Year of the Pitcher? Year of the Pitcher.

Sometimes the narrative reflects reality. In many cases it’s not true. Baseball is full of myths and stories that just don’t reflect the events that unfolded on the field. So early in the 2010 season, when the term “Year of the Pitcher” made its rounds, I had hoped that the numbers — that is, the record of what happened on the field — would prove something else. For some reason I forgot about it, but a recent conversation raised the topic again. Was 2010 really the year of the pitcher?

My friends at You Can’t Predict Baseball wrote a sprawling piece on the idea. They came to the conclusion that it should have been dubbed the Year of the Pitching Performance, thanks to perfect games and no-hitters. “There was too much great hitting,” they wrote, “to call it the Year of the Pitcher.” While the article did offer up some statistics to back up the case, it didn’t hit on the core of the issue. Were pitchers actually better this year than they have been in the past?

In order to do that, we have to 1) look back on previous years to make the comparison, and 2) determine which statistics will tell us this. Since FIP deals with things over which the pitcher has the most control, starting there seems like the best idea. But that won’t tell the whole story. Things do happen after the ball is put in play, and the pitcher can’t be absolved of all those outcomes. Adding defensive efficiency to the mix can help put that in perspective. And then there are hitters, too. How did they fare against the pitchers in 2010?

From this data, it’s pretty clear that pitchers had the upper hand last season. League-wide FIP was 35 points below the 15-year average, and it was 21 points below the next-closest season in this range. Hitting saw quite a dip, too. The average is heavily inflated by the gargantuan performances of 1999 and 2000 — there were 1,080 more home runs hit in 2000 than in 2010 — but even from the last few years offense was down. All the while, the rate at which balls in play turned into outs was right at the 15-year average, and right in line with the past two seasons.

We have certainly seen fluctuations like this in the past. The league-average FIP in 1991 was 3.91. Three seasons later it was 4.51, and then you can see how far it rose in the following decade. In the same way, league-average wOBA in 1992 was .317. The next year it jumped 10 points, and two years later it jumped another eight.

It’s clearly too early to say whether we’re headed for a span where pitchers dominate. Right now this looks like a one-year blip. But we have seen transformations in the past, and they’ve sometimes come on rather suddenly. Year of the Pitcher was a nice storyline in 2010, but what’s more interesting is whether it continues to develop in 2011 and beyond.




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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

43 Responses to “Year of the Pitcher? Year of the Pitcher.”

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  1. Luke in MN says:

    I prefer to think of it as the Year that Hitters Sucked. (But I’m sort of a glass-half-empty type.)

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    • Mitchello says:

      I think a better name would be: “The year of the good defensive position player.” Teams are focusing on defense more than ever these days. So butchers like Jermaine Dye are being replaced with guys like Franklyn Gutierrez.

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      • AJS says:

        Mitchello, I’m not sure the numbers bear that out. FIP removes defense, and that was substantially lower, meaning pitchers are doing some combination of K’ing more guys, walking fewer guys, and giving up fewer HR. Also, if it were true that strong defensive players turned hits into outs, wouldn’t you see DER being much higher in 2010 than years past? But in fact, it was exactly the average of the sample.

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      • hk says:

        @ AJS,

        While replacing good hit, bad field types like Dye with bad hit, good field types like Gutierrez may not have affected DER, facing lesser hitters probably helped pitchers get more K’s and give up fewer BB’s and HR’s (leading to the lower FIP and lower wOBA).

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      • Mitchello says:

        Hk, thats exactly what I was trying to say. Sorry about not being clear. I think lesser hitters have more to do with it than better pitching. By attempting to improve their defense, teams are weakening their offense which leads to lower FIPs for pitchers.

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  2. joser says:

    There’s some pretty big changes in home fields over that span of 15 years, and most of them (Kingdome->Safeco, Metrodome->Target) favored pitchers. Heck, that even encompasses the introduction of the humidor at Coors. For this most recent “year of the pitcher” only the Twins (and their opponents) were affected, but over 15 years it adds up; we can’t ignore park effects when we’re comparing league averages in 2000 vs today.

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    • phoenix2042 says:

      citi field too. good points though about the stadiums!

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      • joser says:

        There’s more — Citi, as you said, Petco, etc — I just picked two (the Kingdome in particular because it was such a contributor to that “gargantuan” 2000). There’s a couple that went the other way (Great American, and the Nat’s new stadium is more hitter-friendly than RFK, though I believe RFK was more pitcher-friendly than the big O in Montreal) but in the years since the bandbox in Baltimore opened, the overall trend seems to be in the pitchers’ favor.

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      • Franco says:

        Shea was probably a more pitcher friendly park than Citi, but your point stands about stadiums in general.

