|Year of the Pitcher II Causes||| Print |||Send|
Written by Jonathan Leshanski (Contact & Archive) on May 25, 2011
Not that long ago I wrote a piece asking if the Year of the Pitcher had been a fluke.¬† The data I used spanned over 40 years.¬† Going back I examined elements which took away many of the advantages pitchers had -- lowering of the pitcher's mound, the introduction of the designated hitter and, of course, steroids and other PEDs.
The biggest one of these is perhaps the simplest to overlook -- MLB's official adoption of the batting helmet in 1971. Prior to 1971 it was optional and only a minority of players chose to wear them.¬† Admittedly it's a good rule, one which protects the player and which could have saved the careers, and maybe even a life, of many ballplayers who never were the same after being hit in the head over the decades.¬† But many of baseball's greatest hurlers counted on being able to pitch close and inside to establish their dominance over the plate.
But the sword in this rule was double edged.¬† It took away some of the fear of serious injury for the hitter, allowing him to cheat a bit more.¬† It also took away some of the fear that pitchers had about killing someone with a 90-plus mile an hour fastball.
When you look at many of the greats and compare them to the modern ballplayer, the modern ballplayer often doesn't look so great, not when you have fields that go 310 down the line and 410 to the power allies and compare them with things like the 58 home runs that Jimmy Foxx hit one year in ballparks that were 360 down the line and 450 to the power alley.¬† But as the tee shirts in the late 90s proclaimed that "chicks dig the long ball," home runs have become king and ballpark design, right up until the opening of Citi Field in New York and Target Field in Minnesota in the last few seasons, ballparks have been designed to increase the number of balls hit that clear the yard.
Many of the balls that Foxx, DiMaggio, Ott, Aaron and Greenberg hit, that would have merely been long fly balls back in the day, clear the fence today. ¬† And any ballpark built today that is pitcher friendly finds a lot of criticism as debates about moving the fences in at Target Field and the whining about power numbers at Citi Field have well proven.
In the late 90s, a new fad appeared and though never officially endorsed by MLB, the use of body armor, such as knee and elbow pads for hitters, most notably Barry Bonds. This¬† allowed hitters to cheat more and more over the plate, allowing them to reach outside pitches better, and actually forcing pitchers not to throw as much towards the inside edge as the batter's body actually occupied and reduced the size of the strike zone in those spots.
The proof here is that the number of HBP per year over the past decade is more than twice what it was during the decade from 1969 (when the mound was lowered to its current height) to 1978.¬† Since that time the number of hit by pitches has climbed from an average of 782 per year to an average of 1750 per year.* ¬† Not surprisingly the number of HBP in a single year peaked in 2001 when body armor seemed to be standard issue for sluggers as 1890 batters were hit by pitches -- including 10 for Barry Bonds alone.
* Part of that, but only a fraction can be laid at the door of expansion as more young inexperienced hurlers were called into service lowering the overall caliber of Major League pitching.¬† In 1993 the number of HBP jumped by over 200 per year compared to the previous decade.
Last would be MLB's policy of aggressively trying to take away the inside pitch.¬† Sure this is another good rule.¬† Nobody wants to see players get seriously injured by a pitched ball.¬† But that's taken a huge toll on the pitching community, just read Sandy Koufax's The Art of Fear, and you'll realize just how much of an advantage taking away the brushback, or knock down, pitch is.¬† The mantra in college and amateur balls has changed from own the plate to you never intentionally throw at a batter.
That's why there is no equivalent today to the Seavers, Ryans, Gibsons or even Johnsons, Schillings and Clemens today. ¬†Those guys weren't afraid to hit a batter or scare the hell out of them.¬† They used that as part of their arsenal to keep hitters back, to keep them insecure and to own the inside of the plate.
Now the fear isn't there for the batter so much as it is for the pitcher.¬† They could be ejected and fined for throwing inside with the intention not just of hitting a player but for trying to intimidate them and take control back of the inside part of the plate.¬† So hitters now routinely lean into the plate, even those without body armor, and occupy more of the strike zone.¬† Because even if they get hit, the chance of the pitcher getting warned or ejected goes up and forces the pitcher to throw even more defensively.
You can argue that there are a handful of pitchers who can still get away with pitching on the inside but the number certainly isn't that big, and the true inside pitch has faded a lot from the repertoire of even the majority of successful pitchers.
Where is the evidence of this?¬† Well a lot of it is common sense, but maybe the proof is in the numbers more than anything.¬† How many current pitchers of the modern age are likely to win 300 games?¬† Answer - there may not be any for the next decade or more.¬† The closest pitchers is 44-year-old Tim Wakefield¬† who has 193 wins and the only pair with 160 or more who are less than 35 are Roy Halladay (175 and 34 years old) and CC Sabathia (161 and age 30).
The age of the 300-game winner has seemingly passed as the batters gained the advantage, and while I fully expect there to be a repeat of the year of the pitcher, it's unlikely to ever tilt towards better seasons and a greater number of all star pitcher emerging anytime soon.