What's Behind Baseball's Great Pitching?

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St. Petersburg Times / ZUMApress.com

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Matt Garza is mobbed by his teammates as he celebrates a no-hitter, the first in Rays history

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Several other factors could account for the pitcher-favored statistics. Many of the new ballparks that have opened over the past few years, like Citi Field, home of the New York Mets, Target Field in Minneapolis, San Diego's Petco Park and the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Mo., are ranked among the most pitcher-friendly in the league. Further, a sharper focus on defense among front offices has clearly assisted the pitchers. After the offensive-boom years, according to James, teams began to seek more balance by beefing up defenses. When your pitching staff is getting pounded, the let's-fix-it reflex kicks in. "Teams then don't worry as much about offense," James says. Errors per game have dropped 14% over the past decade.

It's also a matter of economics. During the offensive explosion, defense was undervalued. So teams are now shopping for glove discounts. And new quantitative metrics for defense make it easier for clubs to identify the guys who can catch. After the 2007 season, for example, the Tampa Bay Rays traded the top pick in the 2003 draft, right fielder Delmon Young, to the Minnesota Twins. This move enabled Rays utility man Ben Zobrist, who has played every position except catcher, to take some of Young's right-field playing time, for about 17% of Young's current $2.6 million salary.

An advanced defensive stat called Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) uses play-by-play data to quantify how many runs a player saves or costs his team compared with an average player at that position. By to that metric, Zobrist is a star. Splitting time mostly between right field and second base, he enjoyed a breakout season in 2009, both offensively (27 home runs) and defensively (ranking near the top of the UZR tables on FanGraphs). Players like him have helped Tampa Bay, despite having the 19th-ranked payroll in the majors, contend with the New York Yankees for the best record in the big leagues. And among players the Rays acquired in exchange for Young: Garza, the man who just pitched that no-hitter.

Good defense can't stay cheap forever, though: Zobrist's batting stats have cooled this season, but his defense is still stellar, and in April, Tampa Bay signed him to a three-year contract extension worth up to $30 million.

Perhaps these pitcher-batter swings are just cyclical, and raw talent currently happens to favor the mound. Over the past few years, scouts have raved about the crop of young, athletic, powerful arms shuttling through the minor-league system — pitchers like Steve Strasburg, the rookie phenom for the Washington Nationals. And teams are paying more attention to nurturing pitchers, monitoring their pitch counts closely to avoid burning out their arms. (The main exception: Texas Rangers president Nolan Ryan, who has bucked the babying trend by shunning pitch counts. Texas currently leads the AL West.)

Technology may also be favoring pitchers. When Glavine started his career in 1987, pitchers relied on paper reports, delivered by the advance scouts, to outsmart opposing batters. Now they can watch video of a hitter's past 60 at bats against left-handers, say, and access all kinds of data with a push of a laptop button. "These technological tools have definitely helped pitchers increase their learning curve," says Glavine, who is promoting a new training program on video that can provide immediate visual feedback on important details like a pitcher's release point, the exact strike-zone location on his pitches and the amount of break on the ball.

Hitters, of course, have access to the same kinds of data, but pitchers have two important advantages. First, since they hold the ball, pitchers get to make the first move; hitters can only react to their choices. Second, starting pitchers get four or five days to study for their tests. Hitters are grinding nightly, so it's harder for them to keep up.

Despite the extraordinary year they're having, pitchers haven't gained enough ground to force baseball to consider rules changes like lowering the mound. And even concerned baseball men like Glavine aren't alarmed by what may be just a temporary imbalance. "Don't take anything off the mound, for God's sake," says Glavine. "Let pitchers enjoy their moment for a while."

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