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The Evolution of Starting Pitching Part 1

There is a big reason that pitchers tend to be more injury prone than their offensive brethren. Pitching is by far the least natural motion that a baseball player can do with the human body, second only to an exaggerated eye-roll once an umpire makes a mistake. Our ancestors may have thrown spears to hunt, but they didn’t do it hundreds of times in an hour and they certainly didn’t do it with a cylindrical rock either. It’s because of the limitations of the human body as well as changing trends in the game that pitchers now are 1000% different than pitchers from even five years ago, none-the-less 50 years ago.

I decided to take a look at the evolution of pitching to the point where it is today. I didn’t spend a ton of time analyzing past performances, but I did at least want to take a decent look at what hitters used to deal with so that I could get a real feel for just how different it is to be a Major League pitcher in this day and age. And since fantasy baseball didn’t quite take off like it has now until the mid-2000s or so thanks to the prominence of the internet, a lot of people don’t really have a full grasp of starting pitching prior to those years. So we’ll start pre-1980s, then follow the position all the way through to today and determine what starting pitching might look like going into the future.

Dead Ball Era

For the kids these days who aren’t quite as schooled in the history of baseball, a quick refresher: the sport prior to the 1920s was played in a time now called the Dead Ball Era (DBE). Characterized by low-scoring games and a lack of home runs, it was the arrival of veritable baseball god and every hot dog’s nightmare Babe Ruth that largely marks the end of the Dead Ball Era and the beginning of the Live Ball Era (LBE) which continues to this day.

Some fun facts about the DBE – the lowest league run average in history was in 1908 when teams averaged just 3.4 runs per game. On 13 occasions between 1900 and 1920, the league leader in home runs was fewer than 10. Let that sink in. TEN. Only in four of those 20 seasons did the home run leader have more than 20 homers on the season. Teams relied on stolen bases, bunts, and “small ball,” making these years Ozzie Guillen’s dream seasons. In 1908 the Chicago White Sox managed to hit a grand total of three home runs in the entire season, and they finished the year 88-64, only a few games back of winning the pennant.

A new ball was introduced in 1909 by the Reach Company, and it was a cork-centered ball which was followed by a fellow cork-centered ball by the Spalding Company. Batting averages rose nearly .040 points from the 1909-1910 seasons, though a fateful discovery by minor league pitcher Russ Ford had pitchers once again in control of the game. Ford accidentally scuffed a ball against a concrete wall, and after doing so discovered that the ball would move significantly more on his pitches than it had previously. Once pitchers caught on to this fact, they began scuffing balls as quickly as they could giving them better movement and making it harder to not only hit but also to see for hitters. It’s also worth noting that often times in this era only one ball would be used per game, so it wasn’t like the umpire could switch the ball out at will.

But this is a pitching column, so let’s get back to talking about that part of the game. From 1904-1919, the Major League ERA ranged from a high of 3.37 in 1912 to a low of 2.37 in 1908. Compare that to 2017’s mark of 4.36, and you can see how different the game really was back then. Of course, one other thing to note was the crazy notion that striking out as a batter was considered a cardinal sin by players pretty much in every era before the new millennium, and these years it was no exception. The highest K/9 average came in the 1911 season and was at 4.04, with the lowest rate occurring in 1918 and sitting at a paltry 2.87 rate. Compare that to 2017’s 8.34 K/9 for a bit of reference to blow your mind.

To sum it up, hitting was difficult, runs never scored, and pitchers had free reign to do whatever they wanted to the baseball.

Early Live Ball Era

Babe Ruth showed up with his gut and his bat in 1919 and changed the way baseball was played forever. He hit 29 home runs that season in 542 plate appearances breaking the old single-season home run record of 27 set by Ned Williamson of the Chicago White Stockings in 1884. Ruth then chuckled to himself and broke his own record the following two seasons by hitting 54 and 59 home runs respectively before settling on his record of 60 that would stand until Roger Maris and his asterisk hit 61 in that 1961 season. Ruth changing the way it was thought a hitter should go about his business was almost certainly a factor in the beginning of the LBE, but there are a few other reasons that pitching slowly began to cede to hitting in the 20s.

Supposedly there were additional changes made to the physical baseball, with owners supposedly collaborating on switching to a newer, livelier ball in order to boost offense and thus, ticket sales (where have I heard this before?). Certain pitches were outlawed around this time, with spitballs, shine balls, and emery balls all deemed inappropriate for play thanks to rule 6.02(c). Fun fact, in 1920 when it was outlawed there were 17 pitchers who were recognized as having built their careers on the spitball, and they were allowed to continue using it for the rest of their careers. A new rule was also put in play so that any time a ball became dirty, that ball had to be replaced so there were a lot of newer balls in the game, which heavily favored hitters.

