MLB Power Rankings: Examining The Claim That It's The Year Of The Pitcher

ST. PETERSBURG - JULY 26: Pitcher Matt Garza #22 of the Tampa Bay Rays gets a game ball from pitcher Rafael Soriano #29 as pitching coach Jim Hickey (L) looks on after the no hitter against the Detroit Tigers at Tropicana Field on July 26 2010 in St. Petersburg Florida. Tampa Bay beat Detroit 5-0. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

The 17th edition of our MLB power rankings, as voted on by SB Nation MLB bloggers Jim McLennan, Will McDonald, Sam Page, Kyle Lobner, Jeff Sullivan, and Randy Booth. You should probably take these very seriously, because they are uncommonly important.

It came across in last night's AP story about Matt Garza:

Garza (11-5) was the latest to shine in the Year of the Pitcher. The last time there were at least five no-hitters in a season was 1991, when Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan threw one of seven in the big leagues that year, according to STATS LLC.

The Year of the Pitcher. We've read this on several occasions, now, and Garza's no-hitter provided the latest excuse to trot it back out. You'd think the AP writer would've found some way to mention Armando Galarraga's 28-out masterpiece for effect. But anyway, as of this writing, there are 18 starting pitchers with ERAs under 3. Last year, there were 11. The year before that, there were eight. How do you explain this newfound level of success? It's got to be the Year of the Pitcher, right?

I'll say this much - guys like Ubaldo Jimenez and Stephen Strasburg have certainly commanded the headlines like few pitchers do, keeping dominant power arms in the news. And, of course, there's the Padres, whose success many choose to explain by pointing at their league-best run prevention. Pitching has, in large part, been the story. But how much of that is real, and how much of that is just driven by the coverage?

Well, it's not complete baloney. Major League numbers:

Year

OPS

ERA

K/BB

2001

0.759

4.42

2.1

2002

0.748

4.28

1.9

2003

0.755

4.40

1.9

2004

0.763

4.46

2.0

2005

0.749

4.29

2.0

2006

0.768

4.53

2.0

2007

0.758

4.47

2.0

2008

0.749

4.32

2.0

2009

0.751

4.32

2.0

2010

0.735

4.15

2.1

Granted, there are still another two months to go in the season, but run prevention is at its lowest level of the decade. And a cursory review indicates to me that it's not because of better team defenses. OPS is 13 points below its previous decade low, ERA is 13 points below its previous decade low, and K/BB is equal with its previous decade high. Pitchers. They're getting the job done like these pitchers haven't before.

So in that regard, sure, you could call it the Year of the Pitcher, in that, league-wide, ERA is significantly down. Although, let's compare 2009 and 2010. How much of a difference is there, really? In 2009, the average game featured 9.2 runs. In 2010, the average game has featured 8.9 runs. That's a drop of 0.3 runs per game - between two teams - or, in other terms, a drop of 3%. Is that really so huge? Would people really even be aware of a 3% dip in run scoring if they were left to their own devices?

Actually, hey, while we're here, let's take this 2009/2010 comparison to another level. What if we break the numbers down?

Year

BB/9

K/9

HR/9

BABIP

2009

3.46

6.99

1.05

0.299

2010

3.34

7.02

0.96

0.299

So far, we've seen a 3% drop in walks, a 0.4% increase in strikeouts, and a 9% drop in home runs. BABIP - or Batting Average on Balls In Play - is listed to show that defenses are turning just as many balls in play into outs this year as they did a year ago.

What's causing this year's lower ERA? It's not a 3% drop in walks. That's a contributing factor, but it's small. It's not a 0.4% increase in strikeouts, either. Again, that's a contributing factor, but it's even smaller. No - the biggest factor here is the drop in home runs. Home runs, naturally, are the most productive thing any hitter can do in any given trip to the plate, so any change in home run rate will have a profound effect on runs scored.

Okay, so home runs are down. What else do we have? Why could this be?