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      • Nathaniel Dawson says:

        Joser, the Mariners actually played in Safeco in 2000. And while the Kingdome played as a hitter’s park, it wasn’t overly so — certainly not one of the best hitter’s park of that era.

        I would second your opinion of the move toward pitching parks recently. It seems like that’s been the trend recently, following a trend previously that saw an increase in parks more favorable to hitters.

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    • pft says:

      Have we forgot the new Yankee stadium that was blamed for the 13% increase in HR’s in the AL in 2009.

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  3. DSMok1 says:

    Does anybody think that the decrease in maximum bat size caused this? Or was that a peripheral issue?

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    • test says:

      Apparently no players at all were using the maximum bat size, and they set the limit at the maximum size that players were using. I forget where this link was (Neyer’s new home or his old one maybe?), but it was pretty clear – the rule was put in place to prevent future exploitation, and no current behaviour was altered.

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      • Telo says:

        Yea, I can buy that.

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      • DSMok1 says:

        http://www.sbnation.com/mlb/2011/2/8/1981731/year-of-the-pitcher-not-explained-by-bats

        That was Neyer’s article. The guy who broke the story said 35% used max size. I’m not certain who was right…

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      • Telo says:

        I just measured a louisville slugger c271 pro stock and it was 7.875 around at its widest, which is 2.5 in diameter, and it looks totally normal. Makes me believe that not many guys were at the max.

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      • badenjr says:

        Does anyone else find it odd that players wouldn’t use the max allowable bat size? Doesn’t it stand to reason that a bigger barrel produces a bigger sweet spot (if only slightly)? And doesn’t it also stand to reason that a bigger barrel would allow players to make better contact? Sure you might give up something small as a result of a loss of bat speed, but you also pick up extra mass with a bigger bat. It seems to me that guys who struggle to make contact in particular would want to get the biggest bat they could.

        Can we get data on how big the bats used by players are? I’d imagine that there’d be at least some relationship between bat size and contact rate.

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      • test says:

        In the comments of the Neyer piece, someone claiming to be the original article seems to side with what Neyer said, based on a possible misunderstanding on his part. I certainly didn’t check to see if it actually was that person of course, but what he described seemed reasonable.

        Wider bats would only help if they could also have a bigger sweetspot for the same weight, which would be very difficult to manage with wooden bats (handles can’t really get much thinner). I would think a MLB player is better off swinging and missing more and making marginal contact (popups and weak grounders) less anyway, within certain thresholds.

        I think the DER not improving over the years despite an apparent focus on defense recently could be the result of better defensive players hitting the ball less well – Too bad Hit F/X data, whenever it shows up, won’t be retroactive…

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      • test says:

        Just to further the thoughts on bats and sweetspots – increasing the bat width will not necessarily increase sweetspot, and could substantially decrease it, depending on how much weight you are willing to carry. A very wide bat made light enough to swing will lose the density required to propell the ball. Given the choice between a bat made 6 inches wide and one made 1 inch wide, for the same weight, I would think the thinner, harder bat (obviously not made of the same amterial in my extreme example) would be far more useful.

        I have confidence that players mess around with bats enough that they figure out the ideal size/weight ratios. Heavy bats can’t touch 95mph heat and still adjust to the changeup, and lighter bats can’t hit a eephus curveball 450 feet. It’s a tradeoff, and players are likely good at making it, even if they don’t realize it.

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      • Telo says:

        Yea, the issue is weight distribution and the density of wood.

        With an aluminum bat you have total control over its profile and measurements – you can have a max barrel but still have the overall weight distributed in a way that the fulcrum is in the right spot.

        If you have a wooden bat with a max barrel width, you either have to have a very short sweetspot, or move the fulcrum of the bat because there will be too much weight towards the end of the bat. Imagine swinging a sledge hammer, all the weight is at the end. This obviously is going to affect the way a bat swings. So bat makers have to make tradeoffs when making wooden bats. Some have cupped ends and bigger barrels, some have round ends and longer but skinnier sweetspots, etc.

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      • pft says:

        The reason players are using smaller diameter bats is beacause since the late 90′s 70% of players have switched from ash to maple. Maple is much harder and heavier, so they likely trimmed the diameter to reduce weight. Most hitters swear the ball travels farther with a maple bat than ash bats since it is 20% harder. This may account for the higher k rates since the mid-90′s.

        New players from 2010 face different rules on density of maple bats than older players who may use lower density bats (lighter). The higher density will reduce demand for larger diamater as players prefer lighter bats to increase bat speed.

        What next, pitchers using different balls depending on when they came into the league?

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      • haninoz says:

        test has it backwards. the physics are that you need a heavier bat to hit a 95 mph the furthest. you need a lighter bat to hit an epheus cb the furthest. you can hit a fungo further with a fungo bat than you can with a real bat. if you try to take bp with a fungo, it won’t work. you need a bat with greater mass to hit pitches with greater velocity–if you are looking for maximum distance as an outcome.

