From no-hitters to epic postseason performances, hurlers reigned supreme last season
By John Schlegel
Down to the last days of September to the final out of October and all the way into November, pitching continued to rule Major League Baseball in 2014. With Jordan Zimmermann placing a cherry on top of the regular season with a no-hitter, Madison Bumgarner providing an exclamation point on the World Series with a performance for the ages and Clayton Kershaw doubling down on awards, baseball's arms flexed their muscles again with another click up the historical chart.
It's no secret pitching has been on a solid roll these last few years, and the hits just kept not coming in 2014.
The haul of heady overall numbers, just from the regular season, represented another historic notch on pitching's belt. Consider these feats for pitching as a whole in 2014: The fewest runs allowed since 1981, the lowest cumulative ERA since 1989, the most strikeouts in history, the lowest rate of walks since 1968 and the lowest marks allowed in both batting average and on-base percentage since 1972. Throw in five no-hitters, and it really was another banner year for the men on the mound.
With Kershaw leading the way, individual performances were off the charts. The big Dodgers lefty won both the National League Cy Young Award and the NL Most Valuable Player Award, adding a June 18 no-hitter that was one of five in MLB this year, all of them coming in the NL. Veteran Josh Beckett notched his first no-no on May 25, less than a month before his Dodgers teammate Kershaw, the Giants' Tim Lincecum had his second in as many years on June 25 and Cole Hamels started a four-man feat with the first six innings for the Phillies on Sept. 1. Zimmermann's no-no for the Nationals on the final day of the season, Sept. 28, came to a spectacular end on a diving catch by Steven Souza Jr., a reminder that the pitchers do have defensive players helping them with so many of the outs they record.
American League Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber of the Indians did a lot on his own, though, going 18-9 with a 2.44 ERA and 269 strikeouts -- just the fourth player in the last 25 years with at least 18 wins, 260 K's and an ERA under 2.50. The others: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens.
And then the last stroke of pitching genius came from the left hand of Bumgarner in October, when he pitched a total of 52 2/3 innings to a 1.03 ERA. It was a truly remarkable run that began with nine shutout innings in the NL Wild Card Game and ended with an uncanny five shutout innings of relief in Game 7 of the World Series against the Royals. While Kershaw grabbed all the top pitching awards and then some, Bumgarner earned a place as Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year -- putting pitching atop, well, everything in the world of sports in 2014.
"To me, you'd be hard pressed to find a performance like this ever," Giants catcher Buster Posey said of Bumgarner's Game 7 outing, though he could have been talking about his teammate's October.
During the regular season, the aggregate numbers through MLB's full slate of 2,430 games continued the trend of pitching prowess, across the board:
Runs per game: 4.07
The first season since 1976 to break to the four-run barrier could be on the horizon. The lowest mark since '81 (4.00) will do for now.
More directly associated with pitching, the 2014 mark was more than a run lower than the 2000 season, and the lowest since 3.75 in '92.
For the seventh straight year, a new record and an all-time high of 7.7 per nine innings.
An average of 2.9 per nine innings represents the lowest rate of free passes in any season since the pivotal 1968 "Year of the Pitcher" (2.8).
Batting average: .251
The lowest since .244 in 1972.
On-base percentage: .314
Another step further, the cumulative OBP was the lowest since .311 in '72.
Saying this trend that began in earnest in 2010 represents a downturn in hitting, which of course it does, doesn't give proper credit to Kershaw and Bumgarner, Kluber and Zimmermann, and all the other arms that put together such a stellar year.
Even this offseason's free-agent market has been dominated by arms. Starters Jon Lester (now with the Cubs), Max Scherzer and James Shields were the most prized players out there, and relievers like David Robertson and Andrew Miller cashed in big. If there's one thing every team wanted under its tree this holiday season, it was more pitching.
Consider the two teams that made it to the World Series. The Giants did it with deep pitching and a top mark of 22 homers among their hitters going deep. The Royals did it with deep pitching and a lineup that had no 20-homer guys but manufactured runs with speed and timely power.
"I think this is the way the game is," Royals manager Ned Yost said of his team's style squeezing opportunities among the few today's pitching offers. "I think this is the way the game was. This is the way the game got away from it, and now it's back to where the game is."
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnSchlegelMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.