Baseball’s Year of Little Changes

published September 23, 2010

The Minnesota Twins were the first team to clinch a playoff spot.  The San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres are in a dogfight for first place in the NL West.  Atlanta has the wild-card lead.  Texas has held the AL West lead since June 8.  Cincinnati has all but clinched the NL Central.  Tampa Bay has the third best record in the American League.

It’s tempting to attribute the rise of these teams to some significant shift in the baseball landscape.  The 2010 season has been widely declared a “year of the pitcher,” and it’s true that the totals of runs and home runs per game have fallen to levels not seen since before the 1994 strike/lockout.  Strikeouts, meanwhile, have increased for the fifth consecutive year, passing 7.00 per team/game for the first time in baseball history.

In a year or four, we’ll know if the drop in runs was a short-term anomaly or a trend brought on by changing conditions that might include the absence of steroids and amphetamines, unusual weather patterns, improvement in how pitchers are developed, or a bigger strike zone called by QuesTec-trained umpires.

Whatever caused it, it feels like a hopeful sign, and not just for the much-maligned baseball purists who’d rather see a month of 2-1 duels than a week of 9-8 slugfests.

Pitchers are coming to the major leagues with more pitches in their repertoire; the change-up is no longer a pitch learned with experience, but an important part of many young pitchers’ arsenals.  Batters may be paying a price for their increased selectivity; young hitters are taught to take more pitches than ever before, and if the umpires are calling a bigger strike zone, we’d expect to see more strikeouts and fewer walks.  This is exactly what’s happening: walks are not at historic depths, but they’ve only been lower one time in the last twenty seasons.

When power is predominant, money talks loudest.  Power hitters and power pitchers are the most expensive commodities in baseball, and they tend to cluster on the payrolls of teams that can afford them.   The ’09 Yankees led their league in batters’ home runs and pitchers’ strikeouts, the only team in the last six years to do so.

In 2010, however, the payrolls spoke more softly and carried a smaller stick.  If the playoffs began today, they would include more teams from the bottom ten in salaries (San Diego, 29th; Texas, 27th; Tampa Bay 21st) than the top (Yankees, 1st; Phillies, 5th).

Teams that seemingly come out of nowhere generally do so because of pitching and defense – this is a calculation the Seattle Mariners got right in a season in which they got everything else wrong.  The Padres are this year’s prime example, just as the Rays were in 2008.  The Mariners’ error was in overemphasizing this side of the game when adding to a team that had already improved by 24 games from the year before; they had maxed out their gains from pitching and defense, and their offseason moves further weakened their offense.  Moreover, a pitchers’ year can also be understood as a dearth of hitting; Seattle tried to move forward by getting weaker in a scarce commodity while emphasizing one that was suddenly abundant.

The surprise teams of 2010 for the most part reflect incremental gains, not quantum leaps.  San Francisco won 88 games last year, and is on pace to win 90; Texas won 87, and is likewise headed for 90.  Slightly larger improvements are likely from Atlanta (from 86 to 91), Tampa Bay (84 to 96), Cincinnati (78 to 91) and San Diego (75 to 91).  None of these are as dramatic as the Rays’ jump from 66 to 97 in ’08, or for that matter Seattle’s move upward in 2009.  (The biggest move of 2010, besides Seattle’s freefall, belongs to the two Los Angeles teams, sharply downward.  The Angels and Dodgers combined for 192 wins in 2009; this year, they’re on pace for thirty-four fewer.)

If this is such a transformative year, where are the transformations?

The presence of so much pitching does make the postseason especially hard to figure.  While the Phillies are coming together at the best possible moment, the Giants and Padres are certainly teams you would not want to meet in a short series.  Cincinnati has pulled steadily away from St. Louis, but this might have more to do with the Cardinals falling than the Reds streaking to the finish.  (Since St. Louis swept three straight from the Reds in August to go a game up, the Reds have gone a moderate 22-16, while the Cards have been a frigid 13-24.)

The Yankees and Tampa Bay have gotten most of the attention in the AL, but the Twins have had a quietly outstanding season.  Despite the early loss of closer Joe Nathan, Minnesota has allowed fewer runs per game than any of the AL playoff teams, and fewer than all but three National League squads.  Texas, who will face the AL East champs, can start Cliff Lee twice in a 3-of-5 opening series; the Yankees (0-2 against Lee this year) might want to think carefully about whether it’s worth it to win their division this year.

It’s been an entertaining year so far.  And while the teams with the best pitching aren’t necessarily the ones winning in the regular season, they’ll definitely have an edge in the postseason.  Some things never change.

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