What we like to think of as the smooth, linear history of baseball sometimes takes such a sharp turn that it's as if we've been thrown sideways from the sudden change of direction. Such jags in the road came in 1921, when a livelier, cleaner baseball was introduced after Carl Mays accidentally killed Ray Chapman with a tobacco-and pine-tar-stained fastball; 1947, when Jackie Robinson began the integration of the major leagues; 1961, when the era of expansion and the 162-game schedule arrived; 1969, when the mound was lowered to encourage offense; 1995, when the wild-card system changed the rules of engagement for October; and....
Did you just feel that?
One quarter of the way through the season it looks as if 2005 will provide another one of history's hairpin turns. After the greatest extended run of power hitting the game has known, pitching is starting to reclaim some of the vast territory it had surrendered over the past 15 years.
Complete games were up more than 50% through May 22, and complete-game shutouts were up 47% compared with the same date last year. Runs per game were down 4% and home runs per game were off 9% from the same point last year--and down 15% and 25%, respectively, from May 22 of 2000, the year that marked the height of the slugging lunacy (46 players hit at least 30 home runs). If this trend keeps up for the remainder of the season, 668 home runs will have been sucked out of the game in one year, and a whopping 910 compared to 2000.
A watershed moment came earlier this month when Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, the high priest of what has come to be known as Moneyball (in which fundamentals such as defense and baserunning suffered in the pursuit of on-base and slugging percentage), held a private meeting with his manager, Ken Macha, as his team stumbled through the third-worst start in Oakland history. "Kenny," Beane said, "do whatever you think you have to do, including bunt."
In today's game, bunt is no longer a four-letter word. O.K., maybe the weather turns hot and baseballs begin to fly again. The 2002 season, for instance, saw 1.92 homers per game through the first quarter but finished at 2.09, the ninth of 11 straight years in which the per-game average exceeded 2.0. (The rate was 1.97 through Sunday.) But something is going on here, regardless of meteorological patterns. For one, a deep group of young starting pitchers is entering its prime, rescuing the game from a generation of pitchers distinguished only by an excess of mediocrity. And, even more undeniable, this is the first season of baseball played under a punitive performance-enhancing drug policy. In Year One A.D. (after Deca-Durabolin) baseball has returned to being a game played by men with relatively natural physiques, and its nuances--bludgeoned by the pursuit of power at the plate and on the mound--matter again.
"[The game has] changed dramatically," Colorado Rockies G.M. Dan O'Dowd says. "Even in [ Coors Field], home runs, or at least games decided by home runs, are down significantly. We've gone back to the game most of us knew growing up, after the decade and a half of offensive explosion. You can see the change this year because of the [steroid] testing. A lot of bodies are different. I think it's good for the game."
Says St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, "Now the good teams have to pay more attention to two areas: baserunning and defense. I think it's a better game when you know that on any given night you might see everything the game has to offer, not just home runs."
the steroid era, at least its unfettered shoot-'em-up days, is officially over. Ahead of the curve, the Chicago White Sox, having reengineered themselves from a power-dependent club to small ball practitioners with a deep pitching staff, are the best team in baseball (31--13 at week's end). Isn't it logical to expect that as the game moved from no steroids policy to one with public sanctions, there would have to be some effect on how the game is played?
"There has been a correction made in the system," veteran Florida Marlins righthander Todd Jones says, "and the numbers are going to suffer. But it's got to be good for the game to get back to an even playing field."