SI.com's Joe Lemire on what's looking like (another) Year of the Pitcher:
Across baseball in the first three and a half weeks of this season, scoring, home runs, walks, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging are all at their lowest per-game rates in nearly two decades, while strikeouts are at their highest rate in that span. Sequels rarely surpass the original, but if what we've already seen of 2011 is any indication, the reprise of the Year of the Pitcher is coming, well, too fast and too furious.
The sample size remains small but is creeping toward significant, with roughly 13 percent of the 2011 season now in the books, and offense is at an alarmingly low level. On Friday morning, for instance, STATS LLC issued a release showing how runs-scoring in March and April this year is at its lowest level (8.62 per game) during the same span since 1992 (8.24). The five lowest-scoring outputs in the season's first month belong to, in order, 1992, 2011, 1993, 2008, 2007 and 2010.
You should notice a pattern there, as 2011 seems simply a continuation of a trend (with the exception of 2009, which should probably be considered a mild outlier). Or maybe it's not a trend. Maybe in five months we'll look back and find that 2011 fit comfortably within the context of 2007, 2008 and 2010 (and damn that pesky '09).
Here's the point at which we theorize. Or rather, at which Lemire theorizes, offering six possible explanations for the somewhat dramatic decline in hitting that we've seen over what's now a span of four-plus seasons ...
1. Drug Testing
I won't buy the notion that nobody's using drugs anymore. I will buy the notion that they're not using them as much, and that hitters were helped more than pitchers by them, in the bad old days. It just seems like too big a coincidence, that scoring began trending downward at almost exactly the same moment MLB got somewhat serious about drugs.
Seems like a stretch. One can imagine a small impact on run production, if management has become slightly more amorous about defensive talents. Maybe.
There might be something to this. Five new baseball palaces have opened in the last five seasons. One of them (Yankee Stadium) has played as a hitter's park, one (Nationals Park) has been neutral, one (Target Field) has played as a mild pitcher's park, and two (Citi Field and Busch Stadium) have played as pitcher's parks.
4. Cut Fastballs
I don't know. The cutter's been around for a long time. Are pitchers throwing significantly more cutters now than five years ago? More now than two years ago? As Lemire notes, "there's always a new pitch en vogue," and new pitches have always been used to explain diminished hitting stats.
5. Talented Young Pitchers
In the time span considered, from 1992 through 2011, there have been 667 qualifying pitchers who have posted an ERA+ of at least 115, and a decreasing number of them are 30 or older. (ERA+ adjusts ERA for ballpark and the league standard, with 100 as an average score.) From the first decade to the second, fewer pitchers age 30 or older met the chosen standard, while the overall number went up. From 1992 through 2001, 42.1 percent of 309 seasons with an ERA+ of at least 115 were by pitchers of age 30 or older; from 2002 through 2011, that share fell to 30.2 percent of 358 such seasons.
I'll be honest with you ... This one makes my head spin around with little useful effect. ERA+ is relative to the league ... If there are more pitchers with good ERA+, don't there have to be more pitchers with bad ERA+? Doesn't this all come out in the wash? There must be a way to measure young pitching talent, but I'm not sure this is it.
6. Consistent Strike Zones
Gee, I don't know ... I thought the inconsistent strike zones actually helped the pitchers. Those pitchers who could hit their spots, anyway. Lemire's point is that consistency allows the pitcher to attack the strike zone with consistency, not having to adjust from game to game. But couldn't the same be true for hitters? Wouldn't they also benefit from knowing what's a strike and what isn't?
These are all interesting lines of inquiry, and might be addressed by objective analysis. Well, the steroids thing would be tough. Which makes the enterprise problematic, because the steroids thing seems to me the strongest candidate here. But with a little work, we might at least narrow the field some.
As always, I look forward to your thoughts, and I'm sure this conversation will take us in some different directions and last some months.