Claire: Many factors behind pitching boom
The 2010 Major League Baseball season has a long way to go, but it already has a title: "The Year of the Pitcher."
The improvement of the pitching statistics -- or the decline of offensive numbers, if you prefer -- has been so noticeable that even such media platforms as Time magazine and National Public Radio have weighed in on what is happening in Major League stadiums.
The overall story has been highlighted by five no-hit games, including two perfect games, with another pitching masterpiece spoiled by an admittedly wrong call by umpire Jim Joyce.
Joyce's well-documented call kept Detroit's Armando Galarraga from notching a perfect game, which would have enabled him to join Oakland's Dallas Braden and Philadelphia's Roy Halladay in that historic category. It also would have marked the first time in history that there were three perfect games in a season.
On the flip side of the impressive pitching, of course, is the decline in offensive statistics.
In other words, as Casey Stengel once said, "Good pitching will always stop good hitting, and vice versa."
Stengel, as always, had a point to make, but one that was not always easy to recognize at first glance. These things tend to go in cycles.
Reversals of Fortune
Some observers want to answer the question of declining offense by simply pointing to improved testing for performance-enhancing drugs.
In talking to a number of people in the game, I believe this is a factor, but not the total answer.
One of the key factors is the improvement in the development of pitchers at both the amateur and professional levels. Seldom has professional baseball put more of an emphasis on producing power arms.
One of the game's top instructors, Braves pitching coordinator Dave Wallace, offered this observation when asked why we are seeing sinking batting averages and production.
"You know the obvious answer, but besides that, young, strong pitchers with good command of the strike zone are emerging," Wallace said. "Young guys are starting to understand how important the fastball is. And when that's accomplished, it opens up a world of possibilities for secondary pitches."
Said Eddie Bane, scouting director for the Angels: "Radar guns are an attractive feature for young kids today. Home runs and big fastballs are a huge part of the game, and some of these young pitchers graduate to being able to learn how to actually pitch."
Bane also notes that a lot of hard-throwing pitchers are coming out of Latin America and that better athletes are heading to the mound.
"Kids are playing more travel ball in our country, and the instruction is improving," he said.
Noted former catcher Brent Mayne: "During the steroid era, pitchers had to become very precise with their location just to survive. Regardless of how good their stuff was or how hard they threw, they probably found the only thing that worked consistently was to throw the ball exactly where they wanted to. So the skill level of pitchers as a whole to hit spots increased."
Another former catcher, Rick Dempsey, believes that improved technology and access to analytical information is a factor in the improvement of pitching.
"A lot of what is happening is the attention to detail," said Dempsey. "More teams are using a more sophisticated system to calculate defense. There is definitely more attention to video on hitters and their weaknesses. Each pitch and location is becoming so computerized."
Veteran scout Mel Didier of the Toronto Blue Jays can't remember a time when there have been so many good arms in the Minor League systems of Major League teams.
"You have a lot of good young pitchers, and they are receiving excellent instruction, because teams know they must develop talent," said Didier. "And you also are seeing the young pitchers learning how to use an offspeed pitch even when they have the ability to throw 90-plus."
"I just think that pitchers have done a terrific job," Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, a star for the Baltimore Orioles in the 1960s, when pitching took the spotlight, told National Public Radio. "They have found what we found back in my generation, where it's not just about throwing, it's about pitching. And they're not throwers, they're pitchers.
"And it's great to see as a former pitcher, because I think the evolution is kind of going back toward where we pitched, where you played in the Minor Leagues for a number of years, you learned how to pitch, then you came to the Major Leagues ... with a lot of veteran guys."
A look at the Major League team batting averages through Monday's games shows 17 teams hitting .259 or below, another reflection of a season when pitching is clearly in the spotlight.
Again, it all goes back to what the wonderful Stengel had to say when asked about pitchers: "Nobody ever had too many of them."
Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as executive vice president and general manager. He is the author of "Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue." This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.