Once upon a time, sluggers ruled baseball. Powerful hitters dazzled fans with 500-foot home runs that turned ballparks into bandboxes, filled box scores with eye-popping stats, and terrorized pitchers.
But the days of hitting and offense dominating the game are gone. Pitchers rule now. Major League Baseball's great gunslingers, with their 100-mph fastballs, video game curveballs, and Bugs Bunny changeups, have become the showstoppers. Last season was filled with highlights from the mound: from Josh Beckett's no-hitter in May — the first of five 2014 no-nos (five!) — to Clayton Kershaw's year for the ages to the superhuman feats of Madison Bumgarner, who in October single-handedly carried the Giants to their third World Series title in five seasons with a masterful performance.
As the curtain opens on a new season, baseball's biggest story lines — no surprise — center around its aces. In the nation's capital, the Nationals, with the addition of 2013 AL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, have assembled an all-universe rotation that positions Washington as the World Series favorite. In Chicago, the Cubs added a new ace, former Red Sox and A's lefthander Jon Lester, who will try to lead the resurrection of a once-proud franchise that hasn't won a championship since 1908. And out West, the Padres made a splash with the off-season's most dramatic roster overhaul, one headlined by the addition of free agent starter James Shields, who last year helped the Royals to their first postseason appearance in 29 years. He will be tasked with taking San Diego to the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade.
Pitching is now king, and elite starters have become the most valuable players in the game. The aces aren't the only ones who are thriving, though: Last year major league pitchers allowed the fewest total runs since 1981, posted the lowest ERA since '89, amassed the most strikeouts in history, the lowest walk rate since '68, and held hitters to their lowest collective batting average and on-base percentage since '72.
Dominant pitching was also a big theme of the 2014 postseason. Consider the two surprise World Series teams, the Giants and Royals: San Francisco, without an overpowering lineup (no player hit more than 22 home runs during the regular season), steamrolled the competition with its deep pitching staff. So did the AL champion Royals, who had no 20-homer hitters on their roster but instead won all year long with pitching and defense. It's no wonder that clubs around the league, following those two teams' winning blueprint, invested heavily in pitching this winter. Scherzer, Lester, and Shields, the most prized free-agent players available, created big bidding wars among teams, and even relievers like David Robertson (who signed a four-year, $46 million contract with the White Sox) and Andrew Miller (four years, $36 million with the Yankees) landed monster deals with teams hoping to hoist the 2015 championship trophy.
BREAKING DOWN A TREND
What's going on? Why the power shift in the game? You could point to a number of reasons for the change: a stronger testing program for performance-enhancing drugs; more advanced scouting reports for pitchers because of the rise of statistical analysis; an increase in defensive shifts that help make the fielding behind pitchers better; the popular use of a new mainstream pitch — the cutter — that is befuddling hitters; and bigger and stronger pitchers who are now throwing harder than ever.
But there may be one very simple explanation as to why pitchers have the upper hand. "There are just a lot of really, really great pitchers right now," Pirates centerfielder and 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen says. "You can search for as many explanations as you want. But as a hitter, you just tip your cap."
Two of the game's great aces happen to reside in the same division and in the same state, and they will go head to head in one of the most heated rivalries of the season. Kershaw and Bumgarner, both lefthanders who are trying to help their teams win the NL West crown, are two of the most compelling players of 2015. Kershaw, leading an impressive Dodgers rotation that includes Zack Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu, is coming off four straight major league ERA titles.
Before the 2014 season, Kershaw inked the largest contract ever for a pitcher, a seven-year, $215 million deal. He lived up to expectations, tossing the first no-hitter of his career in June (he struck out 15 and didn't walk a batter in arguably the most dominant start of the year) and going 21--3 with a 1.77 ERA on the season. He also became the first man in 46 years to win both the NL Cy Young and NL MVP awards. It's hard to imagine Kershaw topping last season, but this year, the 27-year-old looks to raise his game even more: After two straight playoff series losses to the St. Louis Cardinals in which he pitched poorly, Kershaw seeks redemption.
The Giants' chances of fending off the Dodgers and winning a second straight World Series rest on the golden arm of Bumgarner, who emerged as a star last October. During the postseason, he pitched a total of 52 2/3 innings with a 1.03 ERA. It was a breathtaking run that began with nine shutout innings in the NL wild card game against the Pirates and was bookended with a jaw-dropping five shutout innings of relief in Game 7 of the World Series against the Royals. Now the pressure will be on Bumgarner to carry a Giants team that has a rotation with lots of question marks and an offense that lost sluggers Pablo Sandoval and Michael Morse to free agency.
Kershaw and Bumgarner will have plenty of competition for the title of Best Pitcher on the Planet, though. Cleveland's Corey Kluber, last year's surprise AL Cy Young winner, is back to anchor the Indians' rotation, and 2010 Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez will lead the improved Mariners on their title march. There's a wave of talented young pitchers on the cusp of stardom — from the Mets' Matt Harvey to the White Sox' Chris Sale to the Marlins' Jose Fernandez — as well as a number of impressive prospects, including the Nationals' Lucas Giolito, the Dodgers' Julio Urias, and the White Sox' Carlos Rodon, on their way. In other words, it looks like it could be a pitcher's world for many years to come.
As Royals manager Ned Yost says, "The talent just keeps coming. It seems like every team has a bunch of guys now who throw 100 miles per hour and can go out and shut down a game. The game evolves, and right now it seems that the pitchers have the edge."
Maybe there will be a time when the game swings back to the hitters. Maybe sluggers will roam the earth as they once did. For now, though, it's clear: Pitchers rule.
Photos: Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated (Bumgarner, Royals), Al Behrman/AP (McCutchen)