The Year of the Pitcher


The baseball establishment has always favoured the hitters over the pitchers.   Over time, the rules have been altered to give the hitters an advantage.  Presuming that the fans would prefer seeing a home run than a strikeout, a major rule change was implemented at the start of the 1969 season that has altered the game significantly. 


1968 has been dubbed the year of the pitcher.  Pitchers dominated that season.  Denny McLain of the Detroit Tigers went 31-6.  Five pitchers in the American League had ERAs lower than 2.00, and Bob Gibson won the NL title with an unheard of 1.12 ERA and 13 shutouts.  Juan Marichal of the Giants won 26 games and led the NL with 30 complete games out of 38 starts.   The team batting average in the AL was an anemic .230, and only one player in the league hit over .300 (Carl Yastrzemski, .301).


Fearing that a lack of offence would drive away the fans, the Rules committee lowered the mound from 15” to 10” and also graduated the slope of the mound.   The changes altered the game and fundamentally gave the advantage to the hitters.  The AL team ERA rose from 2.98 to 3.62.  It has risen consistently to its 2007 level of 4.50.


There has been one other major rules change that has discriminated against the pitchers.  The strike zone has shrunk.  It is supposed to be the armpit to the knee, but most umpires will not call anything above the belt a strike.


If those two obstacles weren’t enough, pitchers have other factors working against them.  Batters are now allowed to wear protective armour that enable them to crowd the plate and take away the advantage the pitchers had of throwing on the outside corner.  The balls are also livelier and the ballparks are smaller.  The game of today resembles softball more than baseball.


It is a bit specious to presume that fans prefer offence.  In the American League, the attendance in 1968 was the second highest between the years 1961 to 1971. 


There is always a buzz in the crowd when a power pitcher is on the mound.  I only saw Nolan Ryan pitch once in person, but I’ll never forget it.  He was 42 years old, and he was pitching for Texas against the Baltimore Orioles on August 5, 1989.  48,776 fans jammed into Memorial Stadium to watch him.  He threw 7 innings, struck out 8, and lost 2-1 to Bob Milacki.  Even though there were only 3 runs scored, the fans were on the edge of their seats the whole game.  I’ll never forget it.


Another game I’ll never forget was between the Yankees and the Red Sox on May 28, 2000 at Yankee Stadium.  Pedro Martinez vs. Roger Clemens.  Both pitchers pitched complete games.  Clemens struck out 13 and Martinez struck out 9.  There were only a total of 9 hits between the two teams, and the Red Sox won it in the top of the 9th on a two run HR by Trot Nixon.  The final was 2-0, and the 55,339 fans who attended were treated to a classic.  The millions who watched on ESPN did not soon forget it either.


Given the rules alterations, I never really respect the current era batting averages.    Todd Helton’s .372BA in 2000 or George Brett’s .390BA in 1980 were significant accomplishments, but what would they have hit if they had to face a 15” mound and a “normal” strike zone?  We’ll never know, but we can always speculate.


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