Yesterday, Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners threw a perfect game, the first of his career, the first in Mariners history and the third overall this season. Not only that, it was the sixth no-hitter thrown this year in Major League Baseball. The last two years, pitchers have been all the rave in baseball, and the focus has been more on what happens on the mound than what happens at the dish. When did this happen and why is it good for baseball?
Last year was considered by many to be the year of the pitcher, a nod back to 1968 and a year where pitchers dominated, especially Cardinals Hall of Famer Bob Gibson who led the National League that year with an ERA of 1.12, a modern baseball record. It also forced baseball to lower the mound, to give hitters a “fair chance” against the pitchers who were dominating the game at that point. This year seems like a continuation of the Year of the Pitcher, with all of the perfect games and no-hitters being thrown around baseball and pitchers putting up flashier stats than their hitting counterparts. A big part of why this is happening is because of all the young pitchers scattered across baseball. Younger pitchers have sprouted up across the majors the last two years and not only are they young, but they throw harder and seem to have a good grasp on how to actually pitch, not throw. This has led to pitchers gaining an advantage over the hitters, a good sign for baseball after the years of power, which is often referred to as the “Steroid Era”.
The “Steroid Era” is another reason for the pitchers success over the last two years. Major League Baseball’s drug testing has proven to be topnotch, and other than the gaffe in the Ryan Braun positive test, no one has been able to successfully appeal a suspension handed down to them by MLB. With the success rate they have had with their testing, many players have chosen not to even chance it when it comes to trying to use banned substances. Sure, there will be guys like Melky Cabrera who either try to see what they can get away with or just aren’t smart about it, but most players know the testing is improving at a rapid rate and is not worth chancing it. Therefore, less players that are chiseled out of granite and more professional hitters litter the baseball fields of 2012.
With all that drug testing being put into affect, it has made it to where teams focus less on homeruns and RBI’s. Instead, more value is shown to stats like OPS and WAR. Both stats show more of a players full value instead of just focusing on one simple area. While these stats will give you a more patient hitter, which is good, it can also give you a player who strikes out a bit more often, or a hitter who puts the ball in play more. Both are hitters that a pitcher like Felix Hernandez or Justin Verlander loves, as both are efficient starters who attack the strike zone and have nasty stuff to back it up. A power hitter can hurt you in more than one way, where as a singles hitter can hurt, but more likely to put the ball in play. Both can hurt you, but more pitchers would rather face a slap hitter than a slugger. Less loaded lineups lead to an advantage to the pitchers.
Maybe the biggest reason for the influx in pitching has been the focus by a lot of teams on pitching and defense. For years, the saying has gone ‘pitching and defense wins championships’. This philosophy was successful for many years, but after the 1994 baseball strike, it seemed many a team got away from this way of thinking. With power going out of vogue again, more teams stocked up on pitching and better defensive players. More teams will get by with a player who isn’t as good offensively if they bring great defense to the table. Ask Felix Hernandez how much it helps having Brendan Ryan playing Shortstop for the Mariners? Ryan might barely hit .200, but he gives Seattle Gold Glove defense. Having that on your team can help, but can also make it easier for a pitcher to attack the bottom of your batting order. Utilizing these methods can both help and hurt your ballclub, leading to some really great pitching performances.
All in all, this wave of great pitching has really showcased the game of baseball. After years of sluggers with Popeye-like arms, we are now in an age focusing more on the little details of the game. No one knows how long it will last, but it probably means we will see more no-hitters and perfect games before it is all said and done. Hopefully it won’t dilute the game, only highlight all the great things that the game of baseball brings to the table.