Commentary

2010: Year of the dominant pitcher

Jimenez, Halladay, Galarraga and now Strasburg … the poor bats just can't compete

Originally Published: June 10, 2010
By Roy S. Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

Ubaldo JimenezAP Photo/Lenny IgnelziBaseball hasn't seen pitching this powerful since 1968, and Ubaldo Jimenez is leading the way.

Can't anyone hit anymore?! I mean, c'mon, fellas.

On Tuesday night, much of the nation (save for basketball fans inside Boston's TD Garden or taking in the Celtics-Lakers game on television) watched Stephen Strasburg, aka The Kid Who Made Us Forget About Jim Joyce, make the anemic Pittsburgh Pirates look like Little Leaguers seeing their first fastball. With absolutely no game plan (the Nats didn't allow him to go over the scouting report), no strategy (unless you consider his manager's "have fun" advice a strategy) and not even much of a clue about whom he was facing, the 21-year-old pitcher with the peach-fuzz goatee struck out 14 batters in seven innings in the most heralded and hyped major league debut since & maybe ever.

Of his 94 pitches that night, 16 were clocked at 98 mph, 16 at 99 mph and two at 100 mph.

I'm happy for the kid, so don't get me wrong. Already, he's a player fans will pay to come see or turn the channel to watch pitch -- maybe the first such pitcher since Roger Clemens.

[+] EnlargeRoy Halladay
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireRoy Halladay has one of two (three, if you count Armando Galarraga) perfect games already this year.

Baseball needs Strasburg like Ray Allen needs to hit his first shot in the next Finals game.

But the two pies in the face Strasburg took from teammates amid the postgame giddiness? They would have been more appropriately used on the clown-like Pirates, who flailed away at the kid's stuff as if they'd been blinded by shaving cream.

But the Pirates aren't alone in their befuddlement in the batter's box. Yes, with a .238 team batting average through Wednesday, they're the worst-hitting club in the majors (and the ideal tomato cans, really, for Strasburg's coming-out party), but their incompetence at the plate is perhaps less an aberration than a symptom of a significant sea change in baseball.

By now, it should be clear that 2010 is The Year of the Pitcher. Even before Strasburg's gem, the game was being ruled by the men on the mound this season. Three no-hitters before the end of May, two of them perfect games. And, of course, Armando Galarraga's "perfecto" should be added to the tally.

Even more emblematic of the shift, there are numerous stats indicating that this may be a unique year for pitchers.

For example, the game is on pace to produce a stunning number of starting pitchers with ERAs under 3.00. At this juncture of the season, there are 25 of them. At the end of last season, there were just 11, and that was only the second season since 2000 in which the number of pitchers with ERAs below 3.00 reached double digits (10 in 2002). Sure, many of those 25 arms this season will tire; batters traditionally get stronger as the games wear through summer. But consider this: Just three seasons ago in 2007, only one pitcher in all of major league baseball (Jake Peavy) finished with an ERA below 3.00.

This season's penny-pinchingest pitcher is, of course, Ubaldo Jimenez of the Colorado Rockies. His ERA "soared" to 0.93 when he gave up a ghastly two runs in a 3-2 victory over Arizona in his last outing.

[+] EnlargeBob Gibson
AP PhotoBob Gibson and others were so strong in the late '60s that baseball lowered the height of the mounds.

And while fans in some cities are still bringing jackets and blankets to games to protect against late-spring chills, Jimenez's won-loss record is already a gaudy 11-1. That's scary, considering only just more than one-third of the season has been played. Perhaps more telling is that nine other pitchers have at least eight wins (before Thursday's games) thus far. In an era when the 20-game winner is so rare he should be invited to the White House, we might see enough of them this season to fill a presidential Cabinet.

I love it.

I don't know if I'm old-school or it's just a personal preference, but my fondest recollections of the players of my youth involve pitchers: Bob Gibson, Vida Blue, Luis Tiant, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, Nolan Ryan, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson and, alas, Clemens. I just liked watching those guys pitch. My guys weren't all fireballers, necessarily, but they all commanded the mound. Not just in the sense that they had command of their pitches, but of the game itself. The best hitters had to go through them, and everyone else just tried to get out of the batter's box with their dignity intact (see: the Pirates the other night).

Let's face it: The steroids era stole that from us. Sure, as we've come to know now, pitchers were just as likely to be juiced as hitters. But the upshot of that ugly period in the game was less command and more ka-pow!

Yes, there are pitchers who endured unstained by performance-enhancing drugs: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, David Wells, Josh Beckett. But as good as they were (or still are, if Beckett comes back from the disabled list soon), especially at their peak, none of them exhibited the command I'm talking about.

In fact, until this year, the only pitcher over the past decade-plus -- in my view -- who regularly takes over a game from the mound, the one guy I'd change the channel to watch pitch, is Mariano Rivera.

This season is offering a plethora of those pitchers, led by Jimenez and Philadelphia's Roy Halladay, already an eight-game winner ahead of his scheduled start Thursday night against the Marlins. That's great if you're a "pitchers' guy."

Stephen Strasburg
AP Photo/Manuel Balce CenetaStephen Strasburg looked a little foolish after his debut, but not as foolish as the Pittsburgh hitters who faced him.

Is it great for baseball? More than 40 years ago, the game's great minds didn't think so. The 1968 season was called the Year of the Pitcher, too. That year, Gibson led all hurlers with a crazy 1.12 ERA. Soon, baseball mandated that mounds could be no higher than 10 inches above the plate. (To give their pitchers an even greater advantage, some teams had been piling their mounds as high as 20 inches above the plate.)

There should be no such shenanigans going on now, so there should be no drastic reaction from baseball. Although we've seen so many 1-0 or 2-1 games this season, I wonder if MLB is conspiring with FIFA to help fans adapt to soccer scoring for the upcoming World Cup. Is this what "clean" baseball looks like?

And if offenses keep filling scorecards like Dunkin' (with doughnuts), will fans continue to come to the parks?

If the reaction to Strasburg's arrival is an indicator, then the answer is yes. His debut was the toughest ticket in Washington since Inauguration Day; his No. 37 jersey might already be the biggest-selling shirt in Nats history (not a very high bar, I know); and sales to his second scheduled start, on Sunday against the Cleveland Indians, are as hot as an incumbent's seat. (TBS even bumped its scheduled broadcast of the Philadelphia Phillies-Boston Red Sox game to put Strasburg on its air.)

On Thursday night, the kid is even scheduled to appear on "The Late Show with David Letterman."

If the trade-off for Year of the Pitcher II is more games in which batters look like they're playing whiffle ball rather than Kong Ball, then that's fine with me.

Roy S. Johnson, a veteran sports journalist and media consultant, is the editor-in-chief of Men's Fitness. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.

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Roy S. Johnson

Contributing writer, ESPN.com