Last season was widely heralded as “The Year of the Pitcher”, and the ascension of the pitching-rich San Francisco Giants certainly crowned that sentiment with valediction. This year fans and students of the game are declaring “Year of the Pitcher II” as offensive numbers continue to decline and sterling moundsmen continue to dominate.
Baseball is superbly balanced between offense and defense. It is the only game where the defense controls the ball and initiates play. Winning with pitching and defense is a tried-and-true strategy, while the teams we hold closest in our memories are frequently slugger-laden groups that mashed their way to success. It’s tough to put together a lineup that makes every out a struggle, even in the Designated Hitter League.
Since the start of the last century, we have seen several cycles where pitching, then hitting, dominated. Some eras are marked as exceptionally balanced between the two, such as the era from the end of World War II until the mid-1960’s and then the 1970’s through roughly 1990 or so.
The “Dead Ball Era” ended roughly with the conclusion of World War II when first Babe Ruth and then other sluggers such as Cy Williams began launching more “rabbity” balls into the stands of the new parks being built. This era lasted roughly until World War II when most of the great offensive records were being set. It’s no coincidence that Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and Ted Williams’ .406 campaign both happened in 1941.
Post-WWII and into the 1950’s was a great period of equilibrium during which assaults on the Home Run record were rare and hitting 50+ homers was a great accomplishment. Twenty-game winners were frequent, pitchers still regularly recorded 300+ innings pitched (unheard of today). That’s the game I grew up with and it was highly entertaining.
The expansion of the Major Leagues in the early ‘60’s brought that era to a close, first with a great offensive outburst (Roger Maris and 61 in ’61) that soon gave way to Maury Wills shattering the stolen base record; by the mid-60’s pitchers like Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson were absolutely dominant; the Tigers’ Denny McLain was the last man to win 30 or more games in 1968. Offense was becoming scarce, so much so that The Lords of Baseball began to worry as the National Football League, superbly formatted for television, became America’s Game.
I myself must confess in 1967 I wrote a column for my high school newspaper entitled “Sleeping at the Ballpark” where I bemoaned the eclipse of hitting and the decline of slugging. I now of course regard myself as exceedingly callow! Still offense declined to the point where Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox had to close with a rush to win the 1968 American League batting title with a puny .301 average.
The first response was far-reaching, yet moderate: the pitching mound was lowered from 15 to 10 inches. This was a the first significant change to the dimensions of the game since the pitching rubber was located 60 feet, six inches from home plate.