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July 23, 2010

On the Beat

Why is it The Year of The Pitcher?

by John Perrotto

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The 2010 season has been the "Year of the Pitcher." How do we know this to be true? Because seemingly everyone connected to baseball says it is. National magazines run cover stories saying this is the Year of the Pitcher. National television broadcasters say it, too. And so do many of the players.

"No-hitters. Perfect games. How can it not be the 'Year of the Pitcher?'" Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said. "You have guys on the mound who are doing some pretty amazing things this season."

When it comes to individual achievement, this has indeed been the Year of the Pitcher. The Phillies' Roy Halladay and the Athletics' Dallas Braden have pitched perfect games and the Tigers' Armando Galarraga would have had one, too, if not for a blown call by first-base umpire Jim Joyce. The Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez and the Diamondbacks' Edwin Jackson have thrown no-hitters.

To truly call this the Year of the Pitcher is a stretch, though, especially when this season is compared to 1968, the original Year of the Pitcher. Major-league teams are averaging 4.47 runs and 0.94 home runs per game this season compared to the miniscule 3.42 and 0.61 figures of '68.

However, the offensive numbers are down compared to 1998, which in retrospect seemed to be the pinnacle of the Steroids Era, as Mark McGwire set was then the record with 70 home runs and Sammy Sosa hit 66. That year, teams averaged 4.79 runs and 1.04 homers a game.

One current player who was around then is Reds third baseman Scott Rolen, the 1997 National League Rookie of the Year with the Phillies. While the simple answer to explain the drop in offense is the steroids testing Major League Baseball implemented in 2006 has removed performance-enhancing drugs from the game, Rolen has a different simple answer.

"The pitching is better. In fact, the pitching in the major leagues now is great," Rolen said. "You're routinely see guys who throw 95 mph and many of them have great movement on their fastballs. Everybody sinks the ball now. Everybody cuts the ball now. It seems like every pitch moves and you never get a straight fastball. When I came into the league, there were a handful of guys throwing cutters. Now, it seems like every pitcher cuts his fastball and a lot them are throwing it at 93."

Angels center fielder Torii Hunter, who made his major-league debut with the Twins in 1997, concurs with Rolen, saying, "There a lot of guys today who are just electrifying." Hunter believes the information explosion in baseball has also benefitted the pitchers.

"They have scouting reports and video of every hitter, and a million statistics that show the hitters' tendencies," Hunter said. "I know the hitters have scouting reports, but ultimately the ball is in the pitcher's hand. The pitchers know how to attack the hitters a lot better than they did when I first came up to the big leagues. You've got guys with great arms that are also smart. It's tough to compete against that."

One of the popular storylines of the late 1990s was that there was a severe shortage of quality pitchers in the major leagues because the pool had been thinned by two rounds of expansion during the decade. Thus, many of the best youth league players of that time were steered toward pitching with the idea that it would be more advantageous to being drafted and eventually making it to the major leagues. Those youngsters have now grown up, and Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte says that has made an impact on the scoring rate.

"Young pitchers just seem to have a better idea of how to pitch than they did when I was coming up," said Pettitte, a 16-year veteran. "They make adjustments faster. They know how to change speeds, keep hitters off balance. They're much more advanced. It's fun to watch, at least it is for me, being a pitcher."

Somewhat surprisingly, even some of the game's best hitters are enjoying the scoring drop. Count Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun among that group.

"We are getting back to how the game was played in the '70s and '80s and I like it," Braun said. "It's about doing the little things—moving runners, sacrifice bunts. I know that might not be what the fans who like to see home runs are looking for, but I really believe that is how the game is meant to be played."

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Speculation was rampant that owner Tom Ricketts would lead the Cubs' managerial search, particularly when he accompanied the team on its last road trip before the All-Star break. However, he is leaving that task to general manager Jim Hendry, who says he will conduct a thorough search, even though Ryne Sandberg seems to be the overwhelming favorite to replace the retiring Lou Piniella.

"We'll leave no stones unturned," Hendry said. "We'll evaluate people who have done it before, people who haven't done it before, people that are in-house, and obviously people that work or have worked elsewhere. It'll just be a long process to get the right conclusion for the Chicago Cubs moving forward."

