On Monday, Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish once again did what he does best: Make hitters look utterly stupid.
For the second time this season, Darvish — the Rangers high-priced Japanese import — nearly put the Houston Astros on the wrong side of history. Armed with a 94 mph four-seam fastball and a knee-buckling slider, Darvish didn't allow a baserunner through his first five and two-thirds innings, and didn't allow a hit until the eighth inning. All told, Darvish finished Monday's game with eight innings pitched, one run allowed on a single hit, one walk, and 15 strikeouts. It's a performance on par with Darvish's first start of the season, also against Houston, in which the right-hander came within one batter of a perfect game, settling for a complete-game shutout with one hit and no walks to go with 14 strikeouts.
This kind of strikeout dominance is nothing new for Darvish. Monday's game was the fifth time this season hes struck out 14 or more batters in a game; only three pitchers have ever done it six times or more in one year. With 207 strikeouts already this season, Darvish is the leading strikeout pitcher in the MLB, 26 whiffs ahead of Mets phenom Matt Harvey. His strikeout-per-nine-inning ratio of 12.12 isn't just the best in baseball this season; it's the seventh-highest single-season mark in history. Darvish is rubbing shoulders with strikeout legends like Pedro Martinez, Nolan Ryan, and Randy Johnson. But what's truly remarkable is that he isn't alone in his pitching mastery.
Across Major League Baseball, hitters are finding themselves increasingly beat out by pitchers. Through Monday night's action, in 3,526 total games played this season, Major League hitters had struck out 26,454 times. Over the course of a 162-game season, that projects to 36,462 strikeouts, which would be a single-season record for MLB. If that projection holds, it will be the ninth straight season in which MLB has seen a new record for total strikeouts in a season; the current high mark is 36,426, set last year.
Meanwhile, hitters have seen their collective batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage plummet in the last decade. From the steroid-era high of 2000, when the average MLB line was .270/.345/.437, hitters are now down to a .253/.317/.398 line in 2013. That .253 mark would be the single lowest collective batting average for a season since 1972, when the league as a whole hit .244. It would also be the seventh straight year that the league's batting average and on-base percentage have gone down, and the second season out of the last three in which slugging percentage was under .400.
To what can we attribute this fall in offense? Most would argue for this being a natural correction after the steroid-inflated late 1990s and early 2000s, when offense jumped to levels not seen since the 1930s. That, however, requires the ability to separate out exactly those who were juicing from those who weren't, not to mention the fact that pitchers were using performance-enhancing drugs as well. And as the recent Biogenesis scandal reminds us, steroids arent a thing of the past.
For the most part, up-and-down cycles in offense and pitching have come naturally throughout baseball. The Deadball era of the 1920s gave way to the offensively charged 1930s; the pitcher-friendly 1960s died out once the pitchers mound was lowered and the designated hitter was introduced in the 1970s. For this recent cycle, there's no rule change or introduction we can point to as an explanation. But there are some factors that might help explain it.
For starters, the average pitcher simply throws harder today than pitchers in the past did. According to Fangraphs, in 2013, the average velocity for all fastballs thrown by pitchers with at least 10 innings recorded is 91.6 mph. That's a full two miles per hour faster than the average fastball in 2002, and its a number that's been steadily on the uptick since 2003. And that's just average fastball velocity for a wide spectrum of pitchers; the game's truly elite starters, like Harvey or Stephen Strasburg, will average 95 mphfor an entire game. Then there are flame-throwing relievers like Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman, who averages 97.9 mph on his fastball and routinely gets it up to 103. Those are numbers with which Major League hitters didn't have to contend 10, 20 or 30 years ago, much less in the pre-World War II era.
Although throwing harder is usually a recipe for arm disaster, advances in medical science and training now allow pitchers to recover faster from injuries and stay healthy for longer. In 2007, a study published in an issue of Population Research and Policy Review calculated that the average baseball player could expect to stay in the league roughly 5.6 years. More importantly, however, is the fact that the average MLB life expectancy jumped from 4.3 years between 1902 and 1945 to 6.85 years between 1968 and 1993. It's reasonable to expect that that number has increased even more since then, meaning that pitchers are hanging around for longer and increasingly staying healthy and productive.
Then theres the matter of MLB's new sources of players. Thirty years ago, pitchers like Darvish or Chapman likely would have spent their entire careers in their respective home countries. Nowadays, it's easier than ever for Japanese, Cuban, Dominican and a whole host of other foreign players to come to America. MLB's increased attention to international scouting has deepened the talent pool, leading to better and more productive players from unexpected places.
Of course, all those advances apply to hitters as well, and it's likely that, in the near future, MLB's offense will once again course correct itself. Until that time, however, don't be surprised if days like Darvish's against Houston become closer to the norm than the exception.