There I was on my couch, watching the Magic-Celtics game, watching Kendrick Perkins physically abuse Dwight Howard like they were acting out a shower scene in a prison movie, when out of the corner of my eye, I caught a graphic on ESPN’s bottom line…
“Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka has no-hitter through six innings”
I quickly flipped channels, looking for the game, convinced that my eyes had mistaken me.
It just couldn’t be right. Daisuke Matsuzaka, the most hated man in Red Sox nation, hadn’t given up a hit through six innings? Daisuke Matsuzaka, the guy that up until this year refused to challenge hitters with fastballs, instead choosing to throw 3-1 changeup after 3-1 changeup and walk four straight batters without throwing a hittable pitch was tossing a no-no? The guy whose starts I’ve come to purposely avoid because he pitches at the same pace that my 94-year-old grandma walks up a flight of stairs… THAT guy was throwing… A NO-HITTER!!!
I was like a kid finding out there was no Santa Claus for the first time. “No, no, no, this can’t be true!” But it was.
Although I couldn’t watch any of the game because of FOX’s goofy blackout coverage, Matsuzaka pitched eight innings of one-hit ball, and the Red Sox went on to win, 5-0.
As I sat back late Saturday night to review it all, I started thinking. Crazy thoughts at first, like, “Did my Starbucks barista slip something into my frappuccino this morning?;” still not 100 percent sure I totally believed what I’d seen from Dice-K.
Then I started thinking about this baseball season as a whole. About how it seems like once a week we see a pitcher carrying a no-hitter into the seventh inning and beyond. How more than ever, ERA’s seem to be bottoming out like the stock market 18 months ago. How every team seems to either have an ace on their staff or one that’ll be in the big leagues in six months.
And then it hit me: After years of watching 10-8, four hour baseball games… Is pitching back???
I’d say so.
Now before I go any further, I want to make a few things clear: I’m not any Sabremetrics guru, and don’t have a detail oriented, ESPN research department backing up what I’m going to say. All I know is what I’ve seen with my own two eyes, and from what I can see, we’re in the midst of a pitching revolution. From what I can tell, it’s not only for the reasons you think.
Unfortunately, in this day and age, the easy- and unfortunate- place to start has nothing to do with the pitchers themselves, but with hitters and steroids. While we’ll never know how much of an effect PED’s had on the power surge from the early 1990’s to the middle of the 2000’s, I think we’d all say it was pretty large.
After all, every Major League Baseball organization decided to build their team the same way during that time: Find the biggest, baddest slugger you could, pay him lots of money, watch him hit home runs, watch fans get excited about those home runs, and hope that somewhere along the way you won a few games. By the turn of the century, that line of thinking turned guys like Greg Vaughn, Jeff Bagwell and Juan Gonzalez into folk hero’s and multimillionaires many times over.
Sure the game was tainted to a degree, but the fans seemed to be happy. The fact that most first baseman looked more like middle linebackers than ballplayers became irrelevant. The fact that Albert Belle bulldozed second baseman like they owed him money was considered “gamesmanship,” not “’roid rage.” And when Barry Bonds’ biceps grew threw sizes overnight, like the Grinch’s heart on Christmas Eve it was considered insignificant. The home runs kept coming, and the fans kept turning out, even if it was hurting the game.
As for the here and now, while we all know that PED’s aren’t entirely out of baseball, since the Mitchell Report came out a few years ago they at least seem to be under control. Maybe the most apparent sign is that baseball players again look like, well, baseball players, rather than mutants created in Victor Conte’s BALCO labratories.
Yes Ryan Howard is a big dude, but then again, he comes from a family of big dudes, and doesn’t really look any different than he did as a minor leaguer. Albert Pujols is strong, but not overwhelmingly, disgustingly, “Maybe this guy is on something,” burly, like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were a decade ago. And as for Prince Fielder, if there’s any secret to his super-strength, it definitely comes dipped in chocolate.
Beyond just the dearth of HGH, steroids, the cream and the clear though, are other factors too.
