- Associated Press - Thursday, September 29, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - If you thought the 2011 season seemed like a throwback, you were right.

Offense dropped to a level not seen since Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling were dominating on the mound.

Nearly two decades later, Justin Verlander, Roy Halladay and Clayton Kershaw have helped bring in a new era of prime power arms that’s caused scoring and home runs to drop to levels not seen in 19 years.

“There’s a good generation of young pitchers who have come up and established themselves,” said Colorado’s Jason Giambi, an AL MVP in the long-gone sluggers’ epoch. “The days of offensive guys putting up crazy numbers, I think it’s going to be different the next few years.”

Be it better pitchers, more stringent steroid testing, changes in ballparks or lots of wet weather, batters haven’t had it this tough since the Bush administration _ the first Bush administration _ an era when multipurpose stadiums were common, the Internet wasn’t well known and cell phones were just starting to spread.

Teams averaged 4.28 runs per game this season, the lowest since 1992’s 4.12 and down from a Steroids Era peak of 5.14 in 2000. And the home run average was down to 0.94 each team per game, also the lowest in 19 years and a sharp drop from 1.17 in 2000. That was when Giambi was voted AL MVP _ he later admitted he was among those who took steroids to bulk up.

It wasn’t just home run hitters who had a tough time, according to STATS LLC. The major league batting average of .255 was the lowest since 1989. On the flip side, the 3.94 ERA was a level last seen in 1992.

Maybe all those extra pitchers from the expansions of 1993 and 1998 finally have been absorbed.

“Pitching is getting better. Teams are drafting pitching more. They started doing that a while ago and now you’re seeing what all those guys can do,” Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker said. “For a long time, parents didn’t want their kids to be pitchers. They were afraid they’d get hurt. Now they see some of the top draft pick money they’re getting and thinking it might be OK to pitch.”

Detroit’s Justin Verlander became the first 24-game winner since Arizona’s Randy Johnson in 2002. Tampa Bay’s James Shields had 11 complete games, the first in double digits since Johnson’s 12 in 1999. Philadelphia’s Cliff Lee became the first pitcher with six shutouts since Tim Belcher’s eight for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1989.

And, oh, those strikeouts _ a record average of 7.09 per team per game after breaking the 7 barrier for the first time a year earlier. Walks were down to 3.09, the fewest since 1968 _ when there were just 20 teams and pennant winners went straight to the World Series without playoffs.

“It’s not easier to be a pitcher, but it’s way more difficult to hit,” San Francisco Giants pitcher Matt Cain said. “The way I think about it, when I’m pitching, I feel like I have a little more of an upper hand because they’re going to fail more than I’m going to fail, the way the numbers work out.”

Back in 1981, teams averaged 4.75 strikeouts. It’s not quite the dead ball era, but the balance has shifted more toward flame-throwers after a long period when bats ruled.

“The pendulum is switching,” New York Mets manager Terry Collins said. “Pitchers are throwing harder. Guys are throwing 94-98 (mph). Bullpen. Rotation. Years ago, 92 was a hard fastball. Now it’s an average fastball. Guys might even say it’s a tick below.”

Also throw in one factor that couldn’t be predicted: rainouts. There were 54 postponements, more than double the 21 in 2010.

“I was surprised there weren’t more no-hitters this year, especially with the weather all over the country,” Giambi said.

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AP Baseball Writers Janie McCauley in San Francisco and Ben Walker in New York contributed to this report.