However, Sandberg, the Hall of Famer and Cubs legend, appears to be the favorite. He is currently managing the Cubs' Triple-A Iowa club, his fourth season as a skipper in their farm system.

Cubs bench coach Alan Trammell and television broadcaster Bob Brenly are also likely to get interviews. Trammell was the Tigers' manager for three seasons from 2003-05, and Brenly was the manager when the Diamondbacks won the World Series in 2001. Speculation has also centered on Dodgers manager Joe Torre, Yankees manager Joe Girardi, and ESPN analyst Bobby Valentine being in the mix.

The Cubs do not plan to interview candidates until after the season, even though Piniella announced on Tuesday that he will retire at the end of the season. Piniella originally planned to make the announcement during the final days of the season, then changed his mind because of continued speculation about his status. Though the Cubs are 43-53 and 11 games behind the division-leading Cardinals in the National League Central, Piniella said he will not let his club coast to the finish line.

"I talked to the team, and I told them that just because I'm retiring at the end of the season doesn't mean that I'm not interested in continuing to win baseball games, that I will come here every day prepared to win a baseball game, to do the best I can to ensure that we do those things," Piniella said.

On the South Side of Chicago, White Sox manger Ozzie Guillen is signed through next season with a club option through 2012. There has been some speculation that the White Sox may pick up the option before the end of this season to avoid questions about Guillen's job security and the possibility of him jumping to another club when spring training begins next February. However, Guillen said he would prefer to concentrate on the season, particularly with his team leading the American League Central.

"When you work you always want an extension," Guillen said. "You always want to have a secure job. But right now, if I start talking about extension, if I start talking about that, I don't think it's the time right now to talk about it because the way we play, I should be worried about how we're going to win games, worried about what will happen this year, worry about my players. Because as soon as I go there and we start talking extension, that means I don't respect the players, I don't respect the fans—'Well, now because he's winning he wants an extension.' No, I think the time will come."

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Torre had no problem handing the lineup card to hitting coach Don Mattingly as the Dodgers' manager was forced to sit out Wednesday night's 2-0 victory over the Giants at Dodger Stadium while serving a one-game suspension imposed by Major League Baseball. It didn't matter to Torre that Mattingly, serving as acting manager following the ejection of Torre, made a pitching-change mistake on Tuesday night that cost the Dodgers the services of closer Jonathan Broxton in a 7-5 loss to the Giants.

Prior to Wednesday's game, Mattingly even asked Torre, "You still want me to manage?" Thus, the Dodgers were happy to come through with a victory for Mattingly.

"It was awesome," third baseman Casey Blake said. "I know he felt bad after what happened. You feel terrible for the guy. I love that guy. And just like Torre, you want to play hard for him. It was good to see him get that (victory) under his belt."

Mattingly is expected to succeed Torre as the Dodgers' manager, perhaps at the end of this season. However, there are doubts about Mattingly's readiness to move into the job because he has not managed at any level.

Those doubts grew Tuesday night after Mattingly accidentally took two visits to the pitcher's mound in the ninth inning, forcing Broxton's exit. Mattingly walked off the mound, then returned to answer a question from first baseman James Loney. The Dodgers were leading 5-4 at the time with one out and the bases loaded in the ninth inning, but Mattingly was forced to bring in George Sherrill, who did not have an opportunity to warm up properly, and the struggling left-hander promptly gave up Andres Torres' game-winning two-run double.

As it turned out, the umpires made an incorrect ruling as they misinterpreted rule 8.06. Mattingly should have been ejected and Broxton should have been forced to pitch to one batter, and only one batter, then another reliever brought in.

Not only did the umpires err, but the Dodgers made a mistake by not protesting the game. A protest must be lodged immediately before the next pitch. Regardless of the foul-up, Torre still believes Mattingly would make a good manager.

"That (incident) has nothing to do with your managing ability," Torre said. "It's a reaction thing. You're talking to a player and you turn around. That's something you learn and you move on. It's certainly easy to do when you walk off that mound and somebody says something to you."