For example, teams are getting smarter in how they build their clubs.
Take the Padres and Giants for example. These are two teams that play in two of the biggest ballparks in baseball, yet a decade ago, were constructing their squads the way everyone in baseball did: By overpaying for whatever slugger fresh off the WWE scrapheap they could find.
Since then though, someone had the bright idea to say, “Hey, we play in huge ballparks, how about we stock up on some pitching, rather than boppers who’ll break down in a year?”
The result has become tangible, as those two teams are ranked No. 2 and No. 5 respectively in team ERA coming into Monday night’s games. In a related story, they’re also a combined nine games over .500. Weird, I know.
Looking around the major’s, it seems like every roster has at least one front-line starter, sometimes more, the result of what I’m going to call pitching’s “Perfect storm”. My theory is basically that as we’ve made our way out of the steroid era, this is the year where everything came together for the guys on the mound.
Think about it.
Veterans like Roy Halladay, C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Andy Pettitte are still bringing it every fifth day, while the next generation- the Tim Lincecum’s, Jon Lester’s, Jered Weaver’s and Matt Garza’s- have emerged too.
The guys that we always knew had it, but hadn’t yet shown it (Hey Phil Hughes, how ya doing? Welcome to the big show Clay Buchholz!) have suddenly emerged, while we’re also seeing nice bounce back years from arms like Barry Zito and Josh Johnson.
There are the typical guys who’ve come out of no where (Who took Doug Fister or Jaime Garcia in their fantasy drafts… Anyone?) with rookies (Mike Leake is 4-0 with a 2.91 ERA less than a year after pitching in the College World Series) and geriatric veterans (Come on Livan Hernandez has a 1.62 ERA? Really?) pitching well too.
Hell, as bad as the Orioles are, they know that Brian Matusz is going to be a stud sooner rather than later, while the Royals also know they can count on a great start from Zach Greinke every fifth day (even if they’re not going to score any runs for him). And oh, by the way, this Strasburg kid that the Nationals have in Triple A is supposedly pretty good. Although truthfully, it’s practically impossible to find any information on the guy, so I’m gonna take it all with a grain of salt.
Meanwhile, as teams, the Rays, Yankees and Cardinals have more pitching than the entire 2002 and 2003 All-Star rosters combined. Tampa Bay is especially terrifying with five starters all with sub 3.50 ERA’s, three with under 3.00 ERA’s, not to mention that four of them are aged 27 and under? Wow.
Just looking at the raw numbers across baseball is enough to make Bob Gibson smile and nod his head in approval.
As things stand on Monday, there are currently a staggering 49 pitchers with ERA’s below 3.50 right now, including Colby Lewis, Gio Gonzalez and Matt Latos, guys whose own parents couldn’t even pick them out of a police (or All-Star) lineup.
There are 24 pitchers with ERA’s under 3.00, and unbelievably four with ERA’s under 2.00, a stat that probably would have made Bud Selig’s head explode eight years ago.
And of course there’s Ubaldo Jimenez, who is in the midst of what could be a historically great season. Currently his record is 8-1 with an 0.99 ERA, and has yet to give up more than two earned runs in any of his nine starts. Not too shabby.
Now what does this all mean? Probably not much… At least yet.
Everyone knows that pitchers have the advantage early on and in cold weather. Of course then again, Boston, New York and several other northern cities haven’t been quite as cold as usual this spring, so maybe those numbers aren’t as skewed as years past.
But while pitchers numbers are sure to rise as batters and the weather heat up, as their arms grow fatigued, and as everything else that happens over a six month, 162 game season occurs, there’s no doubt that we’re in the midst of again, a pitching revolution.
Gone are sluggers with big biceps and bigger egos, not to mention mood swings that made Spencer Pratt look like the Dalai Lama by comparison. In their place, are a bunch of smart, sleek and hard-throwing hurlers, coming to a ballpark near you.
And quite honestly, it’s not a second too soon.
I’m not sure how many more 10-8, four hour games I could stomach.