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If the 2010 baseball season needed a tagline, it would almost certainly be "Year of the Pitcher." The league-wide batting average was the lowest in 18 years, there were a whopping five no-hitters or perfect games (actually six), and Felix Hernandez had a season that was so statistically sublime it transcended wins and losses and may lead to an American League Cy Young Award.
The theme has only been amplified in the postseason, where two otherworldly performances and a series of complete game gems have left sportswriters falling over themselves to declare October 2010 the moment when good pitching retook its rightful place at the center of postseason baseball. First, Philadelphia's Roy Halladay made his long-awaited postseason debut and promptly tossed the second no-hitter in 107 years of playoff baseball. Before the baseball cognoscenti had caught their breath, the Giants' Tim Lincecum threw a complete-game, two-hit shutout that statisticians somehow determined was statistically better than Halladay's no-hitter.
The media and fans are right to go gaga over the back-to-back masterpieces, which were augmented by complete-game gems from Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels in the first round of the playoffs. The mistake, however, is claiming that this postseason is somehow different than the 104 that preceded it, or even the 20 that preceded it. Because steroids or no steroids, the postseason has always been about great pitching. Without fail.
Pundits have pointed to the high-scoring 2002 postseason as a foil for the current low-scoring playoff climate. And yes, the Angels and Giants combined for 12.1 runs per game in the World Series that year. But even in the so-called "Steroids Era"—the late '90s and early 2000s—high-scoring postseasons were the exception, not the norm. From 1995 through 2004, the Fall Classic had an average of more than 10 runs per game only twice, in 2002 and 1997. In six of those years, the teams averaged fewer than 7.5 runs per game, including an anemic 6.3 in the 2003 World Series.
To put that in perspective, even during the height of the steroid era a World Series game was more likely to finish 4-2 than 6-4. The dominant team of the period, the 1996-2000 Yankees, rode pitching stars like Mariano Rivera, Roger Clemens, and Andy Pettitte to victory and got most of the hitting they needed from journeymen like Scott Brosius.
But the numbers only tell half the story. A hallmark of postseason baseball is great pitching performances that propel a team to a championship and overcome the best hitters in the game, like Halladay and Lincecum did last week. And the past 20 years have been replete with such moments. Jack Morris pitching a 10-inning shutout in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Emergency starter Livan Hernandez throwing a complete-game, 15-K gem in a 2-1 victory for the Florida Marlins in the 1997 NLCS. Josh Beckett hurling a five-hit shutout in Game 6 of the '03 Series—against the vaunted Yankee lineup—to win it all for the Marlins.
Those performances and a host of others (think '01 Randy Johnson or '99 Pedro Martinez) belie the notion that great postseason pitching went away for 15 years and suddenly reemerged in this, the Year of the Pitcher. From Walter Johnson to Dizzy Dean to Sandy Koufax to Orel Hershiser to Halladay, pitching has always won the day come October.