FOX Sports Exclusive
Year of the pitcher? No, it's a new era
This is the week of first pitches, ceremonial bunting and new beginnings across major league baseball.
Yet, in one very important regard, the calendar is stuck on 2010.
The Year of the Pitcher is about to turn 13 months old.
Fans surprised by the lackluster offense last season shouldn’t expect baseball to pivot back toward the slug-it-out era of the 1990s. Instead, FOXSports.com readers again will encounter the no-hitter alert on our baseball page every week or two. (And I’m psyched for another summer of 11 p.m. work emails that begin, “Hey, Morosi, are you watching the Rays game?”)
The hitters are not going to strike back, and the Philadelphia Phillies’ rotation is only one reason why. The trend has been too definitive to reverse course this quickly.
Consider the numbers:
• The average overall run production in the National League has fallen in each of the past four seasons, all the way to 701 per team last year.
• The Cincinnati Reds led the NL with 790 runs last season — the lowest peak for that league in 15 years. In fact, that figure is less than the NL average from a decade earlier.
• The New York Yankees led the American League last year with 859 runs. The AL average was 721. Those are lows for the current millennium.
• The five no-hitters — six, when you count Roy Halladay’s postseason gem — were the most in the majors since 1991, according to STATS LLC.
And it’s not as if those lively fastballs are going away.
“You just keep seeing arm after arm,” admired Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland. “It seems like they’re all throwing hard. It’s almost a bit of a different game. Everybody’s got guys flying out of the bullpen, throwing 97, 98.”
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Over the weekend, I asked 16 executives and scouts if they expect pitching to be at least as dominant, if not more dominant, than it was in 2010. The pitchers won by a 14-2 margin. That is an overwhelming majority, especially when considering baseball people can argue for hours about the most optimal Marriott in a given major league city.
“I expect it to be just like last year,” one National League assistant general manager said. “I feel like we have a new normal.”
Added one NL scout: “Baseball is going back to pitching and defense. A lot of this has to do with the special vitamins no longer available for the players. The pitchers get their rest, but the position players don’t. The season wears on them more.”
Ah, yes. You knew performance-enhancing drugs (along with amphetamines) would be part of this discussion. And for good reason: Drug testing absolutely has played a role in baseball’s overall offensive decline.
There is good, simple logic in what the scout said. We know that major leaguers of every stripe — position players, starting pitchers and relief pitchers — used steroids. A position player might appear in 155 games per year, a reliever 65 and a starter 30. So who stands to lose the most if PEDs and amphetamines, which aided endurance, are taken out of play?
Yet, we should be careful not to ascribe the phenomenon to steroids and steroids alone. The baseball people I spoke with suggested a number of other theories, including those that had little or nothing to do with PEDs.
• Technology has made it easier for pitchers to attack hitters’ weaknesses. “The Internet, videos, satellite TV, things like that,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said last week. “They televise games on the West Coast and East Coast. There are more updated scouting reports, and they go to school on the hitters. The hitters haven’t adjusted. I think (pitchers) have a better report on the hitters than the hitters have.”
• Sensing that such skills were undervalued, teams have begun acquiring more two-way and defense-first players, thus helping pitchers prevent runs. Clubs are attracted to the reasonable cost of those players, since premium defenders are cheaper than premium sluggers. In general, it has become popular to replace aging sluggers with more versatile players.
• Advanced metrics have helped teams find the best defensive players — and also deploy them most effectively on the field. Some teams rely on statistical data to help position their infielders and outfielders, rather than (or in addition to) scouting reports and/or the instincts of a coaching staff.
• Increasingly, cost-conscious teams have decided to promote new everyday players from within, rather than sign more expensive veterans. The young players are inexpensive and theoretically pose a lesser injury risk. So, the moves often make good sense. But pitchers can exploit their lack of experience.
• Psychology could play a role, too: Armed with the knowledge that offense is down, pitchers may feel more confident about throwing the ball over the plate. (Walks decreased in both leagues from 2009 to 2010.)
• Some in the industry believe there are more talented pitchers than talented hitters in the game today, particularly among the younger generation. “I don’t know if you can quantify it,” said Jeff Conine, the longtime major league outfielder, “but it seems like the arms right now are probably outpacing the bats.”
And all of that is fine. Really.
Well-pitched games are more aesthetically pleasing than the walk- and error-marred marathons that are gradually becoming a smaller slice of the baseball landscape. One AL executive said we’re witnessing a return to the “essence of baseball,” with skilled, well-rounded players replacing muscle-bound sluggers.
I like that, actually. And it’s not as if the home run has gone away. Remember that Jose Bautista socked 54 last year.
Bautista may have a tough time matching his new career high. But another six no-hitters this year? Wouldn’t surprise me at all.