'12 shaping up as another banner pitching year

'12 shaping up as another banner pitching year

'12 shaping up as another banner pitching year
The men atop the mound are once again in power.

Through Monday, teams averaged 4.16 runs per game, the lowest output since 1992 (4.12), and batted a collective .249, the worst average since 1972 (.244).

To many, the reason behind the statistics remains a mystery.

"I have no idea," said Indians starter Derek Lowe.

"What do you think?" asked Cleveland pitching coach Scott Radinsky.

"It's my opinion, what I say," said Angels outfielder Torii Hunter, "but it might not even be true, so I can't even give my opinion on that."

There certainly isn't a cut-and-dried answer. If the low scores during baseball's first month -- similar to those of the last two seasons -- are any indication, "Year of the Pitcher: Part Three" could be under way.

"It could be that kind of situation where the pitchers are getting the upper hand on the hitters," Indians bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr. said. "So far it seems that way."

The decrease in offensive output could be the result of several variables. External factors have often influenced the ebb and flow of runs scored.

Specific regulations contributed to the dead-ball era (1900 to 1920), during which pitching thrived. After that, scoring increased until 1942, when some players put their careers on hold to fight in World War II.

Scoring averaged approximately 4.2 to 4.5 runs per team per game until the early 1960s, when it dipped to four or slightly lower.

In 1968, Carl Yastrzemski won the American League batting title with just a .301 average, and Denny McLain became the third pitcher of the live-ball era to win 30 games in a season. That December, Major League Baseball shrunk the strike zone and lowered the pitcher's mound. Scoring jumped, from an average 3.42 runs in 1968 to 4.07 in 1969, and fluctuated around the latter mark for two decades.

"We're in a pitching-friendly time, but it's too early to call it an era, and calling it the 'Year of the Pitcher' is really overblown," said Gary Gillette, editor of SABR's "Emerald Guide to Baseball 2012."

"1968 was the 'Year of the Pitcher.' If you look at offense that year, it completely collapsed. We're nowhere near that level. We're really just returning to historical norms after the great offensive explosion that began in the '90s and lasted until the early 2000s."

Now, however, "There's a more fair playing field," Radinsky said.

Since the height of the home-run surge 10 to 15 years ago, baseball has made an effort to cleanse the game of performance-enhancing drugs.

Perhaps no player embodies the changes in the game's scoring balance better than Bruce Chen. The southpaw pitched for seven Major League teams between 2000 and 2003, struggling to find his niche during a hitter-friendly era. No longer a journeyman, Chen has established himself atop the Royals' rotation during the past three years.

Chen believes that pitchers were at a significant disadvantage 10 to 15 years ago.

"It wasn't fair, but on the other hand, the league adjusted to that," Chen said. "Right now, because of the good pitching, the games are close, so you can't afford to give up four or five runs in a game. Before you could give up five runs and still win the game. Everything is relative. The bottom line is, you just have to make sure they score less than your team scores."

Though per-game scoring tapered off in the early 2000s, it didn't really take a plunge until 2010, when it fell, from 4.61 runs in 2009 to 4.38.

Gillette suggests that teams previously focused on stocking their organizations with pitching to repel the league-wide hitting spree. Now, with all of that young talent developed and experienced, the effects are on full display.

"You have a league-wide emphasis on pitching since the offense-explosion peak," Gillette said. "People were desperate to stop their opponents from scoring. Normally, that kind of talent selection takes three to five years to cycle through. I believe that in the mid- to late '90s, Major League clubs consciously started looking hard to develop better pitching."

Lowe thinks that the obsolescence of PEDs is too convenient of an answer to explain the contrasting trends of the past 15 years.

"I think people are quick to say it's because they took steroids out of the game," said Lowe, who made his big league debut in 1997. "I'm not as sure about that. I don't think there's really one answer. Maybe the pitchers are just better."

He has a point.

Last season, 60 starters posted ERAs lower than 4.00. The year before, 57 starters sported such ERAs. In 2000, when players crossed home plate more than in any other season since 1936, only 21 starters kept their ERA below 4.00, including just six American League hurlers. That year the average ERA for an AL starter was 4.92. Last year it was 4.08.

Everything could be circumstantial, however. Are the pitchers' numbers inflated because of a lack of hitting, the same way home run and RBI totals ballooned before? Are McLain's 31 wins in 1968 more impressive than Pedro Martinez's 1.74 ERA in 2000? How does Justin Verlander's 2011 AL Cy Young Award and MVP season compare?

No matter the levelness of the playing field, Lowe believes pitchers are throwing harder. Triple-digit heaters are leaving hitters helpless more now than ever.

"I've never seen guys throw this hard," Lowe said. "It seems like every team has four or five guys that are throwing 95-plus."

Lowe isn't imagining things. In 2002, 16 starters averaged at least 92 mph on their fastball, according to FanGraphs. Last season, 38 starters hurled that kind of heat. And as pitchers have increased their velocity, the record for most strikeouts per nine innings has been reset in each of the last four seasons.

As the game becomes more specialized and pitchers are conditioned to toss fewer innings due to strict pitch counts, they can harness their energy into the 90 to 100 pitches they throw, allowing them to throw harder.

"You have three or four, sometimes five guys [on a team] who can throw as hard as the hardest thrower on a staff 10 years ago," Gillette said.

Of course, all of this is up for debate. Whether it's the result of stricter and better-enforced drug-testing policies, a period of premier pitching, the furthering of the game's specialization, the advance of sabermetrics, more pitcher-friendly ballparks or some combination of the above, the bottom line is that scoring is relatively down and pitching is chic.

"We have so many reasons why the game is changing," Hunter said. "We got steroids out of the game. We got everything out of the game. Pitchers are a lot better. They throw more cutters and more pitches. There are more hot/cold zones and scouting reports. It's a little bit of everything."

"I don't think there's one answer," Lowe said. "I think it goes in waves. Maybe 10 years from now, the hitters will be back dominating. I think, instead of trying to put an answer to it, enjoy it. You have some really special pitchers in the game."

When taking into account the cyclical nature of scoring in baseball, one could argue that the current dynamics are representative of the norm, making the declaration that we're headed toward another "Year of the Pitcher" a bit exaggerated.

"I think there's a tendency in sports to proclaim what's going on now to be extreme in one way or the other," said Paul Hirsch, a director on SABR's board. "People like to believe they are participating in things that are unprecedented or very special. It's only when you look back that you realize that this is just something that has happened before, but to a different degree."

Zack Meisel is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @zackmeisel. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.