Earned run averages have skyrocketed in the last couple of decades. In the 40 years after World War II, American League pitchers compiled an ERA of under 4.25 every single year except 1950 and 1977. National League pitchers compiled an ERA of under 4.25 every single year except 1977. In the last 30 years, though, we've seen ERAs go stratospheric -- not since 1992 has the American League seen its pitchers compile a sub-4.25 ERA, and not since 1992 has either league seen its pitchers compile a sub-4.00 ERA.
Five of the worst six ERA seasons -- and seven of the worst nine -- in American League history have come since 1994. If you discount the pre-1901 era, same goes for the National League but worse: It's nine of the worst 11.
You can probably guess the point that's being made here: The pitchers of today are the greatest pitchers of all-time.
No, really. The cumulative American League ERA so far this season is 4.41, a tick up from last year's 4.32 and well above pretty much every ERA posted between 1901 and 1990. The cumulative National League ERA so far this season is 4.24, a tick down from last year's 4.30 but still well above where it used to be.
Still, though: The pitchers of today are the greatest pitchers of all-time.
A couple of fairly simple points:
1. Strikeout rates have outpaced home run rates by a growth factor of 4.5 since the Steroid Era began.
2. Strikeout rates have outpaced walk rates by a factor of 15.
3. Walk rates, however, still have increased -- but only very gradually.
We all know how hitters have been hitting more and more home runs since the Steroid Era began in 1993 or 1994. Some also have pointed out -- Joe Posnanski, of course, did it best -- how hitters have been striking out more and more in that same time span. Posnanski's premise was that if hitters would strike out a little less often and make contact a little more, they'd have more opportunity to hit .400.
But strikeouts are a product of two things: The pitcher and the hitter. Posnanski, for the sake of his premise, looked at hitters. But pitchers have quite a bit to do with it, too -- and if you take a look at the above points, you can see why.
Home runs are up. Strikeouts are up. You could easily jump to the conclusion that hitters simply are swinging more -- they're not making consistent contact because they're trying to hit home runs all the time, but they're swinging more.
Except walk rates are up, too.
Here are some of the raw numbers -- you'll be spared the long list of data and the chart and the linear function and the slopes and R-squared values and everything that went into them:
Home run rate
1980: 1.9 percent of at-bats
(Since 1980, if you take every year into consideration, the rate of increase is 0.33 percent.)
1980: 12.5 percent of at-bats
(Since 1980, the rate of increase is 1.49 percent.)
(Since 1980, the rate of increase is 0.1 percent.)
If hitters were striking out more often because they were swinging more often, well, you'd think you'd see walk rates start to decline. But that's not the case. Walk rates haven't skyrocketed, but they have climbed gradually northward throughout the last 30 years.
The huge increase in strikeout rates -- home runs have increased, but strikeouts have increased almost five times as fast as home runs -- can't just be attributed to free-swinging hitters. It must have something to do with the pitching, too.
Strikeouts and walks and home runs, as has been well-documented, are about the only thing a pitcher can control. Once the ball gets put into play, the pitcher has pretty much no control over what happens to it. It helps if it's not hit all that hard, of course, but baseball fans everywhere have seen hundreds of line drives land in outfielders' gloves and hundreds of bloop singles barely reach the outfield grass.
Analysts more and more are looking to strikeout ratios -- as well as strikeout-to-walk ratios -- to determine the best pitchers in the game. Check out this list:
1. Justin Verlander
2. Jon Lester
3. Zack Grienke
4. Felix Hernandez
5. Josh Beckett
6. A.J. Burnett
7. Roy Halladay
8. Matt Garza
9. Jered Weaver
That looks pretty much like a list of the best pitchers in the American League, right? Well, that's the strikeout-rate leaderboard. Verlander leads the way with a strikeout rate of 29.5 -- that is, 29.5 percent of hitters he faces go straight back to the dugout -- and Weaver has a more-than-respectable 21.1.
Back in 1980, Rudy May led the American League with a 19.3 percent strikeout rate. He'd rank 16th in the American League this season Dave Righetti led the American League in 1981 with a 21.1 percent strikeout rate -- and he'd still barely crack the top 10.
(By excluding the National League, of course, we're excluding guys like Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan, pitchers who routinely had strikeout rates of 20 percent or better. The National League this season, though, has four pitchers -- Tim Lincecum, Javy Vazquez, Yovani Gallardo and Dan Haren -- with strikeout rates of 25 percent or better.)
Pitchers in the last 30 years have had to face some of the best hitters in the history of the game. Much of that has to do, of course, with performance-enhancing drugs. But building up artificial bulk doesn't just increase home-run power -- the stronger your upper body, the quicker your bat speed. The quicker your bat speed, the more contact and better contact a hitter makes. (Hand-eye coordination helps, too -- just ask Dustin Pedroia.)
There's a reason, after all, that doubles and triples have increased at just as steady a rate over the last 30 years as home runs.
All the while, though, strikeout rates have increased almost five times faster than home run rates and more than twice as fast as the extra-base-hit rate.
Pitchers' ERAs have, predictably, climbed to new heights in the last couple of decades. Before everyone came to grips with the issue of performance enhancers, one common explanation was that expansion had watered down pitching, that pitchers weren't as good as they used to be.
That part is true. Pitchers aren't as good as they used to be.