Year

Flyball%

HR/Flyball

2009

37.8%

10.1%

2010

37.3%

9.4%

Pitchers, as a whole, have allowed slightly fewer fly balls in 2010, but the difference is tiny. More significant is the drop in home runs per fly ball - a decrease of 7%. Pitchers aren't allowing that many fewer fly balls than they did just last season, but far fewer of those fly balls have been clearing the fence.

 What do we know about home runs per fly ball? I'm glad you asked. As a matter of fact, we know that home runs per fly ball - HR/FB% - tends to fluctuate around an average, and doesn't really represent much in the way of skill on the part of the pitcher. It sounds silly, but basically, a pitcher with a really low HR/FB% won't be able to sustain it, and a pitcher with a really high HR/FB% won't be able to sustain it. Over time, a certain number of fly balls will just clear the fence, and by and large it's simply out of a pitcher's control. There isn't really a skill for allowing fly balls of a certain, non-home run length. Hitters will hit as many fly balls out of the park as they're capable of hitting.

So let's put this all together. League-wide, we've seen ERA drop. This isn't due to a drop in walks. This isn't due to a hike in strikeouts. This isn't due to a hike in groundball rate. The ERA drop is due to a drop in home runs, with a corresponding drop in HR/FB%. Said drop can explain almost all of the reduction we've seen in run scoring across baseball.

Year of the Pitcher? I'm more inclined to believe this is just the Year of the Weak Hitter.

-----

Still with me? Terrific. Let's get on, now, with this week's rankings.

30. Baltimore Orioles

SBN Blog: Camden Chat

2010 record: 31-68

Last week's rank: 30

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 28

Another week, another handful of losses for the Orioles. With win-loss record not meaning much outside of draft position anymore, perhaps the bigger hit comes from Ty Wigginton's continued July slump dragging down his trade value. At least the future of the franchise, Matt Wieters, broke out the home run bat fresh off the disabled list.

29. Pittsburgh Pirates

SBN Blog: Bucs Dugout

2010 record: 34-64

Last week's rank: 29

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 29

With wins in just four of their last 16 games, the Pirates are now closer to baseball's worst record (they're 3.5 games ahead of the Orioles) than fifth place in the NL Central (they're 5.5 back of the Astros). With nine games coming up against the Rockies, Cardinals and Reds, things could actually get worse before they get better.

28. Arizona Diamondbacks

SBN Blog: AZ Snakepit

2010 record: 37-62

Last week's rank: 28

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 26

The trade of Dan Haren officially marks Arizona throwing in the towel for 2010 - and 2011/12 aren't looking good either. The team did manage to sweep the slumping Mets, the Arizona pitching staff holding New York to seven runs in 32 innings of work, but the Giants then came in and took all four games; the Diamondbacks scored only ten in that series, while being struck-out 43 times. This week, they go on a road trip facing the Phillies and the Mets.

27. Seattle Mariners

SBN Blog: Lookout Landing

2010 record: 39-61

Last week's rank: 27

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 27

At this point in the year, it's all about the little things, and the M's managed to split a four-game series against the Red Sox despite throwing out four starters not named Felix Hernandez. They managed a five-run ninth inning rally, a walk-off single, and a three-run eighth inning rally in three separate games. Of course, the goodwill was undone in a Monday stinker in Chicago, but nobody actually expects a team like this to sustain good feelings. All fans want is for the team to provide the occasional lift.

26. Houston Astros

SBN Blog: The Crawfish Boxes

2010 record: 40-59

Last week's rank: 26

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 30

This could be the most important week of the Astros season, as everyone watches to see what will happen with Roy Oswalt and speculates on how a trade (or non-trade) could impact the future of this franchise. Meanwhile, the team is just 2-5 in its last seven home games, and will look to turn that around with five games against the Cubs and Brewers

25. Kansas City Royals

SBN Blog: Royals Review

2010 record: 42-57

Last week's rank: 23

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 21

The magic of Ned Yost is starting to wear off and the losses are piling up again. The Royals are now just 30-34 under Yost. Time and Royal losing wait for no mortal man. Jason Kendall caught his 2,000th game on Monday night, inspiring the Royals to score a run in the ninth inning against Minnesota... which made it a 19-1 loss. Kendall has caught 93 games this season, four more than any other catcher in baseball. Obviously, the Royals love his game, a distinction any player would be proud to have.

