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The 2021 season might accidentally become a pitching renaissance

With the deadened ball, offensive production is down to historical levels.

MLB: New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

All winter long, we heard about Major League Baseball’s pace of play problem, the result of the “three true outcomes” approach that saw more home runs, strikeouts, and walks, and fewer balls in play. We learned that the league had decided to alter the baseballs to increase drag and reduce the home run rate, in the hope of generating more action. The early evidence, however, has suggested that this plan utterly backfired, as Buster Olney tweeted on Wednesday evening that, through the first 528 games of the season, the number of strikeouts were outpacing the number of hits at a record pace. Far from increasing action on the field, did Major League Baseball inadvertently ring in the third Year of the Pitcher?

For those who are unaware, the Year of the Pitcher was originally a title granted to the 1968 season, which saw historic lows in batting average (.237), on-base percentage (.299), and runs per game (3.42) — league averages not seen outside the dead ball era. Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA is the fourth-lowest in baseball history and the lowest since the start of the first World War. Gibson and Denny McLain both won their respective league MVP awards in addition to the Cy Young, and Carl Yastrzemski’s .301 batting average remains the lowest to ever win the batting title.

In order to return the sport to balance, the Rules Committee made several changes, lowering the pitching mound by five inches and shrinking the strike zone. The following season, offense returned to much more normal levels, and the 1968 season became an anomaly.

Until 2010, that is. The 2010 season also became known as a Year of the Pitcher, as it was notable for its large amount of high-profile pitching milestones: two perfect games and six no-hitters were thrown (including one in the NLDS), Armando Galarraga had his famous near-perfect game, and teams were shut out on 329 occasions. It might be better, however, to say that 2010 was the inauguration of a post-Steroid Era “Era of the Pitcher.” In 2009, offenses were scoring 4.61 runs per game; in 2010, that number dropped to 4.38, and it would continue dropping every year for four more years, bottoming out at 4.07 in 2014 (the lowest offensive output since 1981, which saw 4.0 runs per game). 2014, in fact, saw the lowest OPS (.700) since 1992 (which was also .700).

This time, the Rules Committee made no formal changes, but the league is suspected to have introduced the “juiced ball” after the 2015 All-Star Break. This, combined with the launch angle revolution, led to an offensive resurgence in the following seasons due to an increased number of home runs even as strikeout rates skyrocketed.

So, what have we seen so far this season? At the moment, offenses are scoring 4.35 runs per game, a reduction of 0.3 runs from the 2020 season and 0.48 from 2019. The league’s hitters are putting up a .703 OPS, almost 40 points lower than last year (.740), almost sixty from 2019 (.758), and in line with the 2014 season. Strikeouts are at an all-time high (9.14 per team per game), and hits are at an all-time low (7.69 per team per game). Meanwhile, we’ve already seen two no-hitters, each of which were one hit batter short of perfection.

Additionally, offenses have been shut out 48 times in the first 544 games, whereas in 1,796 games last year, that only happened 12 times. At this rate, there will be roughly 428 team shutouts, 69 more than the current record-holder, the 1915 season, and 75 more than the most recent peak, the 2014 season.

Does all this mean we’re looking at another Year of the Pitcher? It’s hard to say. Barely 12 percent of the season has been played so far — a remarkably small sample size — and offenses traditionally do not start heating up until the weather gets warmer as summer approaches. For example, in April 2017, teams scored 4.42 runs per game, only a little bit higher than our current 2021 levels; offense around the league ended that season at 4.65 runs per game.

Additionally, although offensive stats are, on the whole, down to the early-2010s levels, teams have still been able to generate runs at a much higher clip than they could during the 2014 season. The Yankees just might not hit 300 homers again, as they did in 2019. As the season goes on, however, all these trends are nonetheless something to keep an eye on, not just for the Yankees, but throughout the league.