 runs and lost. It happened 40 times in 2000.
Take a look at this: the year-by-year number of times teams scored no runs and 10 runs or more:
Francisco Liriano of Minnesota never had thrown a complete game, let alone a shutout, in his professional life until he threw his no-hitter on May 3. Truth be told, Liriano's no-hitter hardly was a gem. It said as much about the futility of the White Sox's offense as the stuff he brought to the mound that night.
But that's baseball in 2011; Major League Baseball is littered with terrible offensive teams, especially San Diego, Washington, San Francisco, Minnesota, Oakland and Seattle. The Twins and Mariners, for instance, are below-average offensive teams by 1968 standards.
On one day recently, the number three hitters around baseball included Jay Gibbons, Marlon Byrd, Mike Fontenot, Matt Diaz, Yunel Escobar, Johnny Damon, Placido Polanco and Maicier Izturis -- so just imagine what the bottom of those batting orders looked like.
The return of the shutout sure looks like the canary in the coal mine, a sign that the climate has changed. A trend has dawned, and the question -- even assuming the 2.2 percent drop in attendance so far gives no bother to commissioner Bud Selig -- is whether baseball will let it play out or intervene.
In the meantime, The Great Runs Recession means fewer blowouts and a narrower gap between the worst teams in baseball and the best. On Tuesday morning 21 of the 30 teams were within five games of .500, and every one of them was no worse than 7 ½ games out of a playoff spot. Now that's at least something.