— If you’re looking for a lot of home runs at the All-Star game, you better tune in a day early and watch the Home Run Derby. Odds are you’re not going to see much scoring once the greatest collection of young arms in memory takes the mound for baseball’s annual midsummer showcase.
All-Star games have not been high-scoring affairs of late. The last four — all won by the American League — had final scores of 4-3, 4-3, 5-4 and 3-2. If this year’s pitchers live up to their hype, they could make those games look like slugfests.
It’s not a question of how many runs will be scored. It’s a question of if any runs at all will cross the plate in Anaheim.
According to MLB.com, on June 28, there were 21 starting pitchers — not counting Stephen Strasburg, who didn’t have enough starts — with ERA’s under 3.00. Of those, 16 were less than 30 years old.
It seems that most of them are on the All-Star rosters.
Among the National League’s Kiddie Korps, there’s no-hit author Ubaldo Jimenez, 26, Tim Lincecum, 26, Josh Johnson, 26, Adam Wainwright, 28 and Yovani Gallardo, 24. Not invited to the game is 21-year-old rookie phenom Strasburg.
For the Americans, kid pitchers include Jon Lester, 26, David Price 24, Clay Buchholz, 25, Phil Hughes, 24, and Trevor Cahill, 22.
I don’t know when there’s been so many great young pitchers gathered together at the All-Star game. Probably never. It’s the pitching equivalent of the late 1990s, when the All-Star Game featured a slugging NL outfield of Junior Griffey, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds.
The sluggers have been reined in by drug testing, and, while batting averages continue to be robust, scoring is down. The pendulum has finally swung from hitting to pitching.
The stellar pitching is not a perception; it’s real. Ten years ago, the National League ERA was 4.63. So far this season, it’s 4.10, a drop of more than half a run a game. The American League ERA has declined from 4.91 in 2000 to 4.20 this year, a drop of .71 runs a game.
You have to go back to 1992 to find ERA significantly lower. That year, the NL ERA was 3.51. It would balloon to 4.02 the following year and kept going up as steroids overtook the game.
In the AL, it was the same story: a league ERA of 3.93 in ’92 and 4.29 the following year and nothing underneath that until this season.
These league ERAs still aren’t at the level they were in the all-time Year of the Pitcher, 1968, when the AL ERA was 2.98 and the NL’s was 2.99. But in 1968, baseball had conspired to create those numbers by allowing pitching mounds to grow to Himalayan altitudes and calling a strike zone that went from the armpits to the bottom of the knees.
In many ways, the current crop of pitchers shouldn’t be able to do what they’re doing. The height of the mound has been strictly regulated at 10 inches since 1969, and the strike zone still doesn’t extend much higher than the belt.
Steroids have been pretty much out of the game since 2004. That has helped pitchers, but the big drop in league ERAs is traceable to the big infusion of strong young arms. The ballparks, after all, are still trending towards smaller and more hitter-friendly, and the hitters are still working out and bulging with muscles.
It’s time to gush, to wax hyperbolic, to invent grandiloquent titles for this crop of extraordinary young pitchers. Simply calling it the Year of the Pitcher seems weak to describe the dominant performances by kid pitchers we’ve been seeing.
If this were basketball, we’d be covered. Dick Vitale would be calling them diaper dandies and putting them in the Hall of Fame. But baseball commentators aren’t as excitable. They’ve seen how often this year’s future hall-of-famer is next year’s total flop — or surgery patient.
But that doesn’t have to stop us from marveling at the incredible talent taking pitching mounds around both leagues every night. Strasburg has energized fans and the game like perhaps no other rookie in the game’s history.
Strasburg isn’t an all-star, but the likes of Jimenez, Johnson, Hughes, Lester and all the others will hold up the cause of strong young arms quite well. It’s the year of the pitcher, and it will be on display in Anaheim.