The steroid era created a time in baseball where people filled the seats to see monstrous homers. But as this postseason has shown us, we don’t need much offense to get excited about America’s pastime. By Matt Moro.
“Chicks dig the long ball.”
Greg Maddux uttered those famous words in a 90’s Nike ad, and the phrase became the perfect slogan of baseball at that time. The record shattering home run records of the 90’s and 2000’s drove up attendance and re-energized the enthusiasm for the sport of baseball. But as we now know, many of those long balls, that the chicks dug so much, came off the bats of players abusing performance enhancing drugs without a worry of consequence. Now that the crackdown on PED’s seems to be at full steam ahead, we’re less likely to see those inflated power numbers ever again. The numbers don’t lie, the home-run shows of the late 90’s and early 2000’s had a huge impact on the game and put fans in the seats. But that isn’t part of the game anymore. Between 1998 and 2006, teams were averaging about 177 home runs per year. Between ’06 and ’12, the numbers dropped to about 160 homers, and this year the number dropped again, with the major league average for team home runs at about 155. So if the major ticket selling factor for almost a decade is being wiped out, are we trending towards an era that isn’t as exciting? Should we miss the days of the long ball?
If you’ve watching the 2013 postseason, then you know the answer is absolutely not.
The game of baseball is no doubt trending back towards being a pitching dominated sport. So if home runs are down and strikeouts are up, where do we get the excitement? Well that’s just it, the strikeouts. Of course during the season if a team 15 games under .500 strikes out 10 times in a game against a .500 team in a meaningless July afternoon matchup, it might not be your cup of tea. Understood. But let’s look instead at the postseason. Every team that made the playoffs this year had a good offense. Some lineups are not as fierce as others, but no team walked into October without dangerous hitters. So basically, you know these guys can hit. It’s here, when a rookie like Michael Wacha bursts onto the scene and dominates. Or an ace wills his team to victory when common sense and the eye test say that he should be out of gas, like David Price in Game 163 against the Rangers. Or a previously little known middle reliever dominates the 9th inning like Koji Uehara has been able to do, all against lineups that did the job for 162. And most incredibly, the mound has been the spotlight in the multiple games featuring no-hit bids late into the ballgame. This is where playoff baseball is exciting as it gets because of power pitching.
Cardinal rookie Michael Wacha has had an interesting year. At just 22 years old, he made more starts in the minor leagues than the majors this year. After spending most of August in the St. Louis bullpen, he was trusted to make key starts down the stretch, including a near no-hitter in his final start of the year. So what does he do in the playoffs? He goes 7 1/3 no-hit innings against the Pirates in an elimination game. After 8 2/3 of no hit ball in his final start of the year, he flirted with history in the postseason. A story like this is as entertaining as it gets. A relatively unknown rookie goes for a no-hitter for the second start in a row, and this time in the playoffs. Wacha would lose the bid in the 8th after giving up a solo shot. But viewers wouldn’t turn away from the game at this point; this is the age of the pitcher. After giving up the solo shot, the no-hit bid was no more, but the game was just as intense: the Cardinals were only winning 2-1 at this point. Would you rather watch a team belt 6 home runs and win by 7 in a playoff game, or watch a rookie go for a no hitter, and then even when the no-hitter is gone have a tense ending to a great game?
And take a look at Anibal Sanchez of the Detroit Tigers. He sits in the shadows of Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, and even though he walked six in the 6 innings he pitched in Game 1 of the ALCS, also gave up no hits and struck out 12. 12 K’s. In 6 innings. And then the bullpen brings the no-hitter into the 9th. Daniel Nava finally broke up the no-hitter for Boston with one out in the 9th, but the excitement was far from over at Fenway. The Sox had the tying run on base, as the game was just 1-0. Once again, the extreme excitement of the no-hit bid turns into the excitement of a possible win within reach in the 9th. This scenario also allows the fans of the teams being no hit to not give up on the game if they are struggling offensively. They know that they may just be one big hit or one long ball away from getting right back into it. So the home run isn’t completely lost, as we’ve seen a number of huge round trippers so far this season. But the power pitching makes each home run much more significant.
At the end of the day, some people will always love a towering moon shot into the night over power pitching. But in the postseason where many games have failed to produce 4 runs in total, there has still been plenty of excitement. Pitching duels are intense viewing experiences and lead to more close contests, as was the case here in 2013, with 21 of the 32 games leading up to the World Series being decided by 3 runs or less. Add in the promise of a no hitter? Must see TV. We may be past the time when fans flocked to the ballpark to see those majestic home runs. And it may still be true that chicks dig the long ball. But if this postseason has taught us anything, it’s that we should all love the age of the pitcher’s duel.