Pitching strikes back in majors, at least for now

May 7, 2002 5:35 AM

Pitchers are back.

Yes, it appears pitching in major league baseball is making a comeback. And it’s about time.

Since 1993, home runs and batting averages have soared. From 1961-92, baseball averaged two players hitting 40 or more home runs per season. The most players topping 40 in any one season was eight (1961). But in 1993, six players topped 40, in 1996 there were 16 and last year 12.

In addition, from 1900-97, only two players ever topped 60 home runs in one season (Babe Ruth and Roger Maris). Yet, over the last four years, the magic number of 60 has been topped six times. Sammy Sosa has had seasons of 63, 64 and 66 home runs, while Mark McGwire (70) and Barry Bonds (73) have set a new magic number.

From 1900-92, only a handful of teams ever hit 200 home runs. Last year, 10 of 30 teams topped 200, while five other teams topped 194.

Clearly, the game is not the same. There are many theories as to why this has happened. New ballparks have been the big rage since Camden Yards debuted in 1993, and many of the new stadiums have been small, hitter’s parks.

Perhaps expansion has also diluted quality pitching, and it appears the baseball has been "juiced" since 1993 (though major league baseball denies this). As April turned into May, Houston’s Lance Berkman was on pace for 64 and Sammy Sosa and Alex Rodriguez on pace for 62.

The most surprising development is the apparent league-wide increase in improved pitching. Pitchers seem to be getting ahead of the pitchers for the first time since 1992. A year ago, there were five teams in all of baseball that had an ERA below 4.00, but in April of 2002, there were 12.

Last year, the three top team ERAs were 3.50. This year, eight teams have a 3.50 ERA or lower, with the Mets and Dodgers below 3.00.

We’ve also seen some eye-popping individual pitching performances. Red Sox starter Derek Lowe pitched a one-hitter and a two-hitter in two starts (seven innings pitched), then followed that with a no-hitter against Tampa Bay.

Dodgers starters Odalis Perez (complete game) and Andy Ashby (8 IP) have had one-hit games and Yankee lefty Ted Lilly allowed one hit in eight innings against the Mariners, only to lose 1-0.

Pedro Martinez threw back-to-back one-hitters (in 7 and 8 IP), while Diamondbacks hurlers Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson have had 17-strikeout games. Schilling allowed one hit in his 17-K masterpiece.

A year ago, only three starting pitchers (Johnson 2.45, Roy Oswalt 2.75, Schilling 2.98) had made 20 starts and had an ERA below 3.00. This year there are an astounding 31 below that mark, which includes nine pitchers with an ERA better than 2.00. Al Leiter (3-1, 0.92 ERA) and Tom Glavine (5-1, 0.93) have been nearly unhittable and off to career seasons.

There are several plausible reasons for the seemingly better pitching. Traditionally, baseball’s home run bats heat up when the weather does, and April and October have always been baseball’s cold weather months, giving an edge to the pitchers.

Another theory is that the baseball has been deadened a bit, with less carry to it. Throughout baseball history there have been several seasons (1929-30, 1956, 1961, 1977, 1987) where the ball was juiced-up and hitters crushed the pitchers. After each of those seasons, batting averages, home runs and team ERAs came down.

It happened again in 1993, with an excessive amount of hitting, but the juiced-ball didn’t disappear and batting averages and ERAs have remained inflated ever since.

Until now.

In April of 2001, there were 2.34 home runs hit per game, while this April there were 1.90. Baseball’s combined pitcher’s earned run average was 4.45 last April. This April, the figure dipped to 4.23.

However, all this improved pitching hasn’t translated into more UNDERs. Through April, there were 173 OVER games in baseball, 170 UNDER and 11 pushes. So, the linemakers have been doing their jobs.

It’s nice for a change to be talking about a pitcher like Johnson seeking 30 victories, rather than hitters trying to top 60 or 70 home runs in a season