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Strikeouts Show Pitchers Outdo Hitters Like No Time Since 1968

The end of Major League Baseball’s performance-enhancing drugs era is causing 1960s flashbacks.

With the baseball season almost halfway complete, 23 major- league starting pitchers with at least 10 appearances have earned run averages below 3.00. In comparison, there were 12 in 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s season-long home-run duel marked the era of steroid use in the sport.

If the 2010 season ended today, pitchers’ ERAs and batters’ home-run totals would be their lowest in almost two decades, while strikeouts are on a record pace.

“It might be the start of a renaissance of pitching, simply because so many of them are very young,” said Gabriel Schecter, a researcher at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. “That’s what happened in the ‘60s. There were eight, 10 of them who came along from the mid-60s on.”

He cited Steve Carlton, Ferguson Jenkins and Jim Palmer, who all debuted in 1965, while Tom Seaver reached the majors in 1967. They are now Hall of Famers.

ERAs averaged 2.99 in the NL and 2.98 in the AL in 1968, the only time they’ve been below three for a full season in either league since 1919, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Through June 27’s games, they were 4.11 in the NL this season, tied with 2002 as the lowest since 1993 (4.05), and 4.22 in the AL, the lowest since 1992 (3.95). Fifty-three pitchers who started at least 15 games posted ERAs under 3.00 in 1968, more than twice the number so far this season.

Photographer: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals signals to his infielders during the game against the Cleveland Indians. Close

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Photographer: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals signals to his infielders during the game against the Cleveland Indians.

In 1968, pitchers batted in both leagues. The American League has had the designated hitter since 1973.

McLain, Gibson

The Detroit Tigers’ Denny McLain went 31-6 with a 1.96 ERA in 1968, while the St. Louis Cardinals’ Bob Gibson was 22-9 with a 1.12 ERA and 13 shutouts. Schecter, 59, wrote about both in his 2002 book, “Unhittable! Baseball’s Greatest Pitching Seasons.”

The National League won that season’s All-Star Game 1-0, the lowest score ever for the midseason exhibition. The first four pitchers the winners used are now in the Hall of Fame: Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal, Carlton and Seaver.

The scoring drought led Major League Baseball to lower the pitchers’ mound from 15 inches to 10 inches, a move that caused ERAs in each league to climb to at least 3.60 the following year.

This year, the dominating pitchers include Ubaldo Jimenez of the Colorado Rockies, who was 13-1 with a 1.60 ERA before last night’s start. Stephen Strasburg’s 41 strikeouts for the Washington Nationals through his first four career starts were a major-league record. David Price (Tampa Bay), Clay Buchholz (Boston) and Phil Hughes (New York Yankees), all in their mid- 20s, each already have 10 wins. The San Francisco Giants’ Tim Lincecum, 26, is a two-time Cy Young Award winner and the Florida Marlins’ Josh Johnson, 26, has a 1.83 ERA.

Perfect Games

With perfect games by the Oakland Athletics’ Dallas Braden and Philadelphia Phillies’ Roy Halladay in 2010, this is the first season since 1880 that two major-league starters had retired all 27 batters they faced. Additionally, an Armando Galarraga outing earlier this month would have been perfect if not for a blown call on the game’s final out.

Johnny Damon, the Detroit Tigers outfielder who is in his 16th major-league season, said it’s not just the top of the pitching rotations that are good.

“You’re facing three aces on each team and the other guys are No. 2s and threes, when they used to be fours or fives,” said Damon, 36. “They’re coming after me with some real nasty stuff these days.”

Batters’ Stats

The statistics hold up for hitters, too. NL teams are averaging 0.90 home runs per game, which would be the lowest for a season since 1993 (0.86); in the AL, teams are averaging 0.95 homers, the least since 1993 (0.91) as well.

Strikeouts went up as batters started hitting more home runs in the 1990s. This season, they remain even though power numbers have tailed off. Strikeouts per game are on record-high pace of 7.07 in the NL and are 6.74 in the AL, just below last season’s AL record of 6.78, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

“Nowadays there are probably some players that don’t hit home runs who still strike out,” Tigers third base coach Gene LaMont, a former major-league manager, said in an interview. “If you’re not hitting home runs and you are striking out 100 times or whatever the number is, you need to be a different type of hitter.”

Cloud of Baseball

John Smoltz, who had 213 wins and 154 saves during a 21- year major-league career, said some the reasons pitching numbers might be better now is because of mental adjustments players are making from the steroid era -- what he called the cloud of baseball.

Baseball began random drug testing for steroids in 2004 after survey testing a year earlier found that 5 percent to 7 percent of results were positive. Amphetamine testing began in 2006. McGwire, now a coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, said he used steroids in 1998, when he hit a record 70 home runs, and throughout his major-league career.

“We’ll see in time if the pitchers have caught up to the ballparks, the strike zones, the hitters, but I wouldn’t count on that,” Smoltz, 43, now a baseball analyst for Braves’ games and Time Warner Inc.’s TBS, said in an interview. “I just think the elite pitchers are dominating.”

Changing the Mound

Lamont, meanwhile, said he wonders if pitchers will get so good that 1968’s numbers will look hitter friendly. Baseball then might reverse its course.

“I guess they thought pitchers were too dominating and they had to lower it,” said Lamont, 63, who was a catcher in the Tigers’ minor-league system when McLain was piling up wins in 1968. “Maybe if it keeps like this for three years, they’ll put it back up.”

With reporting by Barry Rothbard and Michele Steele in New York. Editors: Michael Sillup.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mason Levinson in New York at mlevinson@bloomberg.net.

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