If you're partial to aficionado's baseball -- that is, if you're partial to brisk encounters in which pitcher lords over lineup -- then 2010 is shaping up to be your kind of season.
After all, it's not even the middle of May yet, and we've already seen Ubaldo Jimenez throw a no-hitter and Dallas Braden craft a perfect game. Take a glance at the leader boards, and you'll find a total of 13 qualifying pitchers have sub-2.00 ERAs. It's still too early to talk seriously about paces (after all, Braden is on pace to throw five perfect games this season!), and indeed on the individual level, there are some absurdities to be sorted out ...
The aforementioned Mr. Jimenez, excellent as he is, will not post the lowest qualifying ERA since 1880. Tyler Clippard will not go 31-0 while working out of the Nationals' bullpen. Cardinals rookie Jaime Garcia will not log a quality start every single time he takes the mound. Barry Zito will give up a home run at some point. Roy Halladay will (probably) not log 15 complete games and nine shutouts. And so on and so on. We know not to read to much into individual performances this early, but what about the numbers at the league level? There's something going on there, too. If trends hold, then we'll see the lowest ERA and runs-per-game figures since 1992 and the lowest home-run rates since 1993, when the current offensive era truly began. As well, we'll see the highest strikeout rates ever, which is in keeping with the general upward trend of whiffs throughout baseball history.
The lazy and perhaps popular explanation for all this is that baseball's PED-testing policy is beginning to reshape the game. But you should be very careful before you buy into this line of thinking. First, HGH, a frequent source of populist outrage, does nothing to enhance athletic performance , and, second, when it comes to HGH, anabolic steroids and other delicious flavors of PEDs, pitchers have been more likely than hitters to test positive of late . So why, then, do we assume it's the offense that's helped by PED use? Sure, it fits the narrative that has been peddled in the media, but in reality we have no idea how PED use has been manifested in the numbers.
So what's really going on with the decline in offense? It could just be the noise that's the natural accompaniment to the small sample size. Or it could have something to do with the fairly bizarre weather patterns we've seen over the past several months. Or perhaps it's that some teams are focused on putting better defenses on the field. Or is it the umpiring? A slight rise in walk levels suggests pitchers aren't necessarily working with a more accommodating strike zone. So it could indeed be a pitching renaissance.
ERA levels in April tend to be all over the map (the April ERA was substantially higher last season but lower in 2008), and there's nothing wildly out of step about what happened in the opening month of the present season. In May 2010, however, pitchers have posted an aggregate ERA of 4.13, and if that continues, it'll be lowest May ERA since 1993. What's also interesting is that it's starting pitching that's really excelling this season. The bullpen numbers are solid but nothing spectacular by recent standards. In 2010, starters, however, have an ERA of 4.26, and that's the lowest such mark since 1992.
Take another glance at those leader boards, and you won't find this surprising. A total of 28 pitchers have worked a qualifying number of innings in 2010 and maintained sub-3.00 ERAs. Last season, just 11 pitchers did so. In 2009, Zack Greinke led all of baseball with a 2.16 ERA. This year, 15 qualifiers can beat that mark, including elite luminaries like Jon Garland and Doug Fister.
Sustainable? Obviously, we must wait and see. Offensive levels will likely rise during the warmer months, and as the season wears on, injuries may force lesser hurlers into starting roles. But this could be the start of something. It's far too soon to call this some kind of new "golden age" for starting pitching, but it's a development that certainly bears following. If nothing else, maybe we can put on hold those half-baked ideas about how to make baseball games shorter. For now, the starting pitchers are taking care of that.