The Year of the Pitcher (Again)

In 1968, baseball was grappling with an unfamiliar offensive environment and trying to figure out the most reasonable solutions. Sound familiar?
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Imagine that MLB’s batting average is at an all-time low. Imagine that there are concerns about the rise of the strikeout, about the entertainment value of the game, about the balance of power between pitching and hitting. And imagine one key thing—imagine that this is not actually about baseball right now in 2021, but about baseball the last time it looked like this, in 1968.

Imagine that people are starting to see this offensive environment as a problem. What do you call it?

This may not seem like such an important question—solving the problem, after all, tends to be much bigger than simply naming it. But to name a problem is often to take the first step toward figuring it out; a name can offer specificity and context and a sense of where you are. So in the early summer of 1968, with baseball stuck in a situation similar to the one it finds itself in now, the sport attempted to name its problem.

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The patterns in question weren’t exactly new. By 1968, batting average and scoring had been dropping for several years, while strikeouts had been rising. But these trends had picked up the pace to approach records in the first few weeks of the season, and a concern that had previously been simmering reached a roiling, contentious boil. The New York Times dedicated its lead baseball column on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend to diagnosing just what was going on.

“Baseball’s dominant controversy this year has centered on low-scoring games,” read the opening line of the piece. “What has happened to the hitters? Are the pitchers really all so terrific? Is it a temporary condition or a real trend? What can, or should, be done to change matters?”

It went on to note that scoring was even lower than it had been in the Deadball Era. An accompanying graph showed batting average tumbling to a record low. Fans, it seemed, were growing tired of the lack of offense: “A shutout as a special event is exciting; as a steady diet, it is soporific.” The Times did not attempt to give a specific name to the season, other than the first line’s mention of “low-scoring games,” but it made its perspective clear: The problem was that hitters simply were not scoring enough runs.

A few weeks later, Sports Illustrated examined the subject in a cover story, and this time, there were some more pointed suggestions about what to call the season. On the cover, the year was deemed “The Hitting Famine,” framed by a scoreboard studded with goose eggs. Inside the magazine, the author of the piece, William Leggett, made his own guess as to what it should be called: “Historians ... will probably refer to 1968 as the season of the zero hero.”

A third of the way into the season, MLB had already seen 123 shutouts, or half the number that it typically expected to see in a full year. Of the games played up to that point, 55% had resulted in at least one team scoring a single run or fewer. Leggett was playing with the same basic idea that had been seen in the Times—the idea that baseball was experiencing a remarkable dearth of runs. But he twisted the framing just a bit. Instead of focusing on the hitters who kept coming up short, he gave the credit to the pitchers who were holding them down, the “zero heroes.”

Legget’s name for the year didn’t stick. Yet the idea behind it did. The 1968 season is still known as the “Year of the Pitcher”—which, to be fair, might sound more like an honor that was bestowed than a problem that had to be solved. But it was both. It’s certainly true that pitchers deserved the credit for their historic performance in 1968. (Bob Gibson? Denny McLain? The year of the pitcher indeed.) But it’s also true that a sport makes a commitment of sorts when it goes along with a singular, grandiose title like “Year of the Pitcher”—if there’s any chance that a season could be simply a year of the pitcher, rather than the Year of the Pitcher, there’s no point to the name. And MLB did not leave that up to chance. After ’68, it lowered the pitching mound and shrunk the strike zone for ’69, trying to ensure that this offensive environment would never happen again. Because how could there be another season with a name like the Year of the Pitcher?

There was no answer to that question for more than half a century. But now? This is how; 2021 is the Year of the Pitcher: Part II.

Bob Gibson had perhaps the greatest pitching season ever in 1968. His 1.12 ERA that year is the best single-season mark for a starting pitcher over the last 100 years.

Bob Gibson's 1968 season is considered by many to be the greatest ever for a starting pitcher. His 1.12 ERA that year is the best single-season mark for a starter over the last 100 years.

The league batting average is the lowest that it’s ever been. (It’s currently .236: juuuust below the .237 that sparked so much anxiety in 1968.) While scoring remains healthy enough, due to the rate of home runs, strikeouts are at an all-time high. The ball is put in play less than ever; 36.2% of plate appearances now end in one of the three true outcomes: strikeouts, walks and home runs. Baseball has never looked quite like this before. But it has been in a somewhat similar situation—grappling with an unfamiliar offensive environment and trying to figure out the most reasonable solutions.

Like in 1968, the current trends have not come out of nowhere; they represent patterns that have been going on for a few years. Like in ’68, those old trends have suddenly reached new, worrisome heights. And like in ’68, this subject is dominating baseball discourse, even so relatively early in the year. By mid-May, the Boston Globe, San Diego Union-Tribune and The Athletic had all dubbed this another “Year of the Pitcher.”