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    • Telo says:

      Definitely. I’d have to think that played some effect. It’d be interesting to see how many models were using the full diameter, though. Most if not 100% of high level aluminum bats have a maxed barrels, but wooden bat models have much more variation. I’d wager a guess and say that atleast half were at the max, which means this change would have to have affected leaguewide hitting.

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  4. Nik says:

    “The league-average FIP in 1991 was 3.91. Three seasons later it was 4.51″.
    Lenny Dykstra, Jose Canseco and the boys say “Hi”

    I think the current decline can also be partially be attributed to the drug testing policy.

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    • joser says:

      Yes, that elephant is in the room, but we don’t know enough to actually say much of anything sensible about it. After all, the pitchers were using too.

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    • BlackOps says:

      Wait, the offensive decline in 2010 can be attributed to a drug policy instituted years before?

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      • joe says:

        Yes…. the other factor which has not been considered is aging sluggers are retiring earlier; with steroids they tended to hang around longer. It’s not like all the steroid users retired; so you would not expect a switch to turn after 2003, you would expect a transition period and then things to level off.

        The other factor is amphetamines – these were banned later than steroids/hGH and there are many who think this had a more profound impact on the game than steroids (personally I’m don’t know if I buy that, but I can understand that viewpoint)

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  5. Andy says:

    The average of the 35 starting pitchers on top of the WAR leader board look like this:
    2009- 207 IP , 3.44 FIP , 5.08 WAR
    2010- 212 IP , 3.30 FIP , 4.87 WAR

    How could they have pitched more innings with a lower FIP and had lower WARs? Hard to believe the park effects could have been that different. Was the replacement level changed?

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    • grandbranyan says:

      Since offense was down across the league the top pitcher’s performance were less valuable relative to the quality of the rest of the league.

      I would imagine if you did the same thing with hitters you might get the opposite result. The top hitters were probably slightly worse across the board but would have a higher WAR as those performances are more valuable in a depressed run environment.

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    • jordan says:

      Because WAR is calculated relative to the performance of the rest of the league. All else (park effects, etc.) equal, a 3.3 FIP was substantially more valuable in 2000 than 2010.

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  6. In fairness, my conclusion that it wasn’t the Year of the Pitcher was based on people comparing it to 1968, and it most certainly falls well short of that.

    Still, thanks for the shoutout!

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    • hk says:

      In fairness, shouldn’t you at least compare the FIP, DER and wOBA from 1968 to the averages in those stats over the period from 1954-1968 to see in which year pitching performance improved most vs. the 15-year averages on a relative basis?

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  7. John DiFool says:

    K rates are at an all time high. What’s keeping offense from really dropping off badly is that BABIP is still high (as the article made clear) and doubles continue to be hit in droves (HRs have declined a bit but are still above historical standards). These types of things are known to be a bit unpredictable and stochastic-it is possible to hit a “tipping point” where all sorts of feedback mechanisms conspire to alter the game tremendously. In other words that high K rate worries me.

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  8. neuter_your_dogma says:

    My guess is that it was the “Year of the Larger Strikezone to Speed Up the Game” that led to the FIP spike.

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    • Barkey Walker says:

      It would be interesting to see the change in average strike zone, even for the short history we have. I also wonder if umps look at FX and try to correct.

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  9. llogan says:

    I have broken down pitching for each team into quintiles each of the last 2 years. I broke it into groups of 32 starts and dropped the last 2 for each team. In ERA but still gives a decent snapshot.

    2009/2010
    3.23/3.08
    3.87/3.57
    4.34/4.11
    4.89/4.57
    6.03/5.52

    There were also 36 fewer starting pitchers used in 2010 than in 2009. I am not sure if the pitchers got better so fewer dregs were used or there were fewer injuries.

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  10. Nick says:

    Year of the pitcher ended with the team of pitchers.

    Brian Sabean says suck it fangraphs. No one knows how to evaluate pitching talent like Sabez. Now bow down to your daddy!

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  11. linuxit says:

    It was fairly simple for me to predict that league ERA’s would go down considerably before last season even started. Nearly every team was more defense oriented in the off-season, spending less money on hitting, and opting for defense upgrades instead of more offense.

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    • neuter_your_dogma says:

      Isn’t FIP independent of defense?

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      • linuxit says:

        No. Not in this case. Not when the defense has to actually hit. There were lower FIP’s because the the hitting was worse. The general philosophy has changed where teams are opting for better defensive and fielding depth instead of having a few more one-dimensional hitters at the DH slot or coming off the bench. Why else is it that Jermaine Dye can’t find a job, but Don Kelly can?

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