2010: The Year of the Pitcher (An Essay)

The following is an essay I felt compelled to write today.  This may seem like a stupid request, but if you really like it, feel free to rec it.  With the bombardment of MOD's, if you actually enjoy the essay, I'd hate to see it get buried, if for no other reason than I am quite proud of this essay.  I hope you all enjoy

2010: The Year of the Pitcher

By Jeremy Snyder

They say that 2010 is the year of the pitcher.  That may perhaps be an understatement.  In the past 24 days, there have been 3 perfect games thrown.  3.  Wrap your head around that.  1/7 of the perfect games thrown in the history of the sport happened within a little over a three week period.   As Ricky Bobby might say, “mind bottling, isn’t it?”  Yes, in this I am counting Mr. Galarraga’s perfecto (but then why not count Pedro’s too, some will whine), because I fully expect (read hope/pray/wish) MLB to do the right thing and reverse the call, giving Galarraga the honor he has earned.  Once we get past the semantics, however, it is important to take a look back at what appears to be happening right before our very eyes.  Let’s compile a list of the 10 best (a highly subjective and inaccurate practice, maybe) pitchers in the league currently.  In no particular order:

-Roy Halladay

-Tim Lincecum

-Zack Greinke

-Adam Wainwright

-Felix Hernandez

-Ubaldo Jiminez

-C.C. Sabathia

-Justin Verlander

-Dan Haren

-Johan Santana

HM’s: Jon Lester, Yovani Gallardo, Cliff Lee, Tommy Hanson

                Please, spare me the arguments about this list.  Maybe I left off one of your guys.  Maybe you disagree with something.  That’s completely not the point.  Each of these players is at the very least, a top 20 pitcher, so don’t bother attempting to argue otherwise.  Let’s look now at the average age of these players.  The number is roughly 27.3 years old.  Now, most, if not all of these guys were considered top prospects in their systems.  Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, with absolutely zero statistical evidence to back this up, that the average age of debut for these players is 22 years old.  That means that roughly 5 years ago would be the average point of debut for these players, in the year 2005.  What was happening in Major League Baseball at the time?  Here’s a summary:

June, 2004: MLB begins drug testing Major League players under the punitive phase of the Joint Drug Agreement.

Oct. 22, 2004: President Bush signs into law the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2004 that the U.S. Congress passed earlier in the month. The bill added hundreds of steroid-based drugs and precursors such as androstenedione to the list of anabolic steroids that are classified as Schedule III controlled substances, which are banned from over-the-counter sales without a prescription. By virtue of MLB's own agreement with the union, all of the drugs banned by Congress are now on baseball's own banned list.

Jan. 13, 2005: During a quarterly owners' meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz., the owners vote unanimously to accept recently concluded negotiations between MLB and the union strengthening the drug program. The new punitive measures for Major Leaguers are a 10-day suspension for the first positive test, 30 days for the second, 60 days for the third, and one year for the fourth. All without pay. On the first positive, the players name is released to the public. The program is separated from the Basic Agreement, which expires on Dec. 19, 2006, and is extended until 2008.

March 2, 2005: Rob Manfred, MLB's vice president of labor relations and human resources, says that drug testing will begin at Spring Training camps under the auspices of the revised program even though it has yet to be ratified by the union.

April 25, 2005: Selig sends a letter to Fehr stating that the recently strengthened drug policy needs to be strengthened some more with tougher penalties and more incidence of testing. Selig is now calling for a "three strikes and your out approach," to disciplining players who repetitively test positive for steroid use: 50-game suspensions for the first offense, 100 games for the second and third-time offenders to be banned permanently. Selig also says he will unilaterally institute these rules in the Minor Leagues next season.

May 11, 2005: During a quarterly meeting in New York, the 30 owners vote unanimously to support Selig's drug proposal put forth in his April 25 letter.

Nov. 15, 2005: Major League Baseball and the players association reached agreement on Tuesday on a plan that significantly strengthens penalties for steroid and other illegal drug use. Penalties for steroid use will be 50 games for a first offense, 100 games for a second and a lifetime ban for a third. The plan also includes testing and suspensions for amphetamine use.

