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Embracing pitcher-friendly baseball

Babe Ruth pitching

Whenever baseball stumbles upon a pitching-dominant era, people get nervous. “Outlaw the spitball!” they shout. Then, fifty years later: “Lower the pitcher’s mound!” After all, it was Babe Ruth’s hitting, not his pitching, that caused increased interest, ballooning attendance, and even built a ballpark. And it was Mark McGwire’s and Sammy Sosa’s hitting, not Greg Maddux’s and Pedro Martinez’s pitching, that captured national attention and put baseball back on the map.

Now, as the cycle rolls around, we find ourselves in another pitcher-friendly era for the national pastime. A quick bit of evidence: In 2001, the average team both scored and allowed 773 runs. This past season, the Angels led all of baseball with exactly 773 runs scored and only two teams — the Rockies and the Twins — allowed more than 773 runs. I wouldn’t doubt that there are people brainstorming ideas on how to increase offense in a conference room somewhere, and that these ideas are being taken as seriously, or more, than instituting a Major League pitch clock.

Since we have a fleeting moment before all of this comes to an end, let’s enjoy the benefits that a pitcher-friendly era provides:

A pitcher-dominated game develops pace and rhythm. Witness Madison Bumgarner’s outings in the World Series, where the innings sail right along. Hitter-dominated games, with runners perpetually on base, the ball flying all over the yard, and addled pitchers searching for answers, do not quite have the same rhythm propelling them forward.

Two of the most exciting moments of baseball, home runs and late-inning comebacks, gain heightened excitement.

There were only five home runs hit in the recently-completed Fall Classic, which saw four games of the seven games end without a roundtripper. Before that, Nelson Cruz led everyone in baseball with a mere 40 home runs this season. During a pitcher-friendly era, a baseball bat turns from a bludgeon to a rapier. Hitting a line drive is recognized as an art, and masterful line-drive hitters — a Ty Cobb, or a Tony Gwynn — emerge and rise to the top. A home run, an honest-to-god mammoth roundtripper, becomes an earned shot, worthy of Giancarlo Stanton’s wondrous power.

To this end, position players become more well-rounded. No longer able to rely on a constant string of base hits, teams are forced to adjust, valuing defensive quality to prevent opposing base runners, and valuing speed and base running ability to take advantage of their own base runners.

Meanwhile, as bullpens take on nastier and nastier pitchers, the eighth- and ninth-inning rally takes on greater meaning. Two of the baseball’s most memorable postseason finishes — Kirk Gibson’s 1988 walk-off against The Eck, and Luis Gonzalez’s 2001 broken-bat blooper against Mariano Rivera — are raised to greatness due to the “unhittable” closer they came against. When lights-out relief work becomes the expectation, the unpredictable hit grabs the headlines. This is so much better for the game than the expectation of the bullpen collapse. The first keeps you on the edge of your seat; the second has you ready to cover your eyes. (Poor Detroit Tigers fans.)

At the lower levels, pitching prospects receive a leveling of the landscape when it comes to making it to the Majors. For a hitter, the biggest obstacles are matters like plate discipline, pitch-recognition, using the field, and finding a consistent swing without hitches or holes. For a pitcher, add the difficulties of mastering command, honing secondary stuff, and learning how to pitch, to the conscious danger of tearing a ligament or blowing out a shoulder with every delivery. More than anything else, pitchers face a war of attrition.

We are learning how to properly develop pitching health, but the solution is not close at hand. The best thing for the game, then, is increased numbers, adding far more hurlers with potential Major League dreams and ability to the mix, stocking the game with better talent on the mound.

Competition on the mound provides a trickle-down effect, as the rest of a pitching staff feels the urgency to be effective right now: Attack the batter and get outs, or you won’t be pitching long. That pressure leads to better pitching results, and may also lead to pitchers throwing more strikes. (Issuing walks, it would be understood, is an easy way to get pulled from the game.)

Put it all together: A quicker game, higher quality in hitting, pitching, defense, and base running, and home runs and comebacks that come with an added kick.

If you thought baseball was getting just a bit more awesome recently in the quality department, you weren’t wrong.

Image of Babe Ruth pitching in his rookie season, 1915.

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