Steroid era in past, baseball returns to its roots
In less than a week, Josh Hamilton hit four home runs (and a double) in one game, three Baltimore Orioles belted successive homers leading off the first inning and two hitters celebrated Mother's Day with game-ending grand slams. For all this to happen nearly at once, it seemed as if Major League Baseball had gone back to a different, darker time.
It was called the steroid era, or what Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond labeled the “cheating era.” From roughly the early 1990s through the mid-2000s, baseball was marked (or marred) by swollen offensive numbers, swollen bodies, falling records, fallen idols, investigations, accusations, confessions, denials, endless moralizing and debate — and eventually a drug policy with substance, so to speak.
Since then, the game in many respects has changed. It is a new era. Runs, home runs and other offensive numbers are down for the sixth straight season, further closing the gap with levels not seen since 1992 and earlier. In the history of professional baseball, runs have never declined six seasons in a row.
Remember the way it was, the daily slugfests and home run derbies waged by Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa? And not only them. In 2000 and '01, hitters reached or exceeded 30 home runs 88 times (including Bonds' record 73 in '01).
In 2010 and '11, the total was 42. Meanwhile, strikeouts are up from last year's record. Pitchers, always valued, are prized more than ever. Defense is important again.
“We're trying to get back to our roots as an industry,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “Fundamentals are being stressed more often. Using the bunt when it's appropriate to get a guy in scoring position. The hit and run, the speed aspect of it. Seeing (more) pitches is being talked about more than before. It used to be ‘Grip it and rip it.' ”
“More and more you see the game getting back to, let's say, the late '70s, '80s and early '90s,” Colorado Rockies manager Jim Tracy said. “Manufacturing runs. Execution is a word that comes to mind. Standing around and waiting for three-run home runs, maybe you come up real short.”
Tracy continued checking off his list of priorities in baseball's latest era: “Baserunning. Being really good at executing as far as baseball situations present themselves offensively. And pitching and defense. You gotta pitch, and you gotta be able to catch the ball when it's hit.”
Making the pitch
Mandatory drug testing began in 2004, and the policy has since been toughened. Still, the yearly drop in offense starting in 2007 has not convinced everyone of the reason. Author and MLB historian John Thorn calls the hitting decline a “predictable cyclical change” based mainly on pitching.
Besides, it is impossible to prove that the game is now spotless. Milwaukee Brewers star Ryan Braun's 50-game suspension for violating baseball's drug policy, overturned on a technicality, again raised suspicions about who is doing what and how they're doing it.
But there seems little doubt the game is cleaner.
“It went bad,” Desmond said. “Now it's getting back to great.”
Asked whether testing has affected hitting and the game's style, Hurdle immediately replied, “Absolutely. It's had a huge impact. And rightfully so.”
In regard to testing and falling offensive numbers, Rockies outfielder Michael Cuddyer said, “I don't think it's a coincidence.”
If the post-steroid era indeed resembles the pre-steroid era, pitching also has played a significant role.
The word “power,” once used almost exclusively in a hitting context, has assumed an added meaning — “power arms” and “power pitchers” and how they are used. Moreover, pitchers are developing off-speed pitches that make their heaters even more effective and vice versa.
“Since the (hitters') power isn't there, pitchers are starting to realize, ‘Hey, I can throw a sinker on the inner half of the plate and get a ground ball,' ” Desmond said. “When hitters were stronger and more powerful, they were turning that sinker around, and there was damage being done.”
“I think pitching is better,” said Cincinnati Reds third baseman Scott Rolen, a 17-year veteran who noted a series against Washington in which all four Nationals starters “were throwing 95 and 96 (mph).”
And none of them was ace Stephen Strasburg, the consistently hardest-throwing starter in baseball (after coming back from Tommy John surgery), according to FanGraphs.com.
The starters posed only part of the problem. The average start for a pitcher remains about six innings, but pitch counts and bullpen specialization has created more relief appearances for the sake of strategy, not because the starter is getting clobbered.
“It used to be you wanted to knock the starter out and get to the bullpen,” Rolen said. “But you don't want to get to the bullpen anymore. They're all throwing 97 and 98. I think velocity is up quite a bit throughout the game the last five years, and they're throwing with movement. I think there's a lot of great arms in the game right now.”
Said Desmond: “You'd almost rather see the starter throw a hundred pitches in eight innings so you could get that fourth at-bat against him than face a different reliever every inning.”
Cuddyer, now with Colorado after spending most of 11 seasons in the American League with the Minnesota Twins, said, “Last year it seemed like every reliever, whether you heard of him or not, was throwing 95. My first few years, you'd see one guy on a staff throwing that hard.”
With all five starters among the top 40 in average fastball speed (and three in the top 15), Washington's rotation collectively throws harder than any other since at least 2002, when FanGraphs began monitoring pitch velocity.
A National plan
Despite a ton of injuries, pitching and defense have kept the Nationals at or near the top of the NL East. This is baseball's new direction. It is where teams like the Pirates, with a solid pitching staff and a growing supply of promising arms in the organization, want to be.
“That's what everybody's going for,” Hurdle said. “That's what we're going for with those guys we've got surplussed in the minor leagues now, the big arms we've got.”
The Nationals lucked out by finishing with the worst record and taking Strasburg with the No. 1 pick in 2009 (a scenario that repeated the following year with outfielder Bryce Harper), but other, less obvious moves also have paid off.
“My intent was to have a team that was athletic, fast, two-way oriented,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “I wanted good offenses that also played good defense. Up the middle, you have to be fast, athletic and rangy. And on the corners are where your boppers are.”
And the pitching?
“It's not just me but a lot of baseball people, but we like pitchers that have swing-and-miss type stuff,” he said. “I think the value we put on good pitching is at its highest. Pitching's more important than it's ever been.”
Even in the post-steroid era, players — pitchers especially — are bigger than ever. But their growth appears to be more the result of nutrition, strength and fitness training and evolution, although there are no guarantees. Hitters like Hamilton, Matt Kemp and Joey Votto are great simply because they are. At least that's the hope.
Now defense is emerging as a measurable means of preventing runs. Tampa Bay, with innovative manager Joe Maddon, leads the defensive shifting revolution that might further restrict scoring. More than ever, the Rays and other teams are overloading their infielders to one side or the other.
It seems to be working.
“It's like a new defense being put in, like the 3-4 in football,” said John Dewan, who wrote “The Fielding Bible” and heads Baseball Info Solutions, which supplies teams with information on every pitch and swing. “We still need more data, but it seems to be effective. ... It's coming around.”
Said Hurdle: “It's definitely the new lane people are jumping into. We got into it last year, and we've actually accelerated it to see how creative we can be without costing us runs.”
Desmond, who is 26 but considers himself kind of a throwback, said he loves the way the game is being played.
“As a shortstop, as a defender, it's much more fun,” he said. “Speed is more of a priority. Defense is a necessity. You just can't stick a guy out in left field and expect him to hit 30 or 40 home runs. He's got to hold his own in the field.”
Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.