Every old-timer will take a moment from the poker game or chess match to enlighten anyone with a baseball bat on their shoulder, " That's the hardest thing to do in sports, hit a baseball." Sentiment always agreed with, for those that have tried, but the warning looked at more as a reason to argue superiority in skill with the football or basketball players. After all, the steroid era has provided a full-house to any combination of aces thrown into the mix. But that was then, and this is now. Can it finally be the era of the e.r.a?
Matt Cain's perfect game was a solid exclamation mark in what looks to be a shift in baseball. Pitchers dominating hitters hasn't controlled the headlines since Marichal, Gibson and Koufax were reigning nasty in the 60's. Since then, following the simple slogan, "chicks dig the long ball," hitters have been strapping on the body armor, crowding the plate and looking middle-half, convinced the umpire will protect them from any knockdowns. Mix all that in with a little juice for a pre-game snack and construction of smaller parks and you have the past two decades wrapped up in two words - Home Run!
But, baseball is a game of adapting. While the hitters, regardless of position, were swinging from their shoes in hopes of the next contract or Nike ad, pitchers throwing in the mid to upper 90's were being groomed as starters, not just one-inning specialists. Armed with not only command of the heat, but also the command of secondary off-speed pitches, the new-look starting pitcher has risen and become the desire of all ball clubs. Where there was once a control-oriented premium on pitching, like the Braves under Leo Mazzone, young guns like Strasburgh, Johnson and Matt Cain have gone back to the days of, can't see it, can't hit it. A combination made easier today as hitters continue to take hacks in the going-for-broke style, regardless of the count. The result, bankruptcy.
There are cases of the Mark Buehrle's and Bud Smith's doing it with just control and off-speed magic, but only minuscule reasoning when compared to the others doing it with power. Matt Cain's final pitch last night was 94- Adrenaline or not, that is heat usually bestowed to a closer in the current system, not the starter. Justin Verlander and Humber also have found success in the Nolan Ryan-esque technique of overpowering the hitter with heat, and baffling them with breaking stuff, 20 m.p.h slower. With only a fraction of a second to decipher the seem rotation, it's almost impossible to sit back on anything other than the 95-plus, knowing full well you are one hook away from the ESPN not-top-ten.
Hitters got bigger, faster and stronger, and so did the pitchers. That is a simple fact any television screen can highlight. It isn't the inter-league match-ups, or the same umpire that called a perfect game a decade before that are causing this sudden phenomena of hitterphobia. Good pitching will always beat good hitting, and, until recently, the pitching was not that good. Regardless if another no-hitter occurs in the next 80 years or not, it is safe to say the game is resembling past decades, finally. Now, it is up to the hitter to adapt, fairly we hope, and bring about another chain of 50-homer seasons.
Until then, chicks will have to dig the K.