Print and Go Back ESPN.com: SweetSpot [Print without images]

Monday, May 2, 2011
Pitching big reason for offensive decline

By David Schoenfield

Felix Hernandez
Looking for a reason for the offensive decline? Look at the young arms, led by Felix Hernandez.

One of the big stories of April was the continued decline in offense across the majors. Scoring last season was at its lowest level since 1992 and the major league batting average in the opening month of this season was .251, the lowest April average since the .249 mark of 1992. Teams scored an average of 4.29 runs per game, lower than 2010’s season average of 4.38.

The common refrain heard last season was: See? Testing for steroids and other PEDs works.

To which I say: Not so fast, my friends.

For example, in 2006 (the fourth season of drug testing) the major league average was 4.86 runs per game and 1.11 home runs per game -- totals higher than many seasons of the so-called steroid era, including the final pre-testing year of 2002 when teams averaged 4.62 runs per game and 1.04 home runs per game. In 2009, scoring was still 4.61 runs per game and home runs at 1.04 per game.

There are many possible reasons that go into the declining offensive levels, including -- but not limited to -- reduced PED usage; better defense; new pitching friendly ballparks since 2008 for the Twins (Target Field), Mets (Citi Field) and Nationals (Nationals Park); cold weather (this April); poor quality of wood; and more consistent strike zones from umpires.

If you ask me the other explanation is rather simple: We have lots of good young pitching. The past few seasons have seen an extraordinary number of hard-throwing, polished young pitchers reach the majors and dominate.

The following starters are currently 25 or younger: Felix Hernandez, David Price, Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Kershaw, Yovani Gallardo, Tommy Hanson, Jhoulys Chacin, Wade Davis, Jeremy Hellickson, Zach Britton, Michael Pineda, Jaime Garcia, Daniel Hudson, Rick Porcello, Brian Matusz, Mat Latos and Johnny Cueto.

Other starters whose rookie seasons were 2006 or later include: Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Justin Verlander, John Danks, Chad Billingsley, Cole Hamels, Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza, Max Scherzer, Jered Weaver, Josh Johnson, Ricky Romero and Adam Wainwright.

Crediting decline in offense solely to a decline in PED usage dismisses the talent of those names.

Compare those guys to the top 15 starting pitchers in 1996 who were 25 or younger (based on Baseball-Reference's WAR stats): Andy Pettitte, Ismael Valdez, Brad Radke, Jose Rosado, Pedro Martinez, Steve Trachsel, Felipe Lira, James Baldwin, Scott Karl, Darren Oliver, Joey Hamilton, Chad Ogea, Willie Adams, Frankie Rodriguez, Mark Thompson.

These were -- in theory -- the best young pitchers in 1996. No offense to Felipe Lira or Scott or Frankie Rodriguez, but they obviously didn’t exactly have the ability of Felix Hernandez or David Price or Clayton Kershaw. It’s a simple snapshot example of one reason why offensive levels remained high through the late 1990s and into the early 2000s -- there just wasn’t much good young pitching reaching the majors. And, again, before saying it’s easier to pitch in the post-PED era, the offensive of levels in 2006 -- when today’s current young pitchers were reaching the majors or climbing their way up through the minors, weren’t so different from 1996:

1996: 5.04 runs per game, 1.09 HRs per game, .270/.340/.427
2006: 4.86 runs per game, 1.11 HRs per game, .269/.337/.432

A bit startling, isn’t it? It should make you rethink the impact PEDs had on the game. I’m not saying they didn’t have an affect, but I believe their impact is wildly overstated and misbelieved.

As a final note, a key reason we have so many good young pitchers right now is that organizations do a much better job of keeping young pitchers healthy, both in the minors and at the major league level. Here’s one simple example, looking at the number of games of 120-plus pitchers by starters 25 or younger:

2010: 30
1996: 96
1991: 163

Old-schoolers may not like these pitch counts, but it’s a big reason we can hope all these exciting young pitchers will have long, successful careers. Not that today’s hitters want to hear that.

SERIES OF THE WEEK

Atlanta at Philadelphia

Friday: Derek Lowe vs. Cliff Lee

Saturday: Jair Jurrjens vs. Roy Oswalt

Sunday: Tommy Hanson vs. Cole Hamels

The Braves have outscored their opponents by 20 runs, but have just a 14-15 record to show for it. The offense continues to struggle, ranking 14th in batting average and 15th in on-base percentage in the NL entering Sunday. Brian McCann leads the club with a .299 average but has just three extra-base hits and Alex Gonzalez, Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla are all hitting less than .235. They already digging a hole against the Phillies and Marlins. It won’t get any easier this week, with the three games against Lee, Oswalt and Hamels, not to mention Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum of the Brewers.

PITCHING MATCHUP OF THE WEEK

Wednesday: Zack Greinke (first start) vs. Tim Hudson (3-2, 3.48), Brewers at Braves

Greinke makes his Brewers debut in Atlanta against the veteran ground ball specialist. If Marcum’s first six NL starts are any indication, look for Greinke to post some big numbers. Marcum’s ERA is 2.21, his hits per nine has dropped from 8.3 with Toronto in 2010 to 6.9 and his strikeouts per nine has risen from 7.6 to 8.3. Hudson has the fourth-best ground ball percentage among starters so far and has allowed just one home run in 41 1/3 innings.

THREE SWINGS

1. Carl Crawford drove in the winning run for the Red Sox, singling in Jed Lowrie with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to beat Seattle 3-2 and avoid a sweep. Dustin Pedroia led the charge out of the Boston dugout to mob Crawford, with Red Sox players celebrating like he’d just won them the pennant. As Peter Gammons said on NESN, Crawford is one of the most respected and well-liked players on the team and you know his teammates felt extra joyous it was Crawford delivering the hit. He had a bloop single earlier in the game, improving his season line to a still-woeful .168/.215/.238 … but maybe this will get him going.

2. Andre Ethier extended his hit streak to 27 games, another reminder of one of Billy Beane’s ill-fated decisions, when he traded Ethier to the Dodgers after the 2005 season for Milton Bradley and Antonio Perez. Bradley did help the A’s win the AL West title in 2006, although he played only 96 games that season. Ethier, a second-round pick by Oakland out of Arizona State, had hit .319/.385/.497 at Double-A Midland, but had suffered a stress fracture in his back in 2004 and some scouts doubted his power potential. Kudos to Ned Colletti, in one of his first deals as Dodgers GM.

3. Alfonso Soriano leads the majors with 10 home runs after hitting four in his past four games. His all-or-nothing approach, however, is symbolic of the problems with the Cubs’ offense. Soriano is hitting .258 with a poor 24/3 SO/BB ratio, his on-base percentage is a dreadful .277. Only the Giants and Astros have drawn fewer walks than the Cubs. Soriano, once a 40-steal guy, doesn’t have a single stolen base. Only the Braves have fewer steals than the Cubs’ six. And while Soriano has 10 homers, no other Cub has more than two.

RANT OF THE WEEK

My rant is against the baseball gods. What do they have against third basemen? Ryan Zimmerman, the heart of a Nationals team that is only one game under .500, is out another six weeks or so with his torn abdominal muscle. Pablo Sandoval, off to a terrific start for the Giants, broke the hamate bone in his hand and will be out 4-6 week. David Freese of the Cardinals, hitting .356, broke his hand on Sunday. Kevin Youkilis is battling a hip problem. Alex Rodriguez was hitting .370 eight days ago but is now down to .274. This is on top of Evan Longoria missing most of the season. So, I implore the baseball gods, you’ve made a point: Leave the hot corner alone.

PHOTO OF THE DAY