As we all know, home runs peaked in the early 00s and late 90s.  However, after 2003, the numbers have for the most part trended downwards.  Only 13 major league pitchers have ever been suspended as a result of failing a drug test.  Likewise, only 13 major league hitters were suspended for the same reason.  So then what’s the point?  The point is, in today’s current baseball climate, there is far more speculation that many of the great hitters of the past 10-20 years used steroids than speculation that the great pitchers did.  Pedro, Maddux, Mussina, Johnson, Schilling, Glavine, Smoltz, none of them are connected to steroids (thank you Roger Clemens for providing a counter example).  McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro, Gonzalez, Ramirez, Rodriguez, Bonds, and Canseco are all suspected, or confirmed, to have used steroids throughout their career.  Naturally, guys like Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr, and various other superstar hitters don’t have this cloud above them, but it is safe to say that steroids seem to have tilted the game toward the masher rather than the hurler.

                So, what’s the point?  Well, I’m beginning to think that there exists a correlation between the recent stretch of dominance seen by pitchers at the Major League level and the decline of the steroid era, but maybe not quite the connection you’re assuming.  Obviously, if players stop hitting the ball as hard, far, or frequently, this helps the pitcher.  But this isn’t simply a matter of diminished offense.  The average age of the past 5 Cy Young winners in each league is 26.9.  The five years before that, the average age was 32.5.  That’s over a 5.5 age decrease since the steroid policies became enforced by Major League Baseball. 

So, why is this important?  Well, a concept that many men are familiar with is compensating.  Compensating can happen for a variety of reasons.  But in this case, let’s look at the place where Major League Baseball was at early in the decade.  Teams understood that the historical significance of the offensive numbers that were being put up.  To counter this explosive trend, the only natural thing was to begin to develop pitchers harder and more effectively.  The idea of preserving a pitchers arm became more and more of a focal point in the league, as well as advanced scouting to help find and develop the best pitchers possible, causing an increased emphasis on team’s minor league organizations.  And while the juice began to run dry starting in ’04 or so, all of this emphasis upon improving the quality of pitchers as a whole began to take off.  More and more, pitchers are dominating in the majors at younger and younger ages, as evidenced by the average Cy Young data from earlier.  So, maybe it’s not just that the long ball is taking a vacation. 

Come back to 2010, and revisit the historical significance of various pitching feats around the league (warning, includes data such as ERA, which I am using because the sabermetric tools of today did not exist throughout the history of the game). 

·         Three perfect games

·         One no hitter

·         A player (Ubaldo Jimenez) with an ERA well under 1 through the first two months of the season.

·         A rookie (Jaime Garcia) with an ERA of 1.79 through the first two months (and he still is the 3rd best pitcher on his staff)

·         A closer (Carlos Marmol) with an ungodly 18 k/9 rate, which would shatter Eric Gagne’s prior record by a fair distance if maintained throughout the entire season.

·         39 players who currently sit with a WHIP of 1.20 or less (last year, there were 17).  Granted, it’s only June, but that’s still a staggering number. 

·         17 players with at least 9 Quality Starts, which, if projected for the rest of the season (27 QS), would shatter the number of players last year with a higher number (1, Felix Hernandez with 29)

Look, I’m aware that it’s early on in the season, and a lot can change.  Many players will not sustain their current levels of performance.  But even assuming a regression, the numbers speak for themselves.  This is a historic season for pitchers. 

                They say that 2010 is the year of the pitcher.  But baseball is also said to be a game of adjustments.  Inevitably, the developmental trends of hitters will change, and perhaps will normalize to the extent that we might call 2020 the year of the hitter.  Baseball, from year to year, is a series of undulations, after all.  But for all of those fans who became so jaded with the juiced up days that are in our not too distant memory that they all but gave up on the game, take notice of the current situation in Major League Baseball.  We will never be able to extinguish the tarnishing legacy that steroids inflicted upon this great sport; to think this was possible would be an exercise in self-deception.  But we can understand that perhaps a page has been turned.  For all of the hyperbole of the past decade, claiming that this is a hitter’s game, and likewise, for all of the hyperbole that is sure to continue now that baseball is becoming a pitcher’s game, it takes a rational view to truly understand what is happening.  At the risk of concluding with a hackneyed phrase, they say it’s always darkest before the dawn.  We can speculate all we want as to the trajectory of the game over the next decade, but for the first time since the lid was blown off of the game, it seems that we can even dare to hope that perhaps the greatest game on the planet is returning to the pastime that has highlighted the cultural landscape of America for over a century.  So, to all you who feel betrayed by what many wish but few expect to be a forgettable decade of mistrust, have faith in this: soon enough, we may be able to say that a future year, whatever year it may be, is not the year of the hitter, or the year of the pitcher.  Maybe, just maybe, we can call it the year of baseball.   


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