Baseball is a game of balance between the batter's box and the pitcher's mound. Because that balance is so delicate, the history of the game is often marked by gradual tilts toward one side or the other resulting in several distinct periods of high or low run scoring. Thus far, 2010 looks like a year in which the balance has tilted decidedly in favor of pitching, but that hasn't been a sudden change. The major leagues as a whole have been trending back toward pitching and defense in the wake of the offensive explosion of the late 1990s. Indeed, run scoring has decreased in each of the last four seasons from a high of 4.86 runs per game in 2006 to the current pace of 4.47 R/G (though with the hot summer months still to come, that current-year figure is likely to increase).
What follows are not the most pitching-dominated seasons in the game's history, as even if limited to the live-ball era (1920 to present), such a list would likely consist almost entirely of a clump of seasons from the late-1960s. Rather, it is a sample of five pitching-dominated seasons from the game's live-ball history determined not just by the overall run-scoring environment, but by the aggregation of top pitching performances within that year, starting with the obvious and proceeding with some that might get overlooked for one reason or another.
Any discussion of pitching-dominated seasons must begin with 1968, which was the Year of the Pitcher. In the entire history of major league baseball dating back to 1871, only one season saw fewer runs scored per game than the 3.42 of 1968, and that was the 3.38 of 1908, deep in the heart of the dead-ball era. In 1968, 49 qualifying pitchers had ERAs of below 3.00, still the most since 1917. Seven pitchers had ERAs below 2.00, still the most since 1919.
The signature numbers from 1968 are 31 and 1.12. The former was the number of wins -- against just six losses -- by 24-year-old righty
There were five no-hitters in 1968, including a perfect game by 22-year-old
There's not enough room to list all of the great individual pitching seasons from 1968, but worth special mention are National League Hall of Fame righties
In the AL, the Indians'
Amid all those great pitching performances, perhaps the most telling statistic of all was the .301 batting average with which
Pitching so dominated the game in 1968 that Major League Baseball lowered the pitchers mound prior to the 1969 season. There is a general assumption that the lowering of the mound put an end to the pitching dominance of the 1960s, but just four years later, pitching again wrested control of the game with a season in which just 3.69 runs were scored per game, the ninth-lowest scoring rate of all time and the second lowest since 1918 (after 1968, of course).
The signature performance of 1972 was that of
Forty-four pitchers posted an ERA below 3.00 in 1972, second only to 1968 since 1917. Four of those men finished with ERAs below 2.00, also second to 1968 in the live-ball era. Luis Tiant, who fell on hard times after his tremendous 1968 season, resurrected his career in the Red Sox's bullpen in 1972, then moved to the rotation in August and twirled six shutouts in his final 11 starts to lead the AL with a 1.91 ERA.
Including Carlton, Perry, and Ryan, nine Hall of Famers received Cy Young votes in 1972. The others were Tom Seaver (21-12, 2.92, 249 K's),
Best remembered as the season bifurcated by a players strike, 1981 was also a year dominated by pitching. The rate of run scoring in 1981 effectively ties it with 1976 as the toughest run-scoring year since 1972 (3.998 R/G in 1981 to 3.994 in 1976). There were two no-hitters five days apart in May, the latter a perfect game by the Indians'
Though the shortened season placed an artificial limit on win and strikeout totals (Tom Seaver and four American Leaguers led the majors with 14 wins, Seaver going 14-2 with a 2.54 ERA for the Reds and finishing a close second to Valenzuela in the Cy Young voting), the dominance of pitching in 1981 can be seen by looking at the season's ERA leaderboards, where 26 qualifiers finished with an ERA below 3.00, the most since 1972 and six more than in 1976. Among that number were Hall of Famers Seaver, Ryan, Steve Carlton, and Don Sutton, stars such as
On the heels of the hitting-heavy environment in the 1930s, the balance tipped decidedly in favor of pitching during the war years. That was never more true than in 1943, a season which saw the fewest runs scored per game between 1919 and 1968. The growing popularity of night baseball and the reduced quality of the ball itself due to the wartime demand on materials and manufacturing were factors, but nothing affected the lack of offense quite like the fact that roughly 500 players -- many of them hitters and among them four of the game's best hitters (
When the players returned in 1946, however, the pitchers still had the advantage, resulting in a rate of scoring comparable to 1981.
Just because offenses dominated in the late '90s doesn't mean there wasn't great pitching going on. Between the strike year of 1994, when 4.92 runs were scored per game, and 2000, when the era peaked with 5.14 runs scored per game (the most since 1936), 1997 represented a relative low point for run scoring with "just" 4.77 runs crossing the plate per contest. The sheer quantity of star pitching talent on display that season, the last before the most recent round of expansion and the homer-happy season of 1998
Start with the Braves' rotation headed by future Hall of Famers
In the American League, the Cy Young went to pitching triple crown winner