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MLB Rumors & Rumblings: The Cardinals have emerged as the favorites over the Phillies to trade for Astros right-hander Roy Oswalt because he is less likely to demand that St. Louis pick up the $16 million option in his contract for 2012 than he would Philadelphia. … The Diamondbacks might be closer to trading right-hander Dan Haren than originally thought as the Reds, Tigers, Phillies, and Cardinals are all interested. … There are indications that the Red Sox would at least consider parting with closer Jonathan Papelbon in the right trade if they could acquire a strong set-up man that would enable them to switch Daniel Bard to closer. The Red Sox are considering trying to trade for a number of high-profile players, including Haren, Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder, Nationals first baseman Adam Dunn, and Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth, and also have interest in Marlins closer Leo Nunez, Mariners closer David Aardsma, and Blue Jays left-handed reliever Scott Downs. … The White Sox are thinking of making a pitch for Fielder after talks with the Nationals about Dunn broke down when Chicago refused to give up either second baseman Gordon Beckham or right fielder Carlos Quentin in a potential trade. … The Angels were also unable to make a deal for Dunn and are now considering other first basemen on the trade market, including the Diamondbacks' Adam LaRoche and the Astros' Lance Berkman. … While the Rays have interest in Werth, they are balking at the Phillies' asking price of right-hander Wade Davis and center fielder B.J. Upton, and instead are looking at other outfield options such as the Orioles' Luke Scott, the Brewers' Corey Hart, and the Blue Jays' Jose Bautista. … Plenty of clubs have interest in trading for Cubs left-hander Ted Lilly, including the Tigers, Dodgers, Twins, Mets, Yankees, and Phillies. Astros right-hander Brett Myers is also on the radar of the Tigers and Twins. … Athletics right-hander Ben Sheets is available, but most teams, including the Phillies, look at him as Plan B if they are unable to trade for Oswalt or Lilly. … The Padres are interested in trading for the Orioles' Miguel Tejada and the Red Sox' Jed Lowrie to replace injured second baseman David Eckstein. … The Yankees and Braves have inquired about Marlins center fielder Cody Ross. … The Mets have made right fielder Jeff Francouer available now that he has been squeezed out of the lineup by the return of center fielder Carlos Beltran from the disabled list.  … The Tigers have some interest in Mariners third baseman Jose Lopez but want to see if they can get by with a combination of Don Kelly and Scott Sizemore at the hot corner while Brandon Inge recovers from his broken hand. … Two front-office types claim Royals right-hander Kyle Farnsworth is currently the most hotly pursued reliever on the trade market. … The Pirates have gotten many calls about set-up man Joel Hanrahan but would need to be overwhelmed to trade him, though they are willing to part with closer Octavio Dotel, left-hander Javier Lopez, and right-handers D.J. Carrasco and Brendan Donnelly from their bullpen. … Free-agent right-hander Pedro Martinez has decided not to pitch this season but is not yet ready to say he is retired. … Major League Baseball is considering having the Diamondbacks and Giants open the 2011 season with a two-game series in Taiwan.

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Scouts' views on various major-leaguers:

Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez: "He's making adjustments faster than most young players and he's hitting the ball hard. I know it's very early in the kid's career, but I think you're going to see him hit 35 homers a year and that could be as soon as next year."

Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista: "I keep waiting for the guy to crash and burn but he doesn't. He's always had some talent with a little pop and a willingness to take a walk. I don't know how much I'd be willing to bet on it, but he just might a late bloomer"

Astros first baseman Lance Berkman: "He's not swinging the bat the way he used to, and it's either because that knee he had operated on in spring training is bothering him or he's just getting old. I don't know the answer, but he isn't a real threat anymore."

Braves left fielder Matt Diaz: "He's finally over that thumb injury and he's swinging it [the bat] really well now. It's almost like the Braves have made a midseason trade with the way he is hitting."

Diamondbacks right-hander Barry Enright: "His stuff is very ordinary, at best, but he throws three pitches for strikes and just has a good feel for pitching. It's kind of refreshing to see this kid come up and outfox hitters like he's a 10-year veteran."

Twins shortstop J.J. Hardy: "He's playing a lot better since his bruised wrist healed up and he came off the DL. He's a good player and he's finally showing that with his new team. He could give the Twins a real lift down the stretch, which is something they need."

Brewers left-hander Manny Parra: "I know their options are limited, but I don't know how the Brewers keep running him out there every fifth day. He's not a big-league starting pitcher. That I do know. You've got to feel for Kenny Macha having to sit there and watch that rotation night after night, except for (Yovani) Gallardo."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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