This season it's tougher than ever to get a hit, especially in NL
Pitchers are dominating hitters in 2012; major league batting average just .249
It's especially bad in the NL (.245), and the Nationals are poised to take advantage
Plus: Left-field power outage; memories from Fenway Park on its 100th birthday
That jewel of a baseball game played Wednesday night in San Francisco between the Giants and Phillies -- 0-0 for 10 innings, during which starting pitchers Matt Cain and Cliff Lee threw just 48 balls to 63 batters -- may well go down as the eponymous game of the 2012 season. Baseball these days, particularly in the National League, can be simplified in two words: pitchers rule.
Go ahead and tell yourself it's a small sample and the weather hasn't warmed. But the corner already was turned last year, when it was tougher to get a hit in the majors (the major league average was .255) than in any season since 1989 (.254). The major league average entering play Friday was .249. It won't stay quite that low, but brace yourself for more of the "market correction" we saw last year.
The National League (.245) is downright awful when it comes to hitting, and it's not just because Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder jumped leagues or that Marlins Park has continued a trend of pitcher-friendly ballpark construction. The Cubs, Pirates, Astros and Padres are poor offensive teams who won't get much better, and the Diamondbacks, Phillies and Reds are off to ugly starts. The Mets don't have a triple. The Phillies have more sac bunts than home runs. Get this: Neither team in any game this year involving the Pirates has scored more than five runs. The total of Pittsburgh and its opponents after 12 games? Just 61 runs, or about five runs combined each game.
Watching Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle run a game is like watching Gene Mauch in 1968. On Wednesday Hurdle pinch hit for his pitcher, James McDonald, after four innings of one-run ball. (His pinch hitter, Nate McLouth, had a worse batting average than McDonald.) In the sixth, down one run on the road, he bunted with his number two batter.
The duel between Cain and Lee was merely the extreme version of a brand of baseball happening all over the National League. And if there is one team best positioned to take advantage of the changed landscape, it is the Washington Nationals. Washington's rotation has the best pure stuff of any team in baseball -- yes, better than the Phillies' five and the Giants' five. The Nationals' starters have combined for an average fastball velocity of 93.4 mph, the highest of any rotation by a full tick on the gun since statistical services began tracking pitch velocity in 2002. (The 2010 Rays owned the previous high at 92.3.)
The Nationals don't have their leading power bat from last year (Mike Morse) nor their power-hitting phenom (Bryce Harper) and it matters not one bit because Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler -- all between 23 and 28 years old -- have come together at the right time, a time when there simply isn't enough offense around the league to match up against their pure stuff. The Nationals look like a legitimate contender in the NL East.
One of the telltale signs of the lack of offense around baseball is the pathetic hitting that teams are getting out of left field. You remember left field, the power-laden position where guys like Greg Luzinski, George Bell, Jim Rice and the hairy-chested like used to bash baseballs?
Where have all the big-hitting outfielders gone? Left fielders have posted the worst batting average of any position (.240) and the second-worst slugging percentage (.380, only shortstop has less pop). One-third of all major league teams have zero home runs from their left fielders.
Your best hitting left fielders this month are Josh Willingham of the Twins, Nolan Reimold of the Orioles and J.D. Martinez of the Astros -- just as you figured, right? In fairness, Ryan Braun of Milwaukee, Carlos Gonzalez of Colorado and Matt Holliday of St. Louis are off to slow starts (three home runs combined; Reimold, alone, has outhomered them).
But still, this is very weird. Left field is one of the least valuable positions on the defensive spectrum, if not the least, so teams don't mind compromising glovework there -- and yet big hitters are still lacking.
The first time I saw Fenway it seemed something from a dream. It was not long after dawn of Opening Day 1985, and what remained from an overnight blanket of snow glistened in the morning light. Then a beat writer covering the New York Yankees (46-year-old Phil Niekro would be their Opening Day starter against the Sox), I delighted in the pristine calm of the empty ballpark. Though I had not planned it, I immediately was drawn to The Wall, which, like a famous actor, seemed so familiar from television but so new up close.
A golf ball. That's what The Wall brought to mind. It was dimpled. Thousands of dimples ran its length, the collateral damage of the legions of hitters who failed to scale it but succeeded in denting its tin skin. Fenway seemed baseball's Gettysburg at that wonderful moment. In the silence of the morn I could hear echoes of the shots.
Eleven years later, my two sons saw their first baseball game at Fenway, and, even as toddlers, seemed wedged into those ancient wooden-slatted seats behind the backstop. And it made me think how many other generations of fathers brought their sons to Fenway to see their first game. It simply was the luck of an assignment for me that Fenway should be their maiden trip, like drawing Carnegie Hall for a first school field trip. The synchronicity was all the more special because of what happened in the game. It was one of only two games in major league history in which a cycle and a triple play occurred. (The other was at Philadelphia's Baker Bowl in 1931.)
Fenway turns 100 today, and as I am back for the celebration, I think about how my memories are simply part of a catalog of millions over a century -- how personal a building can be to so many. Ballparks bind us in spirit like no other sporting venues -- so much so that they often are compared to cathedrals. But Fenway, friendly and familiar, is more public square than cathedral. There are no great spires or soaring heights. It is Fenway's humility that is so powerful.
You don't have to be a Red Sox fan to feel welcome at Fenway. It is reassuring to know that baseball has been played on these grounds for a hundred years. It is one of the last great American originals, made all the more rare because it remains in public use as originally intended. The magic of Fenway is that even with a century of history it does not awe nearly as much as it embraces. Happy birthday, Fenway.