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Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Year of the Pitcher II: Domination on the hill

By Steve Berthiaume

Josh Johnson
Pitchers like Florida's Josh Johnson have been even more dominating than in 2010.
So let me get this straight: Jered Weaver, the dominant Angels ace with the 0.99 ERA, loses at Fenway Park; then one night later, Twins pitcher Francisco Liriano takes his 9.13 ERA to Chicago and no-hits the White Sox? If 2010 was the Year of the Pitcher, with baseball's elite hurlers enjoying exclusive executive status, the 2011 follow-up must be the all-inclusive plan, with everyone holding a buffet ticket.

Liriano threw barely more than half his pitches for strikes Tuesday night (66 out of 123), walked six and struck out only two. Yet on a night that saw seven players with batting averages under .200 start the game, it was enough for Liriano to join the no-hitter club. This one looked like an unwashed minivan parked among a row of luxury imports, but that may be where we are in this sequel to 2010.

For the third consecutive season, Major League Baseball is witnessing a downturn in its batter's boxes. These offensive indicators, courtesy of the Elias Sports Bureau, show how the statistics are continuing to backslide. This is where the leaguewide numbers stood going into Liriano's no-hitter on Tuesday, compared to the same date each of the previous two seasons:


Why are the pitchers gaining such an advantage? Don't knee-jerk with your answer of performance-enhancing drugs. Certainly it's a factor in the equation, but it's an oversimplification and too dismissive of the reality that PEDs have been equally available to pitchers and hitters. I watched Liriano's no-hitter with former Cy Young winner Rick Sutcliffe, who said that pitchers these days have two chief advantages over hitters: fastball velocity combined with different variations of the fastball thrown in traditional hitter's counts.

"The guys, it seems like every year, are throwing harder than they ever have before," Sutcliffe said. "There's emphasis on that fastball command. If you're not able to command that fastball on the 1-0 pitch, you've got to have one off-speed pitch -- one pitch that you can spin or rotate that you go to, to get back into the count, and I'm seeing a lot of guys with more confidence. They either throw a changeup or they're throwing the cut fastball, throwing a two-seam fastball, but they've become a lot more confident in evening that count. You know those hitters love to hit 2-0 and 3-1; they're not getting that many opportunities."

The numbers support Sutcliffe's observations. To begin with, batters simply aren't barreling up on balls like they used to. According to Inside Edge, through the first month of this season, only 20.2 percent of at-bats have ended in a "well-hit" ball in play, the lowest rate in March/April since 2007. More pitchers are throwing harder than ever, as Sutcliffe said. Here is the number of pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched to average at least 95 miles per hour with their fastballs over the previous four full seasons:

2007 -- 11
2008 -- 16
2009 -- 24
2010 -- 29

The result of more pitchers throwing more 95 mph fastballs so far this season has been more strikeouts. According to ESPN's Stats & Information department, since the pitcher's mound was lowered in 1969, no March/April has had a higher strikeout rate than in 2011, a number that has increased in each of the past three years. Are the hitters so overmatched that they're swinging at everything? Perhaps; the leaguewide walk rate is the second-lowest it has been during the past 43 years, and the strikeout-to-walk ratio for pitchers is the best it's ever been.

Through the season's first month, which pitchers have been the toughest to hit? Here are the April pitchers with the lowest batting average per pitch, again courtesy of the outstanding staff at our Stats & Info dept.:

Fastball (min. 75 PA ending with fastball): Jered Weaver, Angels -- .162
Curveball (min. 75 PA ending with curve): Philip Humber, White Sox -- .025
Slider (min. 20 PA ending with slider): Josh Johnson, Marlins -- .065
Changeup (min. 20 PA, ending with changeup): Jaime Garcia, Cardinals -- .000

How can hitters alter this imbalance? "Pitchers will get into a pattern," Sutcliffe said. "All of the sudden a hitter will know, 'OK, this guy, when he's not throwing a fastball for a strike, it's going to be this certain pitch,' so a lot of times they'll start looking for that. But if you get them looking for that and they guess wrong? You know what? That's another asset when you're able to command that fastball, and as a pitcher you're out there with more than one weapon."

It would appear, for the third straight season, that there are more weapons than ever.

Follow Steve on Twitter: @SBerthiaumeESPN