Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Not Yet The Year Of The Pitcher

Last week I was interviewed by a reporter for Bloomberg News who sought my views on whether 2010 is indeed the new "Year of the Pitcher". Apparently some analysts have declared that to be the case, though the news hadn't reached my neck of the woods until the reporter mentioned it. The reporter, a pleasant fellow named Mason, wondered how the pitching feats of 2010 stacked up against the acknowledged "Year of the Pitcher," 1968.

My initial response was that there is no comparison. What happened in 1968 was the culmination of a trend toward great pitching that grew gradually through the 1960s before exploding out of all reasonable proportion in 1968, when the batting average for the entire American League was .230, Carl Yastrzemski won the batting title with a .301 average, and 21% of all games in the major leagues were shutouts. The two greatest season-long pitching performances of my lifetime occurred in 1968: Bob Gibson compiled a ridiculous 1.12 ERA, and Denny McLain won 31 games. The worst team ERA in the majors was 3.64 (the last-place Senators), and Luis Tiant's spectacular season (21-9, 1.60 ERA, 9 shutouts, and more than one strikeout an inning) has been totally forgotten.

Have we seen anything like that in 2010? No. As I told Mason, we haven't even finished half a season, and it's too soon to concede this season to the pitchers. Yes, many of them have had the upper hand so far, and a few have compiled outstanding numbers, but we haven't gotten to those hot summer nights when the ball carries better and the home runs start flying, and the annual late-season meltdown of overtaxed arms. What we've seen in this half-season might look quite different by the end of September.

Indeed, look at the two pitchers Mason and his sources cited as evidence of 2010's pitching dominance: Ubaldo Jimenez and Stephen Strasburg. I did agree that if I were redoing my book Unhittable! Baseball's Greatest Pitching Seasons today, I'd have to add Jimenez, whose 13-1 start echoes two pitchers who did merit chapters in the book, Ron Guidry from 1978 (13-0 through July 2) and Roger Clemens from 1986 (14-0 through June 27). However, Jimenez has allowed nine runs in his last two starts, and though he raised his record to 14-1 last night, his ERA has already jumped from a Gibson-like 1.09 to 1.83. Check with me at the end of September to see if he reaches 25 wins and keeps his ERA under 2.5.

As for Strasburg, he has lost two games since Mason and I talked. Granted, his team hasn't scored a single run in support of him, and he pitched well, up to a point. He followed a tough 1-0 loss with six shutout innings last night before getting pounded for four runs in the seventh inning. His record is now 2-2 with a 2.27 ERA and 48 strikeouts in fewer than 30 innings. Yes, he has all the talent in the world, but he has only pitched five games in the majors. Look at Kerry Wood. Through his first seven starts as a rookie in 1998, he was 5-2 with a 2.90 ERA, plus 66 strikeouts in 40 innings (including a record 20 in his sixth start). We all know what happened to Wood. Just as it's too soon to declare 2010 the "year of the pitcher," it's simply too soon to anoint Strasburg as the next Hall of Fame ace.

All we can say is that Strasburg has tremendous talent and Hall of Fame potential, which is something that we can say about a lot of young pitchers currently putting up impressive early-career numbers. I observed in a blog a year ago that an unusually (for recent years) large crop of extremely talented young pitchers. In that sense, we're looking at something similar to what we had in 1968. It is accepted that pitchers mature a little later than hitters, and that a pitcher's prime begins in his late twenties. So here's a look at starting pitchers from 1968 and 2010 who were less than 27 years old on July 1st:

26 years old: Jimenez, Jon Lester, Zach Greinke, Josh Johnson, Tim Lincecum (plus the likes of Mike Pelfrey and Francisco Liriano, who seem to be coming into their own this season)
25 years old: Clay Buchholz, Chad Billingsley, Matt Cain
24 years old: Felix Hernandez, David Price, Phil Hughes, Yovani Gallardo, Johnny Cueto
22 years old: Clayton Kershaw
21 years old: Stephen Strasburg

26 years old: Mel Stottlemyre, Wilbur Wood
25 years old: Dave McNally, Tommy John, Jerry Koosman
24 years old: Ferguson Jenkins, Denny McLain
23 years old: Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Don Sutton
22 years old: Jim Palmer, Catfish Hunter, Ken Holtzman
21 years old: Nolan Ryan, Larry Dierker

We know how the 1968 group turned out. There are many more names that could be added to both lists, and it should be added that as of mid-1968, many of those pitchers hadn't assembled the resumes that have already been amassed by the current crop. But in terms of raw talent, the two generations are reasonably comparable. It will be fun to see how they develop.

Another thing I pointed out to Mason is that baseball's history is cyclical. It has alternated pitching-dominated and hitting-dominated periods for more than a century, and there's no reason to think that the cycle can't continue. There are already a few signs that we could be headed for another pitching-heavy phase, such as the opening of several newer, larger parks (Citi Field and Target Field, to name two). On the other hand, today's starting pitchers aren't being trained to work the number of games and innings necessary to compile large numbers. So while we might see a decade or two of declining offense, it still might not produce the no-brainer Hall of Fame pitchers that the 1960s did.

So 2010 isn't yet the "Year of the Pitcher," 21st-century style, but I would agree that it is the "Year of Pitching Potential". Those are two different things; just ask a quartet of hurlers who would have made a similar listing earlier this decade: Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito. Talent is the easy part. Success is much tougher.


Robin said...

I also think there could easily be some "Tiantian" numbers put up by some pitchers this season, when we look back in 10 years. With Jimenez a clear favorite for the Cy Young at the halfway point, there are several other pitchers with good opportunities to win 20 games, a feat that does not occur too often in this age. Also, there are many pitchers with ERAs that in any other year would be leading, or close to leading. Josh Johnson for instance this morning has the same ERA as Jimenez. There are 7 pitchers with ERAs better than 2.5, and again quite a few pitchers with a shot at 250 Ks. Only 2 will win Cy Youngs, but many will be deserving. It will be interesting to see if the trend is a fluke, or is it continuing?

Gabriel Schechter said...

You're right, but it's a long summer and the ball carries further in the hot weather. Jimenez gave up 7 runs in one inning today and is up to a 2.26 ERA. The 14-1 record is still fantastic, but his ERA has more than doubled in his last three starts. So my jury is still out.