The golden age of pitching is now

When you consider what today's hurlers have to deal with, our low opinion of them is way off-base. Plus: Does God answer NASCAR prayers?

By Allen Barra
Published April 25, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Isn't it about time for baseball writers and fans to agree to scrap the notion that today's pitching is bad, or that today's pitchers somehow have something to apologize for? I don't know how we could do this, maybe a convention or congress of some kind where we could take a collective vote and pass a resolution into law, but until we figure out a way let's push common sense and see if that has any effect.

Let's compare the American League in 1927 with the American League last season. In 1927 A.L. pitchers gave up a batting average of .286; last season, A.L. pitchers were hit for .276. In 1927 there was one team out of eight, Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's, with more than 500 strikeouts credited to its staff; in 2000, all 14 teams had at least 846. Now, I think that's a pretty good argument for modern pitchers right there: They strike out a lot more hitters -- on average about twice as many -- and give up fewer hits per nine innings. I honestly don't know what else it would be fair to measure them by.

Well, you say, how about earned run average? Well, in 1927 the league ERA was 4.14, and in 2000 it was 4.92. Now, there you have it, the knock against modern pitchers: They give up too many runs. Why? In 1927 there was just one team with more than 100 home runs; in fact, just one team with more than 56 home runs. Guess who. Last season, there were 14 teams with more than 116, and 13 with more than 150. I'm going to take a wild guess that the big difference is the home run.

What I've never figured out is why modern pitchers, along with the "juiced" baseballs, the new ballparks and the shrinking ozone layer, have been blamed for the dramatic increase in home runs in the modern game. I would think that anyone with half a brain and a baseball encyclopedia (and it's amazing how seldom these two items seem to link up) could see that the obvious change is the number of players in a lineup capable of hitting home runs. Before 1930 or so, the best teams had one or two or maybe three hitters in a lineup whom a pitcher really had to bear down on. Today, nearly every hitter on every team is capable of hitting a minimum of 15-20 home runs, and so must demand a pitcher's full attention and his best stuff.

To tell you the truth, I don't know the difference in the kind of yarn or center they used in balls in 1927 and today, and I really don't care. I'm not sure it's that important. Whatever they used in 1927, everyone could hit the ball but only a couple of guys per team were capable of hitting it far. Whatever they use today, fewer people can hit it safely but more people can hit it far when they do.

In practical terms, this means that a pitcher has to pitch harder and better to get through a lineup and hence through a nine-inning ballgame. "Pitchers regularly went nine innings in previous eras," said George Will on TV last year, "so why can't they do it today?" And the answer to that is, they do pitch nine innings today, but they pitch them by the seventh inning. Or, stated another way, a starting pitcher today throws as many pitches by the sixth or seventh as pitchers in previous eras did in nine innings. And they have a tougher time doing it since there are so many more dangerous hitters that they must bear down on.

You don't have to take my word for this, you only have to flip open your "Total Baseball" and look at the number of walks and strikeouts in the modern game compared to any other era. In the modern game, more batters reach base by walk than in the past, and, for the most part, fewer by hit. This is because pitchers have to be more cautious today. A hit requires only one pitch, a walk at least four. And more hitters go down by strikeout than ever before, and that takes at least three pitches. So what you have is a far greater proportion of hitters who are going to require at least three or four pitches than you had in Sandy Koufax's or Lefty Grove's or Cy Young's day.

So, pitchers today aren't worse than in Koufax's or Grove's or Young's time, they are simply forced by the changing circumstances of the game to pay more for the mistakes they do make.

And all of this means that pitchers such as Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson aren't inferior to Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson and Bob Feller and Bob Gibson. In fact, it might actually mean that they're ... dare we say it ... better? Well, I dare say it. I think these guys are as good or better than any starting pitchers in baseball history.

We have to learn to overcome our prejudice regarding complete games and games won. Nowadays a starter is one of five men, not four, and he gets fewer chances to win. And with the teams' becoming increasingly competitive on the field -- and that is what is happening, as last season was the first in a century without a single team finishing over .600 or finishing under .400 -- there are more and more games where pitchers go seven or so good innings, leave the game tied at 2-2 and end up with nothing to show for it on either end of the W-L columns.

So show a little more respect when you see Maddux's 242 victories and assume that if he were pitching 35 or 40 years ago he'd have about 270 or 280 and be heading for an easy 300-plus win career. Assume that if Pedro Martinez were pitching in the early '30s alongside Lefty Grove he might have led the league in ERA for nine seasons, as did Grove, who won more than 300 games doing it. Assume that Randy Johnson, a career 179-95 (for a .653 won-lost percentage) pitcher by age 38, might have been something like 380-190 had he pitched half his games before 1901, as Cy Young (a .613 career pitcher who finished 511-316) did.

In short, assume that any time it appears that evolution is working in reverse, it is probably an illusion.

Are you there, God? It's me, Rusty

I'm all for prayer and, unlike many people in my profession, I'm happy to hear that sports stars are practicing their religious beliefs. (I can do without public professions of same -- show me, don't tell me -- but that's another topic.)

I am intrigued, though, by the increase of prayer that seems to be sweeping the racing world since Dale Earnhardt's death. According to a NASCAR spokesman, the pre-race rituals don't concern prayers for victory but prayers for "peace of mind for the drivers and their wives, wisdom for the drivers and God's blessing in keeping everyone safe."

What I find a little disturbing about this is that it seems to me that if everyone were really praying for these things at least one of the drivers might get a signal back that said something like, "The best way to achieve peace of mind for your wife and safety for you is to get the heck out of stock car racing, and that's about all the wisdom I have to offer." I'm still waiting for the first driver to report such a transmission.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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