Last Night's Winner: The Year Of The "Year Of The Pitcher" Stories

In sports, everyone is a winner—some people just win better than others. Like all those people writing all those "year of the pitcher" stories, for whom Matt Garza's no-hitter provided more anecdotal evidence of a trend that probably doesn't exist.

Garza, pitching against Detroit yesterday, threw the fifth no-no of the year, which means that we're in for another run of speculation about why pitchers have claimed the edge this season. There are a lot of problems with these stories — if we're going to sloppily attribute everything to the new drug testing regime, shouldn't we at least acknowledge that pitchers took all those Very, Very Bad Drugs, too? — but the biggest of all is that they presume this phenomenon is anything but a blip. And thus far, at least, there's little evidence to suggest that it is. Via Baseball Reference:

Last Night's Winner: The Year Of The "Year Of The Pitcher" StoriesS

Even looking at the past decade, 2010 doesn't seem particularly anomalous. We have a dropoff in runs per game per team of .16, just as we did in 2002. (What does stand out is the change from 2000 to 2001, when, as Tom Tango points out, baseball once again started calling the high strike.) Baseball's power factor — a favorite metric of our old pal and proto-Moneyballer Eric Walker, measuring total bases per hit — is right around 1.566. That's the lowest since 1995, but not so low that it suggests any permanent tectonic shifts in the game, as Baseball Prospectus's Jay Jaffe notes. Here's Tango again (he was writing when the dropoff was at .13 runs per game):

From 1901 to 2009, which is 108 back-to-back seasons, there have been 36 times that the runs per game dropped by at least 0.13 runs per game. There have been 31 times that the runs per game increased by at least 0.13 runs per game. And another 41 times where the runs per game was within 0.13 runs per game. That we are currently witnessing a drop of 0.13 runs per game (with still 3 months to go, and still summer months to enjoy) is about as non-story as there is, other than the people's desire to look for streak stories, or hot-and-cold stories.

[...]

The drop is around the 33rd percentile (or 67th percentile, depending on your perspective). A story is when something is at the 95th or 99th percentile.

From 2004-2006, the runs per game went from 4.81 to 4.59 to 4.86.

From 2000-2002, it dropped by 0.52 runs in two seasons.

From 1987-1988, it dropped by 0.58 runs in one season, after previously increasing by 0.31 runs per game.

1976-79: 3.99 to 4.47 to 4.10 to 4.46. THOSE are big changes.

And the real "year of the pitcher" changes: 1962-1963: drop of 0.51 runs per game 1968-69: increase of 0.65 runs per game, followed by another 0.27 runs per game.

What's happening appears to be random variance, but fans are more than happy to adduce these numbers to various unrelated arguments about PEDs or pitcher abuse or baseball's newfound appreciation of defense. The year of the pitcher is really the year of people looking at the clouds and swearing they see shapes.

Year of The Pitcher, 2010? [Inside The Book]
Year of the Pitcher? [Baseball Prospectus, sub. required]