MILWAUKEE — Take a close look at the playoff races formulating this season, and you’re likely to notice an interesting trend that has very much dictated the landscape of baseball in 2012.
First, the National League: Washington, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Atlanta, San Francisco, St. Louis and Pittsburgh comprise the seven teams in the NL that are likely to be in the playoff hunt heading into crunch time in late September. All of them rank in the top 10 of total team ERA in baseball.
Now, the American League: Tampa Bay, Oakland, Texas, Detroit, New York, Anaheim, Baltimore and Chicago seem to be the eight primary teams. Two of those teams, plus Seattle, round out the top 10 in team ERA, baseball-wide, and all eight of them are among the top 10 team ERAs in the American League.
The correlation is not without explanation. Major league baseball in the post-steroids era has increasingly become about pitching. Without a dominant starting staff — or at least one that gets dominant at the right time — there’s little hope of making the playoffs and almost zero hope of competing beyond the first round of the postseason.
And this season — a year many have dubbed the year of the pitcher — that sentiment has never been truer. With the exception of Baltimore, Oakland and Pittsburgh — three of the most likely teams to fade away in the playoff race — and Texas every other playoff contender has a true ace in its five-man rotation.
Not to mention the fact that there have been six no-hitters already this season, including an unprecedented three perfect games — the most recent of which was Felix Hernandez’s nine perfect innings this past weekend. For the record, there have been only 23 perfect games in baseball history.
Then, there are also the more minute signs of a pitching takeover. The rapidly growing amount of pitchers with an average fastball velocity of 95 mph or faster has increased by at least five pitchers every year since 2007. Strikeout rates are growing exponentially — the league average of strikeouts per nine innings is up one full strikeout from where it was a decade ago.
So is this year’s baseball landscape trying to tell us something? Has pitching become the most important part of building a playoff team?
“It’s pretty hard to do the things you want to do as a team when the starting staff isn’t shutting people down,” Milwaukee Brewers manager Roenicke said. “To be consistent, you may lose two games in a row, and then you’ve got your number one out there and he throws a shutout, complete game, and you’re right back in there again. Whereas, if you don’t have those starters, you can go on a long losing streak. And it’s tough sometimes to stop.”
It’s certainly a theory, when it comes to a starting rotation, that has helped the Brewers deem this season at least a partial success. Without three of their starters — Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, and Chris Narveson — who began the year in the rotation traded or out for most of the season, relative unknowns Mike Fiers, Mark Rogers and Tyler Thornburg have filled in and kept the starters’ ERA within 0.36 runs of what it was last year. With mostly young talent in the rotation now, that number is actually quite impressive.
But if Milwaukee has any hopes of contending next season or the season after, that starting pitching will have to improve — likely with veteran talent outside of the organization’s farm system.
General manager Doug Melvin knows that, but he’s reluctant to believe a rotation can have a more imposing effect on a team’s contention than any other part of a roster.
“I’ve always said that you have to finish in the top five or six in everything: starting pitching, bullpen, defense, hitting,” Melvin said. “You can’t be one extreme. You can’t be totally offense and finish 15th in pitching. You can’t be first in pitching and 15th in hitting and 14th in defense. There’s so many components to the game. You can’t run your car on three tires with one flat tire. You can’t run your car with a clogged carburetor and four good tires.”
But in today’s game, as it continues to evolve in a post-steroids era, a more proper analogy may be that pitching has become the engine that drives the game. A playoff baseball team without a dominant pitching staff can look great, like a hot rod without anything under the hood. Eventually, though — at least in today’s baseball world — someone will realize that it doesn’t run.