Are We in a Golden Age of Pitching?

Readers of the Wages of Wins should remember Ty Willinganz. Ty used to blog at Bucks Diary (which eventually moved to MVN.com) and CourtSideAnalyst. Ty likes to play with numbers, and once upon a time developed a variant of Wins Produced (mentioned in Stumbling on Wins).  Ty used this to provide very similar analysis to what is seen here and at BoxScoreGeeks.  Today Ty is playing with baseball numbers (and telling the story those numbers suggest!).

Baseball is a very simple game.  The objective in each inning is for the batters to earn bases (that add up to runs) and for the fielders and pitcher to make outs (that up to innings).

A pitcher – by himself — can only give up bases to a batter in one of three ways: he can walk the batter, he can hit the batter, or he can yield a home run. And a pitcher – by himself – can only make outs one way: by throwing three strikes.

But doesn’t a pitcher influence whether or not a batted ball becomes a hit? NO!!  Voros McCracken taught us something that should have been obvious all along:  once a batted ball is put in play, pitchers have NO control over whether the batted ball becomes a hit or an out.  It makes sense.  If the pitcher induces a weakly hit ball, perhaps the defender can’t get to it in time to make an out.  Or, if the pitcher induces a strongly hit ball, perhaps it finds its way right to a defenders glove – it’s completely a matter of chance.  That should have been obvious all along.  It’s odd that so many of us (me included) believed otherwise for so long.

Therefore, it is my opinion that the only way to evaluate a pitcher is to do so as though there were no defense behind him at all. One must imagine each pitcher on an island, performing alone in a quasi-home run derby.

To isolate pitchers performance from the performance of the fielders behind him, I created the metric I call the pitcher’s “Cricket Average” (I call it that because there’s kind of a statistic like that in Cricket… never mind).

Cricket Average generally reflects the number of bases a pitcher yields for each of the outs he makes (I say “generally” because I add an extra penalty base for each home run a pitcher gives up because 5 bases correlate better with the number of runs yielded than 4 bases do – that being the case because bases are rarely ever empty). (Pitcher’s Cricket Average = BB+HBP+HR5 /KK)  And by the measure of Cricket Average, which I believe is a strong measure of pitching performance in baseball, we have now entered a Golden Age of pitching.

Pitchers are dominating the game like never before — in both leagues.  Here is the chart.

Historic Seasons

AL

NL

1925

2.182

2.041

1930

1.848

2.167

1935

2.031

1.675

1940

1.911

1.712

1945

1.541

1.875

1950

2.293

2.049

1955

1.833

1.995

1960

1.691

1.372

1965

1.299

1.215

1970

1.459

1.379

1975

1.513

1.351

1980

1.777

1.264

1985

1.594

1.285

1990

1.346

1.268

1995

1.565

1.266

2000

1.508

1.488

2005

1.421

1.336

2010

1.201

1.121

2013

1.115

1.036

AVG

1.638

1.521

As you can see, in both leagues, the pitchers are suddenly and dramatically giving up FAR fewer bases per strike out than ever before in the history of the live ball era. And as you can further see, even in the so called “steroid era” the hitters only regained a bit of the ground they had back in the 1920s and 1930s.  What is going on?

I think two things are at play here.  Pitchers are throwing harder earlier and more often.  They no longer feel, as Warren Spahn and others felt, that they have to pitch entire games.  Thus, they are going after hitters.  My belief is that Spahn and his contemporaries felt it was their duty to pitch 9 innings so they had to “pitch to contact” and rely on their defense more to get outs.  Thus they obviously didn’t got after strike outs because strike outs require pitches and they simply knew they couldn’t run up pitch counts like that and still pitch complete games.

Secondly, I just think pitchers throw harder today and come with better stuff.  I have no scientific evidence, but the strike out counts are so dramatically higher, how can you deny it? The pitchers of today are bigger and buffer.

Finally, one has to wonder whether the withdrawal of amphetamines and other stimulants hasn’t had an impact on the hitters.  This is a dramatic drop we are seeing in the performance of the batters and a dramatic shift toward the pitchers.  The pitchers can rest.  The hitters have to go everyday.  Its well known that they relied on the uppers to get them through the LONG and grueling schedule.  They can’t take those anymore.  And it looks as though the balance of power is shifting to the pitchers in a big way.

Sometime soon I am going to use these charts, along with the “ELO Rankings” on Baseball-Reference” to rank my best pitchers of all time.

- Ty Willinganz

Ty is a graduate from University of Wisconsin (BA Advanced Economics/Government) University of Minnesota Law (Juris Doctorate) Business Lawyer and In-House Counsel for a Paper and Green Energy company in Green Bay Wisconsin (and for those who need help with the LSAT, Ty also teaches an LSAT Preparation Seminars in the Spring and Fall). You can follow Ty at Twitter @tywillinganz.  

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