24. Washington Nationals

SBN Blog: Federal Baseball

2010 record: 42-57

Last week's rank: 24

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 25

Tonight features the long-awaited matchup of generational talents Stephen Strasburg and Jason Heyward. Strasburg's not the National pitching himself into Cy Young contention, though. You might be surprised at which Washington pitcher is currently tied with Tim Linecum in ERA. Meanwhile, in an attempt to one-up the Marlins' pie-ban, the Nats are forbidding trips to visiting teams' radio booths

23. Cleveland Indians

SBN Blog: Let's Go Tribe!

2010 record: 41-58

Last week's rank: 25

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 23

The Indians have caught back up to the fourth-place Royals, and it looks like these two teams will battle it out the rest of the way. Is there no end to the despair that is Andy Marte? It's one thing to not become a star or even an average player. Marte has left all that behind, and just keeps posting uglier and uglier numbers. Marte now has an OPS of .606 and no position to play on a bad Tribe team.

22. New York Mets

SBN Blog: Amazin' Avenue

2010 record: 50-49

Last week's rank: 18

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 24

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21. Chicago Cubs

SBN Blog: Bleed Cubbie Blue

2010 record: 46-54

Last week's rank: 21

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 19

In a season where everything that can go wrong has, Geovany Soto (who was hitting .328/.408/.687 in July) had to leave Monday night's game after fouling a ball of his foot, and is day-to-day. At 12-10 in July, it's possible the Cubs could have their first winning month of the season, but it's much too little too late: they're in fourth place and 9.5 games back of the Cardinals, and this doesn't look like a team poised to make a run.

20. Detroit Tigers

SBN Blog: Bless You Boys

2010 record: 51-47

Last week's rank: 16

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 10

The Tigers are just 3-10 in their last 13 games, a stretch that now includes the indignity of being no-hit by Matt Garza. The storyline is that the Tigers are now beset by injuries, which is true, but also implies that losing Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen are huge disasters. They aren't. Ordonez has been decent this season, but his trip to the DL is a blessing in disguise for the Tigers, who now can rest assured his option for 2011 won't vest. Guillen meanwhile, doesn't hit much anymore (.764) or run, or field. In his place, the Tigers have called up the awesomely named Will Rhymes, a 27 year old minor league lifer who has a listed weight of 155 pounds.

19. Milwaukee Brewers

SBN Blog: Brew Crew Ball

2010 record: 48-53

Last week's rank: 22

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 16

The Brewers have won a season-high five straight (and seven in a row at home), and need just one win in their next four games to clinch back-to-back winning months for the first time since April and May of 2009. It'd be a massive hill to climb but the Brewers still have a small glimmer of playoff hope: they have 16 games remaining against the Reds and Cardinals, so they could pull themselves back into contention with well-timed wins.

18. Toronto Blue Jays

SBN Blog: Bluebird Banter

2010 record: 51-49

Last week's rank: 17

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 9

A winning week keeps the Jays above .500 thanks largely in part to continued production from Yunel Escobar. With the trade deadline coming up, the Jays stand to bring in a good take with their impressive stock of in-demand relievers, headlined by Scott Downs. This next week's success will be determined by just how large the haul ends up being.

17. Colorado Rockies

SBN Blog: Purple Row

2010 record: 51-48

Last week's rank: 9

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 13

Colorado's challenge for the West appears to be fading. They have lost six in a row, scoring just 13 runs, and are currently eight games back of the leaders. They finished a 2-9 road trip on which they were held to two runs or fewer seven times, and are 20-32 on the road. Only three NL teams have more road losses. They'll want Troy Tulowitzki back soon, as replacement Clint Barmes now has a season OPS below .700.

16. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

SBN Blog: Halos Heaven

2010 record: 52-50

Last week's rank: 14

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 22

It seems the statistics may finally be catching up to the Angels, as this team has fallen all over itself in losing 14 of its last 21 games. At 7.5 behind Texas and 10 behind Tampa Bay, these guys can't be considered serious playoff contenders. That would seem to render the recent pair of trades moot, except that the Angels will control Alberto Callaspo and Dan Haren for another combined five or six years after this one is over. So that's something. With Haren, Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana, and Joel Pineiro, the Angels are set to have a formidable rotation in 2011. No more awful Joe Saunders!

15. Florida Marlins

SBN Blog: Fish Stripes

2010 record: 50-49

Last week's rank: 20

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 20

Chris Coghlan might require surgery after unsuccessfully pie-ing Wes Helms in the face. Seriously. As a result of the incident, the Marlins have banned pie-celebrations and called up top-prospect Logan Morrison. Maybe the injury is a blessing in disguise, though, as Logan Morrison has a .924 OPS in the minors this season and Coghlan is mired in a sophomore slump.

14. Los Angeles Dodgers

SBN Blog: True Blue LA

2010 record: 53-46

Last week's rank: 19

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 15

Los Angeles has won four of the past five games, despite only managing to cross home plate nine times - their pitching staff shut out the opposition in three of those four victories. They are third in the NL West, six games back, and face a crucial stretch of ten consecutive games against the two teams ahead of them, starting with six contests on the road this week, facing first the Padres, then the Giants. They need their bats to wake up.

13. Philadelphia Phillies

SBN Blog: The Good Phight

2010 record: 53-46

Last week's rank: 13

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 17

After a sweep of the Rockies, the Phillies have reversed places with the Mets in the standings and the trade market. Now just 4.5 games back from the Braves, the Philadelphia is being linked with every available starting pitcher on the market. The news of their sweep was bittersweet, though, as Jimmy Rollins is again injured, now day-to-day with a foot bruise. It's not a major injury, but with Chase Utley hurt and Jason Castro golfing, it is a serious test of their middle-infield depth. 

12. Oakland Athletics

SBN Blog: Athletics Nation

2010 record: 50-48

Last week's rank: 15

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 11

The A's are one of the hotter teams in baseball, winners of nine of their last 11 games. Where's it gotten them? They haven't gained much ground on the Rangers, but they have made up five games and caught the Angels in second. The only real blemish over Oakland's last month was a three-game sweep at the hands of the Yankees, but that's not exactly a criminal occurrence. Jack Cust and his .925 OPS wonder how the A's ever dropped them to the minors.

11. Cincinnati Reds

SBN Blog: Red Reporter

2010 record: 55-46

Last week's rank: 11

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 14

The Reds are treading water at best right now (6-9 in their last 15 games to go from three games up in the NL Central to a game back), but at least they're getting Scott Rolen back. On the season they're 45-32 when he's in the starting lineup, and 10-14 when he's not. Finding a way to win on the road might be one of their biggest keys: they're 31-22 at home but only 24-24 away, and 33 of their remaining 61 games are on the road.

10. Chicago White Sox

SBN Blog: South Side Sox

2010 record: 54-44

Last week's rank: 8

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 12

Chicago went 3-6 on a long road trip, yet still held onto first place throughout. The topic of the hour is Omar Vizquel's Hall of Fame candidacy, with Hawk Harrelson Little O's most public champion. Perhaps more interesting, and certainly more relevant at present, is Omar's semi-comeback this year in Chicago. Two years ago, at age 41, Vizquel posted a .550 OPS in San Francisco. In 197 trips to the plate this season, Vizquel has surprised many with a semi-functional .277/.344/.341 line. That's good enough to DH for the Royals! Or, actually the White Sox, too.

9. Minnesota Twins

SBN Blog: Twinkie Town

2010 record: 54-46

Last week's rank: 12

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 3

The Twins are 8-4 since the All-Star break, thanks mostly to a reawakened lineup. Winners of three straight, the Twins have scored 7, 10, and 19 runs over that span. Since the beginning of June, Delmon Young has raised his batting average from .263 to .328, hitting as if he's in a batting cage. Which is nice, because Matt Garza did throw a no-hitter on Monday night. With more games against the Royals and Mariners coming up, the Twins might be in first place soon enough.

