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The Evolution of the Pitcher

Wed, Dec 14, 2011

Player Projections

This is my final project for Sports Writing and Reporting class. Feel feel to drop a comment below or shoot me an e-mail nick@fantasybaseballinsiders.com if you have anything to say about this piece.

Major League pitching has changed drastically over the last few years. For example, the 2010 and 2011 seasons combined to produce nine no-hitters. The previous 10 seasons saw a total of 15. Collective ERAs are down in recent years (from 4.77 in 2000 to 3.94 in 2011), as are batting averages (from .270 in 2000 to .255 in 2011).

Admittedly, these are very small sample sizes considering organized baseball began in 1871. But that raises an even bigger question: If baseball has changed this much over the last 12 years, how has it changed over the last 140? Any perhaps more importantly, why has it changed?

To answer these broad questions, I reached out to a couple of well-respected baseball minds via Twitter.

Jonah Keri is a sports and stock market writer. He’s the author of “The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First,” and contributes to Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Between the Numbers and FanGraphs.com, among other publications.

When asked about the dominance of pitching over the last few years, Keri offered a few suggestions. First, he noted that the newer ballparks are bigger than the old ones. I decided to test that theory.

To do this, I first recorded the dimensions for all 30 Major League stadiums. I then separated the ballparks into two categories: Ones that opened in 1999 or before (16 stadiums), and others that opened in 2000 or after (14). After computing the average dimensions in feet, here’s what I found:

L = Left Field / LC = Left-Center / C = Center Field / RC = Right-Center Field / R = Right Field

The newer stadiums averaged a left field dimension of three feet more and a center field dimension of four feet more. Otherwise, the old stadiums are collectively bigger by three feet in left-center, one foot in right-center and one foot in right field.

Since this didn’t necessarily fit Keri’s presumption, I decided to take it a step further and narrow the “new stadium” category to those that opened in 2010 or 2011 (the year of the pitcher part one and two). This yielded Yankee Stadium, Citi Field and Target Field vs. the other 27 Major League venues. This time, the results appeared to agree a bit more with Keri’s theory.

With this data set, the new stadiums proved to be bigger in the gaps and center field (by eight feet in left-center, four feet in center and three feet in right-center) but smaller down the lines (by one foot in left field and five feet in right).

Still, the differences in new park dimensions vs. old doesn’t seem big enough to justify a collective allowed home run rate to drop from 1.18 in 2000 to 0.94 in 2011.

Keri’s other theories included changes in bats and balls, and the evolution of the strike zone. He also suggested that the collection of pitchers in Major League Baseball is simply more talented than it was a few years ago.

While Keri’s last suggestion might be true, it’s not something I can measure. Neither is the bat/ball theory. The exact definitions of balls and strikes have changed over the last 140 years, from the batter being allowed to call for a high, low or fair pitch back in 1876, to the last rule change which was made in 1996. That rule expanded the strike zone on the lower end, moving from the top of the knees to the bottom of the knees.

While changes to the strike zone rule book might help us explain part of the long-term pitcher evolution, it doesn’t shed any light on recent trends.

Dave Cameron is the Managing Editor and Operator of FanGraphs.com. He also co-founded USSMariner.com, and recently joined the Baseball Writer’s Association of America.

When asked about the dominance of pitching over the last few years, he offered a few observations. First, steroids testing. This likely has had some impact on recent statistical trends, but he wasn’t willing to believe it’s the only answer. Next he mentioned a newfound emphasis on defense, which — just like Keri’s suggestion of more talented pitchers — I cannot measure.

Cameron also mentioned bigger ballparks. A popular proposition it seems, and while it is true that the newer ballparks are bigger, the actual difference in size appears too small to be the driving force behind the recent pitching frenzy.

Lastly, Cameron pointed to the “natural cycle of things.” This was such a broad and vague answer, but it got me thinking.

What if there is no legitimate reason behind the recent pitching trends? Maybe it’s all happening by chance. I mean hey, over the course of 140 years, batters and pitchers are going to excel at different times, even by accident perhaps.

To measure this, I calculated four pitching statistics by decade for each decade dating back to the 1870s. The four pitching statistics were: Complete Games (CG), Earned Run Average (ERA), Strikeouts per Nine Innings (K/9) and Walks per Nine Innings (BB/9). The result is a table that allows us to view trends among these stats by decade.

We can draw numerous conclusions from this, but a few things stood out.

First, the time known as the “Steroids Era” in baseball reflects the two highest ERAs per decade. Coincidence? I think not.

Second, you’ll notice the sparkling 2.96 ERA during the 1910s, and then a drastic change in the following decades (4.03 ERA in 1920s, 4.28 in 1930s). What caused this dramatic shift? I mean, the ‘27 Yankees were good, but not good enough to destroy pitcher’s ERA for the entire decade.

The only thing — at least on the surface — that explains this is Cameron’s simple “natural cycle” theory.

Think about this solely in terms of ERA: It makes sense that the 1990s and 2000s have the highest marks. Steroids certainly had something to do with this. Maybe it wasn’t the only reason, but it helped. Now consider the measures MLB has taken to clean up the game over the last few years (Ryan Braun’s recent positive test aside). If ERAs were at an all-time high, there’s only one direction for them to go: down. And while the 2010 and 2011 seasons have seemingly produced lights-out pitching, the 4.01 ERA they’ve produced is still higher than that of the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.

So to say pitchers have been extraordinarily good during the last two seasons isn’t necessarily true. Granted, the game has changed a bit over the last 25 years, but the numbers pitchers are putting up these days are good only in comparison to the last two decades.

So to sum it all up, I’m willing to say the recent trends in pitching statistics are likely a combination of a few factors, all having various amounts of influence: Smaller ball parks, MLB cleansing itself of steroids, and the “natural cycle of things.”

Sources: FanGraphs.com, CoachesCorner.com, and AndrewClem.com.

Image courtesy of: Jamie Wisner

Follow me on Twitter: @NickKappel

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