- The Washington Times - Monday, July 20, 2015

Scouring of archives began after Los Angeles Dodgers starter Zack Greinke was done pitching Sunday. His scoreless-inning streak expanded to 43 2/3 that afternoon at the Washington Nationals’ expense and documenting its status was necessary. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the only pitchers who had thrown more consecutive scoreless innings than Greinke since 1961 are Orel Hershiser, who reached 59 in 1988, as well as Don Drysdale and Bob Gibson, who held opponents without a run for 58 and 47 innings, respectively, in 1968.

That season was known as “The Year of the Pitcher,” the only one when starters won the MVP award in both leagues, and it should produce wonder of what is happening now. More than any other doting numbers associated with Greinke’s wondrous streak, that he is accomplishing things also done in 1968 indicates the iron-fist rule of pitching in today’s game. Following Gibson’s 1.12 ERA in 1968, the mound was lowered five inches and the height of the strike zone was reduced. A similar dominance is occurring in 2015, and the Nationals are in the middle of a display of it.

During the three-game weekend series against the Dodgers, three pitchers who had thrown no-hitters, Jordan Zimmermann, Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw, started. Add Greinke, who leads the majors with a 1.30 ERA because of his scoreless streak, and a series filled with stunning starting pitching emerged.

What follows on the Nationals’ schedule is similarly daunting and telling. Two of the game’s dominant young arms, Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom, are in town with the New York Mets. Francisco Liriano, who has also thrown a no-hitter, and A.J. Burnett, whose 2.11 ERA ranks third in MLB behind Greinke and Scherzer’s 2.09, are on the horizon this weekend in Pittsburgh. The Miami Marlins’ Jose Fernandez, an all-star his first season when he was 20 years old, looms next week. Then, there’s another series with the Mets.

There is no simple explanation for why just 10 National League batters were hitting .300 or better at the all-star break. Only four of those players had hit more than 10 home runs. In 2010, well past the Steroid Era, 20 National League hitters were at .300 or better by the break. Back when the game was tainted, in 2000, 27 hitters finished with a .300 average or better in the National League.

So, what is happening?

“It’s all theory, right?” Hershiser said. “There’s so many different possible reasons.”

As Hershiser is quick to say, there is no uniform answer for the stranglehold pitching has on the game. Bullpens that can matchup batter by batter are an influence. Defensive shifts hold responsibility. Pitchers have more information than ever, but so do hitters. Baseline elements, like strike one, remain crucial as they always have. Though, Hershiser points out strike one may be more common in recent years because of an alteration in hitters’ approaches.

“Some people on the offensive side are blaming a little bit on ‘Moneyball,’” Hershiser said. “Because if you’re going to work a pitcher’s pitch count, you are probably taking earlier in the count and if the pitchers have figured that out, they’re throwing more strikes and now you’re hitting behind in the count. If you look at the average of a hitter when he is hitting behind in the count compared to when he’s hitting ahead in the count, it’s like a 150-point difference normally. So, that would affect the batting averages. Just the strategy of working the count would maybe take offense down.”

Delivering his theories in a professorial manner, Hershiser explained the golden value of strike one. When a pitcher faces a hitter, it’s an information exchange, he explains. In the first pitch, the hitter gets a look at the pitcher’s delivery, release point and the flight path of the ball. Turning what starts as a detrimental situation to your advantage is crucial for a pitcher.

“Getting that first-pitch strike is, ‘I just made you pay to get my information,’” Hershiser said.

Scherzer liked the phrasing. He also sees equal weight.

“Whenever you can make a hitter defensive, that’s always a good thing,” Scherzer said. “Whenever the hitter can become selective, you’re in a dangerous spot. You’ve got to be working in 0-2, 1-2 counts, or you’re going to get pummeled.”

If there was a point agreed upon as a grand influence in the suppression of hitting — beyond a crackdown on enhancements, including “greenies,” which would help everyday players maintain energy through the season — it’s the power of bullpens, not just from a velocity standpoint but from an ability to match a specific hitter with the ideal counter arm and defensive structure. The Kansas City Royals rode a forceful bullpen to a World Series appearance last season. The six-inning start has become a palatable thing because of the ferocity of bullpens.

“I was talking to [New York Yankees first baseman] Mark Teixeira last year about the guys he faces,” Nationals reliever Matt Thornton said. “He said you don’t have those fifth starters, long guys that come in and eat a game up, finish a game. They’re not going to get two at-bats against a guy throwing 88 mph with mediocre offspeed stuff. Even the long guys are future starters that have plus arms and great stuff. It’s a change in the game.”

“The hard part of the offense is that you don’t face the pitcher three, four, or five at-bats because pitching has become such a specialty,” Hershiser said. “Five innings is, ‘Oh, our starter did OK.’ Six innings is, ‘Our starter did well.’ Seven innings is, ‘This is an amazing starter.’”

In Hershiser’s career, his opponent’s batting average rose the more they saw of him. In the first three innings, opponents hit .243. In the next three innings, they were up to .249. In the last three innings, they hit .263. Even in Gibson’s almost-incomprehensible 1968 season, the batter’s average later in the game was better than during the opening three innings against him: .147, .208, .188. For Scherzer this season, hitters go .172, .200, .204 in those periods.

Scherzer points to an increase in pitchers’ arsenals as a factor. He feels the expansion in the variety of breaking pitches thrown by starters, and actual command of those pitches, has helped. He’s an example. Scherzer threw three pitches his first five seasons in the major leagues. He added a curveball in 2013. Last fall, out of desperation to control left-handers who hit his slider well, he added a cutter.

“I needed a way to get Joe Mauer out,” Scherzer said, referring to the Minnesota Twins’ first baseman.

In his last regular-season start of the 2014 season, Scherzer was able to get his first swinging strikeout of Mauer in 37 career at-bats when he threw an 0-2 cutter. Scherzer has rarely used the pitch this season, which he explains is a feeling out year for it. He expects to weaponize it next year to fight the increase in information his opponents receive this year.

Not everyone is ready to give the pitchers full credit. As the stars of baseball become younger — this year’s All-Star Game had the most players younger than 25 in the game’s history — refinement at the plate can be lost.

“Bad hitting,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said of the swing to pitching power. “That’s where I’m at with it.

“There’s definitely a lot of guys with really good arms. There’s definitely been a shift in what has been taught, hitting-wise — basically spin and not keeping the bat in the strike zone very long, which ends up being a lot of strikeouts, a lot of no contact and only using half the field. In general, we’ve gotten away from using the whole field and keeping the bat in the strike zone longer and it has caused trouble.”

Whatever the cause, the echoes of Gibson are swirling through baseball. Only one team, the Kansas City Royals, struck out less than 1,000 times last season. In 2010, four teams struck out less than 1,000 times. In 2005, 13 teams did it.

Contact has evaporated. Power and average have gone with it. Pitchers again rule.

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