Warm Sports Takes: Fastballs of Dreams

I may be in the minority, but I love a good 3-1 baseball game. There’s good pitching on both sides, tense situations with runners on base, and ultimately some timely hitting that puts one team over the top. In the 2014 season, a 3-1 game became commonplace, as 4.07 runs were scored in the average MLB game last season. That average, according to Baseball Reference, is the lowest league average since 1981, and a full run down from its peak in 2000, when the league average was 5.14 runs per game. A growing sentiment amongst sports fans is that less offense means less interesting games. I would argue the exact opposite, and that the most exciting thing in baseball right now is pitching.

A major factor in the decreased offensive numbers in baseball over the last 14 seasons has been increased drug testing in the wake of baseball’s steroid era. Last season, Nelson Cruz (albeit a former steroid user himself) led the majors with 40 home runs, a far cry from Mark McGuire’s 70 in 1999 and Barry Bonds’s 73 in 2001. Those numbers represent a change in the game that comes with normal head sizes and biceps from the new drug testing policies in baseball. The change also represents the influx of new, young, and exciting pitchers who have entered the league recently and are the most exciting players in baseball.

The two highest-priced free agents of the offseason by far were Max Scherzer ($210 million) and John Lester ($155 million). At 30 and 31 respectively, Scherzer and Lester are on the older end of dominant pitching in baseball. Last season’s best pitchers, Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Chris Sale, Felix Hernandez, Yu Darvish, and many others are all under 30 and entering their prime. The 2014 season saw great pitching performances despite two of the most exciting young pitchers, Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez, missing the season to Tommy John Surgery. In contrast to the success of young starting pitchers in baseball, the most exciting pitcher in the game was a reliever. Last season, Reds closer Aroldis Chapman struck out over half of the batters he faced, and according to FanGraphs pitch f/x data, had an average fastball of 100.2 MPH. These represent only a small subset of the great pool of young, dominant pitchers in baseball today.

Despite the success of these pitchers, a question remains: can pitchers who only play 30 times per season, or one inning per outing in the case of a reliever, really be the defining superstars of the sport? I think last year’s playoff run of the San Francisco Giants answers that question. Madision Bumgarner single handedly took over the 2014 playoffs. He won Games 1 and 5 and had a remarkable save in Game 7 to lead the Giants to victory in the World Series. Dominating performances like Bumgarner’s, or those of any other pitcher, are the most exciting stat lines in the sport. A dominating pitching performance is much more likely to be the lead of the 11pm Sportscenter than someone who hit a couple of home runs. Their performances ultimately define, for better or for worse, the success of their team.

So, with the 2014 MLB season arriving soon, embrace the 3-1, or even the 2-1 game. Dream of Chapman’s fastball and dominating complete games from Kershaw or Bumgarner. As James Earl Jones’s Terence Mann eloquently put it in Field of Dreams, “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball…it reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.” Although dominant pitching hasn’t always been a constant, pitching will be what propels baseball back into national prominence. If they throw it (fast), fans will come.

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