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March 18, 2014 at 6:37 am ET
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Could 2014 be the Return of the Hitter?

When Barry Bonds made his return to the diamond last week, it jogged memories of another time, when 30 home run seasons were common-place and sub-4.00 ERAs were fairly rare. For the better part of the last decade, the art of pitching has undergone a complete renaissance: reliable starting pitchers are far and away the foundation of most successful teams while the task of bullpen management has rendered the one-dimensional bench player mostly obsolete. Since 2000, the average runs scored per game is down almost an entire run. The¬†most desirable asset on today’s player market? Talented, young arms that are cost-controlled.

Despite teams’ best efforts to protect these commodities, year after year, pitchers break down, stalling promising careers and ultimately derailing an entire team’s season. Atlanta’s 2014 season is already on the brink due to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy’s injuries, but their circumstances are only a small sample of what the rest of MLB is experiencing this spring. ¬†To wit, recent starting pitching injuries, alone:

As players push themselves to be ready for Opening Day or to avoid being cut, this number is sure to grow. And while these players are certainly not the game’s most critical performers on the mound, significant time missed by any of them would be a critical blow to the playoff hopes of their respective teams.

History tells us the greatest offensive explosions are statistical outliers, occurring due to league expansion (a perceived change in the acceptable level of MLB-caliber pitching) and/or drugs: in 1961, when MLB expanded to 20 teams, Roger Maris hit 61 home runs and the average ERA eclipsed the 4.00 mark for the first time since 1955 and the last time until 1977. In 1969, the addition of four new teams raised the average runs scored per game and ERA by more than half a run. From 1993 through 2009, expansion and PEDs wrought 17 consecutive seasons of average ERAs around 4.30 and average runs scored hovering around five. That hadn’t happened since the 1930’s.

If the current rash of pitching injuries continues, perhaps another offensive outlier is coming in the not-to-distant future. Perhaps that’s the reason Mr. Bonds has yet to formally retire.

 

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