You Call This the Year of the Pitcher?

published July 22, 2010

There’s a lot of loose talk about 2010 being the Year of the Pitcher.

Offense is down.  Across the major leagues, teams are scoring 4.47 runs per game, the lowest total since 1992.  The average over the past five seasons was 4.70.  Home runs per team are down below 1.00 per game for the first time since 1993.

There have been two (or three) perfect games and two other no-hitters.  There was a game that was scoreless through 18 innings.  A Colorado pitcher (Colorado!) is 15-1 with a 2.38 ERA and leads the majors in fewest hits allowed per nine innings.  A Washington rookie has a 2.32 ERA and has struck out 75 hitters in 54 innings, with a 5:1 K:BB ratio.  Six National League qualifiers have ERAs below 2.50; a Marlin leads the league at 1.62.

You may have heard about a few of these things.

But, still – the Year of the Pitcher?  No.  I knew the Year of the Pitcher, and buddy, this is no Year of the Pitcher.

The Year of the Pitcher was 1968.  It was the culmination of a six-year period of bigger strike zones and smaller scores.

Teams averaged 3.42 runs per game.  A fan attending the average game saw two fewer runs scored than in today’s supposed offensive dearth.

Major-league baseball as a whole had a batting average of .237, the lowest ever, and an OPS of .637, the worst since 1917.  Statistically, it was a full season of watching Nick Punto.

The overall ERA for the 1968 season was 2.98.  In 2010, that figure would rank eighth among individual qualifiers in the American League, tenth in the National.

Carl Yastrzemski was the American League batting champion.  Playing in the hitters’ haven of Fenway Park, Yaz batted .301.  Runner-up Danny Cater hit .290.

The starting shortstop for one team batted .135 in 111 games.  Its third baseman hit .200, with an OPS of .556, in 536 at bats.  This team was the World Champion Detroit Tigers, the players Ray Oyler and Don Wert, respectively.

The St. Louis Cardinals, National League champions, allowed 472 runs for the year.  Six teams – the Diamondbacks, Brewers, Pirates, Orioles, and Astros – have already given up more runs this season, in fewer than 100 games.

The gaudiest pitching season that year – perhaps ever – belonged to Bob Gibson.  He made 34 starts, completed 28 of them, won 22, lost 9, and had an ERA of 1.12.  He allowed zero runs or one 24 times, including 13 shutouts.  From June 6 to September 6, according to the indispensible, he went 16-2, gave up 105 hits in 173 innings, had an ERA of 0.68 in nineteen starts, and struck out 160 while walking 29.  By the end of that period, the Cardinals had stretched their lead from two and a half games to eleven and a half, and coasted in from there.

But Gibson was not alone.  Six other ERA qualifiers were below 2.00; fourteen more were between 2.00 and 2.50.   Only two qualifiers finished above 4.00: Joe Niekro and Rick Wise.  Thus far in 2010, there are fifty such qualifiers.

There were 335 games of nine innings or more in which a team was shut out.  That’s two complete seasons’ worth of team games without scoring.

The National League won the All-Star Game by a score of, what else, 1-0.  Thirty-five All-Stars combined for eight hits.  The only run, unearned, resulted from a single, a bad pickoff throw, a wild pitch, and a double-play grounder.

On September 17, Gaylord Perry of the Giants threw a no-hitter against the Cardinals.  The next day, Ray Washburn of St. Louis returned the favor, no-hitting the Giants.

Even for those who love and appreciate a good pitchers’ duel, it was way too much.   Something had to be done.  The strike zone, which had been redefined in 1963 to extend from the top of the shoulder to the bottom of the knee, was narrowed to the area from the armpit to the top of the knee.  The pitcher’s mound, which by rule since 1903 stood at most fifteen inches above home plate and the base lines, got lowered to ten inches – and more importantly, the umpires checked, often.

Both leagues expanded in 1969 – as planned long before the events of 1968 – bringing forty pitchers into the majors who wouldn’t have made it before.  As a result of all these changes, offense jumped to 4.07 runs per game per team, the biggest one-year rise since the introduction of the cork-centered baseball in 1911.

To my eyes, the pitching revival of 2010 is bringing necessary balance back to the game.  Historically, however, the baseball business booms when balls are flying around and out of the park.  Where I see a happy return swing of the pendulum, the owners may see a problem.  If the trend reverses quickly, put a stethoscope to the baseball, and keep a close watch on the vitamins in the clubhouse.

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