8. Boston Red Sox

SBN Blog: Over The Monster

2010 record: 56-44

Last week's rank: 7

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 4

The Sox have been floundering when they most needed to shine. All parts of the Sox-pitching, hitting, fielding, and managing-have gone wrong at some point in the past week, leaving them uncomfortably behind in the Wild Card race. With Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett, and Victor Martinez all making successful returns, however, the Sox are getting healthy enough to make a final playoff push.

7. St. Louis Cardinals

SBN Blog: Viva El Birdos

2010 record: 55-44

Last week's rank: 5

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 8

The Cardinals won eight straight to propel themselves back into first place in the NL Central, but then lost three of four and squandered some key opportunities to open up a lead on the Reds. They open a series against the ice-cold Mets tonight before returning home to host the Pirates and Astros, so they could be poised to make a run.

6. Atlanta Braves

SBN Blog: Talking Chop

2010 record: 57-41

Last week's rank: 3

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 7

The Braves may not have the best lineup in baseball, but they may have the best rotation and bullpen. And maybe the best bench too: according to Fangraphs.com, the combined contributions of Omar Infante, Eric Hinske, Brooks Conard, Matt Diaz, Dave Ross and Gregor Blanco have been more valuable than any single starter in Atlanta's lineup. A good bench is always an asset in the playoffs too, which the Braves are almost assured of making. 

5. San Francisco Giants

SBN Blog: McCovey Chronicles

2010 record: 56-44

Last week's rank: 10

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 18

Possibly the hottest team in baseball right now, having gone 15-4 since Independence Day. They've allowed more than five runs once over that time, and have held the opposition to two runs or fewer in seven of the past 13 games. The enchantingly-named Madison Bumgarner has blossomed, with a 1.87 ERA over five starts, while bullpen arms Sergio Romo and Brian Wilson have allowed one run in 22.2 innings

4. Texas Rangers

SBN Blog: Lone Star Ball

2010 record: 58-41

Last week's rank: 6

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 5

Although Texas has three more in Anaheim this coming weekend, let's face it - their taking three of four against the Angels this past weekend was a huge, huge blow, and gave the Rangers a cushion fit for Tommy Hunter. Fun fact: Cliff Lee has thrown 61.1 innings over his last seven starts, three with Texas. Seven nine-inning complete games would total 63 innings. GM Jon Daniels is poking around for a righty platoon bat right now, and realistically that may be all this team needs.

3. San Diego Padres

SBN Blog: Gaslamp Ball

2010 record: 58-39

Last week's rank: 4

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 6

Despite the surging Giants, San Diego still holds a 3.5-game lead in the NL West - a three-game sweep of the Pirates over the weekend completing a 4-2 road-trip for the Padres. And who the heck is Chris Denorfia? Answer: the guy hitting .327 with six HR - more than Adrian Gonzalez - and 13 RBI for San Diego this month. Prior to July, Denorfia had three career long-balls, since his debut in 2005. I imagine the Padres must prefer this version.

2. Tampa Bay Rays

SBN Blog: DRays Bay

2010 record: 60-38

Last week's rank: 2

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 1

Matt Garza's no-hitter puts an exclamation mark on a strong week for the Rays, who saw their lead in the Wild Card race grow to five games. Other than Garza, though, the starting pitching hasn't been quite what the Rays are used to, and they'll need everything they've got to get through the difficult weeks ahead against the Tigers, Twins, and Yankees.

1. New York Yankees

SBN Blog: Pinstripe Alley

2010 record: 63-35

Last week's rank: 1

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 2

A-Rod is still looking for number 600, but all's well in New York where the Yankees maintain their lead on the rest of baseball. It will be hard to keep that up if the rotation continues to perform as it did over the last week. With Andy Pettitte out, Phil Hughes hasn't been the same since May, and Sabathia has run into a few control problems in his last couple of starts. Then again, if the offense continues to average eight runs a game, it will hardly matter how poorly they pitch.

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