The situations aren’t exactly the same; even though the league batting averages are nearly identical, the lack of scoring was seen as the primary issue in 1968, while the rate of strikeouts takes that role now. But there’s still some considerable overlap between the underlying causes. Here’s the Kansas City Star on what might have been causing the situation in ’68:

"Why the decline in hitting? No one seems to know for sure, but there are many theories: improved pitching instruction, the widespread use of the spitter, better infields which help the defense, better gloves, and an increase in night games. ... An 11-man pitching staff is quite common these days and some managers will use five and six pitchers a game. The complete game has become unusual.”

Other than the "increase in night games” off the list, there’s some 2021 variation of just about everything else. Pitching has grown increasingly specialized; the potential use of illegal substances is in the spotlight as the league tries to crack down; defense has improved thanks to shifts and other strategic positioning; 11-man pitching staffs now sound quaint in an age of 13-plus pitchers per roster. That all adds up to pitchers’ limiting batters to the fewest hits per game in more than a century—which has brought a slew of early-season no-hitters. As was the case in 1968, the game’s best pitchers today are having career years: Jacob deGrom (0.71 ERA), Gerrit Cole (1.78), Yu Darvish (2.16). But joining the usual suspects atop the leaderboards is a group of relative unknowns, including Trevor Rogers of the Marlins, Kyle Gibson of the Rangers and Adam Civale of Cleveland. Wade Miley and Spencer Turnbull are among the six pitchers to throw no-hitters so far this year.

Marlins lefthander Trevor Rogers has been one of the best pitchers in baseball over the first two months of the season.

Marlins lefthander Trevor Rogers has been one of the best pitchers in baseball over the first two months of the season.

Some changes have already been suggested—like moving the mound back, which MLB will test later this summer in the Atlantic League, or capping the number of pitchers on a roster, which was supposed to happen before the pandemic. There are some that are more drastic, others less, and some pushback to the idea of any changes at all. Which is another mirror of 1968.

MLB did not make the decision to lower the mound and shrink the strike zone until December 1968—which meant baseball had all summer and fall to toss around suggestions about how to move forward. This led to some ideas that feel just as reasonable in 2021 as they did in 1968 and some that would have felt just as unreasonable all along.

California Angels third baseman and future manager Jim Fregosi proposed the opposite of a mound: pitch out of holes in the ground. (He unfortunately did not provide a visual aid to go with this idea.) Bill Veeck, the former team owner, suggested changing the requirement for a walk to three balls instead of four. Braves vice president Paul Richards said the mound should be moved back two feet; the proposal currently on the table is to move the mound back by just a foot. Dodgers reliever Jim Brewer bristled at the idea of anything that would force pitchers to adjust, like changing the mound, and advised that hitters simply try harder: “The hitters are just going to have to start working harder. Today’s pitchers are just putting in more time at their trade than today’s hitters.” And Angels bench coach Don Heffner had the radical idea of dropping the 25-man roster to 20—thereby limiting the number of pitchers a team would be able to carry.

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There were also those who pushed back against change at all—everyone from pitchers who were concerned about giving up their performance edge to die-hard traditionalists who were loath to mess with the structure of the game. But even with these holdouts, everyone seemed to realize the offensive environment was damaged enough that the discussion was important, and no idea was off limits—even pitching out of a hole in the ground. Ultimately, at the general managers’ meeting in November, executives came up with five suggestions to send to the Official Playing Rules Committee to make a final call on in December. They were as follows: 1) lower the mound; 2) shrink the strike zone; 3) institute a 20-second pitch clock; 4) allow an umpire to “declare illegal any pitch suspected, because of the flight of the ball, of having an illegal substance on it”; 5) designate a minor league to be a spot to try out other new rules in the future.

In other words: the two things that the league actually did in 1968, followed by one that is currently being tested and two others that were put in place just now in 2021. This conversation might feel fresh. But it certainly isn’t new.

While these suggestions were flying through the summer and the fall of 1968, the season was already being identified as the Year of the Pitcher, a name to the problem the discourse hoped to solve. What appears to be the first prominent use of the term that year came from an Associated Press headline on June 4—a week after the New York Times piece about the “controversy centered on low-scoring games” but two weeks before SI’s cover story declaring it the “season of the zero hero.” The name didn’t really take off, however, until a little more than a month later.

The National League won the All-Star Game on July 9 by a score of (what else?) 1–0. It was widely commented on as an example of all that was either right or wrong with baseball—a game that perfectly captured the zeitgeist. “Pitchers dominated the game as they have all season,” said NL manager and Hall of Fame second baseman Red Schoendienst. “There was great pitching on all sides, but that’s the way it has been all year,” said AL manager Dick Williams. The players’ quotes struck a similar note—including one that stood out.

“It seems like this is the year of the pitcher,” said Dodgers starter Don Drysdale, the winner from the game, in what appears to be the first example of a player calling the season by the name that would soon become its own. But the second part of his quote was just as important as the first.

“This thing,” he said, “seems to run in cycles.”

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