MLB hurlers are doing things on the mound not seen since the Year Of The Pitcher, before the mound was lowered from the heavens and pitchers were made mere mortals. This is a good thing, right? Right??
Josh Johnson's ERA is an incredible 1.80, and it's only been getting better. He's got eight straight starts without giving up more than one run, and on Saturday, he'll go for his ninth — a feat not achieved since Bob Gibson in 1968.
Not bad, right? Well, Johnson won't even start the All-Star game. That honor will go to Ubaldo Jiménez, with an even more laughable ERA of 1.15, and tomorrow he'll go for his 14th win against only one loss. It's within the realm of possibility, though just barely, that he could win 30 games this year. That hasn't happened since Denny McLain in, yep, 1968.
It's a pitching resurgence everywhere. The baseballwide ERA is 4.17; down from 4.32 last season; 4.47 three years ago; and 4.77 in 2000.
We'll never get back to 1968 numbers, but the change, though in the opposite direction, is nearly as dramatic. The next, average ERA jumped 0.63. But that was due to major rule changes in the strike zone and the height of the mound. In the absence of another explanation, we were inclined to assume that the best numerical season for pitchers since 1992 is a result of the decline of steroids.
Because of that, the pitching renaissance has been welcomed as a return to normalcy. It's not, of course.
(Geek digression: Power Factor, which measures bases per hit, isn't down this year. It's not that homers have become doubles, and doubles singles, but rather that there's less hitting overall. The most notable change is in strikeouts per plate appearance, so either hitters are losing some hand-eye coordination, or pitchers are picking up a few MPH somewhere.)
As non-comprehensive as PED testing in baseball is, players continue to get caught. Steroids haven't gone away, and it would be foolish to think otherwise. The most recent one? Edinson Volquez, a talented young pitcher. Fully half of all steroid suspensions among major leaguers have been handed out to pitchers.
Here's where we've got to be "that guy" and point out that Johnson and Jiménez have had great numbers since they came up, but their performances so far this year are unbelievable statistical outliers. Their respective seasons are just as out of line with their career numbers as Brady Anderson hitting 50 home runs, or Luis Gonzalez's 57.
We don't think Johnson and Jiménez are doing anything untoward. There's no proof, and we're not insinuating anything. (In fact, NL scoring is barely down from last year, it's the AL scoring that's shown a dramatic drop.) But we do find the lack of whispers interesting.
Maybe pitching just isn't sexy, and no one's paying attention. "Chicks dig the long ball." "Do you want to know the terrifying truth, or do you want to see me sock a few dingers?"
Or maybe, and we think this is more likely, that we want to think we've solved the steroid problem. We commissioned the Mitchell Report. We paraded our transgressors before Congress. We washed our hands of the McGwire/Sosa days, discarding them as an aberration. To us, it's done, and baseball is back to being pure.
That's naive. And to ignore seismic shifts in the statistics of the game, just because we don't want to know why it's happening? Well, that's what got us into the steroid mess in the first place.