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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.