The 1968 season will always be the Year of the Pitcher. For one magical summer—in an era before pitch counts, shoebox-sized ballparks and hitters sculpted like WWE wrestlers—golden-armed hurlers reigned over the game. Bob Gibson boasted a 1.12 ERA for the Cardinals, still the lowest for any pitcher since the end of the Dead Ball era. Denny McLain won 31 games for the world champion Tigers, tied for the most in a season since 1920. The Dodgers' Don Drysdale tossed 58 straight scoreless innings. So overpowered were the game's hitters—only one player in the American League hit above .290—that baseball lowered the mound, from 15 inches to 10, after the season in order to level the playing field.
The days of pitchers throwing 30 complete games in a season, as Juan Marichal did for the Giants in 1968, are long gone. But after nearly two decades of being crushed under the spikes of sluggers, the guys on the mound are taking the game back this year—if not to '68, then to the early 1990s, before the full onset of the Steroid era. The Year of the Pitcher II is here.
The biggest story lines of the season have revolved around the prevention of runs, not the scoring of them—from the thin air of Colorado, where Ubaldo Jimenez (next page) became the second pitcher in 80 years to win 13 of his first 14 starts, to South Florida, where the Marlins' Josh Johnson became the second pitcher ever (the first was Gibson in '68) to allow no more than one run in eight straight starts. It's been the story in the nation's capital, where Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg, in less than one month in the Show, has already become one of the game's biggest draws, and in Cincinnati, where another rookie, 22-year-old Mike Leake, began the season as the first pitcher in 21 years to start in the majors without throwing a pitch in the minors, and has since become the ace of the first-place Reds.
There's been the spate of no-hitters: four so far—most recently the one thrown by Arizona righthander Edwin Jackson against the Rays last Friday—including two perfect games, by Oakland lefthander Dallas Braden and Phillies righty Roy Halladay. (That's two official perfect games. If not for some unfortunate umpiring, Detroit righthander Armando Galarraga would be on the list too.) With more than half the season to go, the modern-day record of seven no-hitters in a season (1990 and '91) could be in jeopardy.
There's the across-the-board dip in offensive statistics: Through Sunday an average of 8.9 runs per game had been scored, down from the average of 9.3 through the same date last season. If that figure holds, this would be the first season with a per-game average under nine since 1992. Home runs are in similar decline—the rate of 1.85 per game would be the lowest since '93. Ditto for hits (the rate of 8.9 per team per game would be the lowest since '93) and overall ERA (4.16, on pace for the lowest mark since '92).
It's not just a general trend: The list of individuals having standout seasons is lengthy. At week's end 15 hurlers—including three who before this season had never won more than 10 games (the Red Sox' Clay Buchholz, the Yankees' Phil Hughes and the Rays' David Price)—were on pace for 20-win seasons; in the last six seasons there have been 12 20-game winners combined. There were 22 starters with ERAs below 3.00, the most at that point in a season since 1989.
Why the renaissance? It can be partly explained by the ban of performance-enhancing drugs. This is also an era in which organizations are smarter about how they develop young arms. Pitcher workloads are much more closely monitored than they were even a decade ago. Pitchers also get more help on the field than they did a generation ago. With new statistical analysis driving a renewed appreciation for defense in many front offices, the fielders behind hurlers are better. And pitchers using video and digital technology to study hitters and themselves are more prepared than ever.
"There seems to have been an influx of tremendous talent on the pitching side the last few years," says San Diego manager Bud Black, whose Padres had the best record in the National League at week's end, thanks to the best pitching staff in baseball (page 40). "Is it the beginning of a trend? We'll have to see. But like pretty much everything else in baseball, I think it's cyclical."
Whatever the reason, the game has changed. "The comeback of pitching has been good for baseball," says one AL G.M. "You're seeing new stars, new faces for the game. Let's face it: For a long time now juiced-up sluggers have ruled the game." It's not the summer of '68, but baseball's balance has been restored. For the first time in a while, it's safe to be a pitcher.