Thursday, March 24, 2011

2010 Was Not the "Year of the Pitcher"

Last summer I posted a blog titled "Not Yet the Year of the Pitcher," in which I reported on being interviewed by a Blomberg News reporter who wanted to know why people were calling 2010 the "Year of the Pitcher". I disagreed, saying that a half-season was not conclusive. The two pitchers he cited as evidence of clear pitching dominance were Stephen Strasburg and Ubaldo Jimenez. Strasburg had made a strong first impression while Jimenez had a 13-1 record at the time. As we know, Strasburg is on the shelf for awhile with elbow surgery, and Jimenez didn't even reach 20 wins for the season, much less the 25 that seemed a shoo-in in June.

In my blog, I listed current young pitchers with tremendous talent and compared them to a similar list from 1968, long acknowledged as the true "Year of the Pitcher." The most I would concede was that 2010 was the "Year of Pitching Potential." Nothing I've seen since then has changed my opinion. Although pitchers overall fared better in 2010 than they had in recent years, by no means did they dominate hitters, and they certainly didn't approach the success that pitchers achieved in 1968. Let's take a closer look at the numbers.

The league ERAs in 2010 were 4.02 in the National League and 4.14 in the American League. These are the lowest figures since 1992, when both leagues had ERAs under 3 and nobody thought it was "year of the pitcher". It was the last year before expansion from 26 to 28 teams, followed by two more teams a few years later, which combined with other factors to bring a boom in offense. How much did expansion affect the numbers? In 1992, the ERA in the NL was 3.50; in 1993, mainly thanks to the 5.41 team ERA posted by the inaugural staff of shellshocked Rockies pitchers, it jumped to 4.04. In the AL, which didn't even expand, merely lost some talent in the expansion draft, the ERA went from 3.94 to 4.32.

It has taken almost 20 years to whittle that expansion effect (and other effects) back down to where offense was at the time. But it's nowhere year what the major leagues experienced in 1968. That year, the NL's league ERA was 2.99, with a 2.98 mark for the American League, the first time since the Deadball Era that both leagues had sub-3 ERAs. Thirteen of the 20 major league teams had an ERA under 3. That's a year of pitchers!

Midway through last season, when the Blomberg reporter interviewed me, there were more than a few pitchers with sub-2 ERAs, several on a pace to win about 25 games, and a group targeting 250 strikeouts. But as I predicted, the long, hot summer took its toll, and as a group last year's starting pitchers fell short of all projected stats. Nobody made a run at 250 strikeouts; four reached 225, but the high total was Jered Weaver's 233. Three of them reached 20 wins (not including Jimenez), but nobody had more than 21. A respectable number--15--finished with ERAs under 3, but nobody stayed under 2. Of those 15 who achieved what today stands as a major achievement, a sub-3 ERA, only eight pitched at least 200 innings. So what we're seeing is not the dominant workhorses of the 1960s, but starting pitchers who are pitching better with limited use. Is it any coincidence that only seven of the 15 won more than 14 games? The starting pitcher used to be sent to the mound to win. Today's starter knows that the game will ultimately be in the hands of the bullpen most of the time, so his mission is to pitch six strong innings and rest up for four or five days.

What we did see more of in 2010 was shutouts, 202 in the NL and 127 in the AL. The AL total has been around that figure for several years, but the NL jumped from 150 and 143 the previous two seasons. On the other hand, complete games went up only from 152 to 165--that's for both leagues put together. In other words, last year's 329 shutouts was twice the number of the complete games, so at least half of all shutouts required buttressing from the bullpen.

In 1968, by comparison, the leagues combined for 339 shutouts. That was 14 or so per franchise, compared to 11 per team in 2010. Moreover, there were 897 complete games in 1968. That's how you measure dominance--a starting pitcher mowing down the opposition on his own, game after game after game. That year, Denny McLain won 30 games by completing 28 of his 41 starts. In 2010, he would've completed about one-fourth of those games, and his win total would've been below 25.

So let's not get carried away and carry around the assumption that 2010 was actually a year when pitching dominated. It wasn't. It was a year when some pitchers did better than most recent pitchers have; a year when teams in one league were shut out more often than they have been recently; a year in which we saw more 1-0 games than we've seen in a long time; a year in which the overall pitching stats weren't as bad as they've been for most of the past 15 years; and a year in which a number of young pitchers showed the potential to grow into Hall of Fame candidates. Overall, pitching was as erratic as usual, with flashes of brilliance but not much sustained dominance.

There are some signs that point toward a pitching-favored cycle on the way. There are other signs that don't, including the continuing deterioration of relief pitching from overuse and misuse. For me, the jury is still out as much as Adam Wainwright is out, a reminder that injuries are the great equalizer in baseball, and pitchers are getting hurt at record rates despite all the coddling. Oh, don't get me started on that one!

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