Guest Author - Joe Mancini
It wasn’t enough. Offense, especially in the American League, still lagged. A notion regarded as radical, floated by among others Oakland Athletics’ owner Charles O. Finley, called for replacing the pitcher in the batting order with a so-called “Designated Hitter”. I’ve covered how the DH came to pass in the AL and fatefully, just missed in the NL where thankfully “real” baseball was and is preserved.
That had the desired effect of increasing offensive output in the AL while coincidentally the balance between the two forces improved in the NL, as well. Of course, it introduced imbalances and disproportionalities, such as creating a long-lasting difference of a run-a-game between the two leagues.
Teams responded by husbanding pitching resources. Teams began using five-man rotations and carrying twelve or even thirteen pitchers on twenty-five man rosters. As the 1980’s developed the “closer” emerged with the “save” statistic; so-called middle relievers clamored for the “hold” characteristic to be recognized. Bullpen specializations such as the LOOGY (Lefty One-Out Guy), “Cleaner” (seventh inning specialist), and “Setup Man” (for the eighth inning) became established roles. Relievers, once regarded as pitchers not good enough to be starters, became known as hard throwers or trick-pitch artists who could come in and shut down lineups. The old days where hitters got to face tiring pitchers for a third, fourth, or fifth at-bat were gone forever.
Then in the early 1990’s thee was a sudden surge in offensive production. Hall of Fame writer the late, great, Leonard Koppett mused that perhaps the game was returning to the offensive high-water marks of the late 1920’s and 1930’s. Certainly run-production and power were surging. New ballparks that mimicked the “retro” looks of old stadia such as Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards had an effect. In the media there were speculations on the ball being “juiced” or the quality of pitchers declining.
By the end of the 90’s and the turn of the millennium we had the spectacle of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and later Barry Bonds carrying out successful assaults on the single-season and all-time home run marks. No longer was 150 RBI in a season a distant, unattainable goal. It wasn’t confined to sluggers, as the great Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki broke George Sisler’s single-season hits mark.
Of course, now we know better. Rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) led to bulked up sluggers crushing baseballs in ever-increasing numbers. Even a few pitchers, most notably Roger Clemens, has been tainted by suspected use, while all along he credited “Mr. Splitty”, his split-finger fastball, as being the resuscitator of his legendary career.
Once MLB got serious about banned substances in the middle of the last decade, the power numbers began to decline. Seasons where 40-HR hitters grew like weeds have become a faint memory. The pitchers began to reassert control. Recently Albert Chen in Sports Illustrated has discussed the rise of the cut fastball, also known as the “two seamer”, as a prevailing new weapon in the hurler’s arsenal. It’s kind of like the slider was as it emerged in the late 1950’s and 60’s…an unhittable pitch when executed properly. Hitters will have to adjust. And they will.