Whatever the cause, there was a tremendous shift in the way baseball was played in the 20s with offense suddenly becoming greater than had ever been seen by the sport yet. Earned Run Averages went from the 2.50-3.00 average that they had seen in the first part of the century to sitting in the 4.00 range for the next 40 years. Strikeouts also saw a pretty much steady growth over that same 40 year period with a 2.94 K/9 in 1920 rising all the way to 5.99 in 1967.

There are almost certainly a ton of factors which attributed to the rise in strikeouts in this period, with changing offensive strategies, better nutrition and strength for the players themselves, and all-around better science as to how to pitch being big factors. Early in this era baseball managed to see pitchers like Bob Feller who was putting up then-unprecedented strikeout rates with his 1946 season K/9 of 8.43 in 371.1 innings a big highlight of his career. That strikeout rate was matched only by Hal Newhouser’s 8.46 mark with both pitchers sitting on over a 2.00 K/9 lead over the third highest rate of the year. It was a different time for sure.

The Year of the Pitcher

The 1960s had a big shift in the game of baseball towards favoring the pitcher once again and it culminated in “The Year of the Pitcher,” 1968. In that season there were a combined 339 shutouts in 1,619 regular season games, and the St. Louis Cardinals pitched 30 shutouts as a team, by far the most ever in the Majors in the LBE. That Cardinals team only allowed a total of 472 runs to cross the plate which is the lowest total in any 162-game season in history. The American League batting champion Carl Yastrzemski finished the season with a .301 mark which is the lowest number of any batting champ. The AL slugged a record low .339 (again, in the LBE… I’m going to just say that in advance. All of these records are LBE records), and the MLB collective average of .231 is also an all-time low. Two more records were set, with the Chicago White Sox scoring only 463 runs during the regular season and being shut out 23 times.

Leading up to 1968 there were a few reasons that factored into the worst offensive year the Majors had seen in decades. The biggest occurred in 1963 when a brand new strike zone was enforced, with the zone reaching from the top of the armpit to the bottom of the knee. Have you ever tried to hit a baseball at shoulder height? It’s not easy. This along with some of the best pure talent the Majors had ever seen (re: Bob Gibson) led up to that insane season in 1968 which changed baseball forever.

Let’s take a second to talk about Bob Gibson. Gibson began his career in 1959 with the only organization he would ever play for, the St. Louis Cardinals, as both a starter and a reliever. He pitched with a modicum of success in the first few years of his career but it was when he moved to largely being solely a starting pitcher in 1961 that he really took off. In that 1961 season, Gibson threw 211.1 innings with a 3.24 ERA, 7.07 K/9, and 5.07 BB/9. The following year his walks dropped more than one per inning and his ERA responded as well falling to 2.85.

Throughout the mid-60s Gibson established himself as one of the best starters in the game averaging 261 innings from 1961-1966 and putting up an ERA of 2.99. He struck out 7.6 batters per nine innings in that timeframe which was among the league leaders at the time. He broke his leg on a line drive in the 1967 season and only threw 175.1 innings, albeit very good ones with a 2.98 ERA on the year. He came back to full strength in that fateful 1968 season and set plenty of pitching records in what could be considered the greatest season a starting pitcher ever had.

Gibson threw 304.2 innings for the Cardinals that year and had a minuscule, record low 1.12 ERA. He struck out 7.92 batters per nine and walked only 1.83 per nine innings. Somehow with that performance, he managed to still lose nine games on the year to his 22 wins, but that’s also indicative of how down offense was in that season. In the World Series Gibson struck out 17 batters in Game 1 which is also a record. Bob won the National League MVP that season, and was joined in the “pitcher wins MVP award” club by Denny McLain of the AL who won 31 regular season games, the first and only player to do so since Dizzy Dean in 1934.

One other note from that ’68 season, Luis Tiant of the Cleveland Indians had the AL’s lowest ERA of the season and set a then-record batting average allowed of just .168.

After the season the Rules Committee realized they had a problem on their hands so they made a couple of changes which brought balance to the game and put us on the course to where we are today. First, they reversed the strike zone rule change of 1963 to read:

“The Strike Zone is that space over home plate which is between the batter’s armpits and the top of his knees when he assumes a natural stance. The umpire shall determine the Strike Zone according to the batter’s usual stance when he swings at a pitch.”

The committee also lowered the pitcher’s mound from 15 inches to 10 inches high, which might have made the single largest change in the way the game was played. MLB also added four expansion teams to the majors, stretching the pitching talent pool a bit. For reference, the teams added were the Kansas City Royals, Montreal Expos, San Diego Padres, and the Seattle Mariners. As a result, baseball organized into four divisions, two each for the National and American League.

Well, that’s going to do it for Part 1 of this topic. I intended for this to be a short history that could shed some light on the history of pitching and how drastically it has changed and then I realized I had way too much information to cover in just a short article. I’ll pick back up next time and go over the rise of the Steroid Era, it’s subsequent fallout, the 2010’s surge in pitching, and then the disappearance of the starting pitcher in today’s market. Thanks for reading and I’ll be back with more next week!

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