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Color by Numbers: Drawing a Blank

On Tuesday night, Scott Shields, Jeff Weaver and Justin Verlander all threw a complete game shutout, and then for good measure, the Pirates had six pitchers combine on a 1-0 whitewash. In the not too distant past, four shutouts in one day would have made headlines, but lately, goose eggs have becoming increasingly common. In fact, over the first 77 calendar days of the season, there has been at least one shutout in 66, including two days in May that featured six.

Run production has been down significantly in the major leagues over the past two seasons, so the increase in shutouts shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. However, the pace being set this year would not just turn the clock back to before the steroid era, but wind it in reverse by over 30 years.

Comparison of AL, NL Run Production and Number of Shutouts, 1901-Present

Note: All data as of June 14. 2011 shutout totals are pro-rated.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

If major league pitchers maintain the current pace, there will be 346 shutouts this season. On a per team basis, that would equate to approximately 11.5, a rate that would not only rank as the highest total in the big leagues since 1978, but also fit right into any period since the dead ball era. What’s more, this season, the American League has finally caught up to the National League. In 2010, the typical club in the senior circuit was involved in four more shutouts than their A.L. counterparts, but so far this year, that gap has been reduced to one-half game.

Only 67 games into the season on average, every team has already been shutout at least once. However, no team has taken the trend to the extreme more than the San Diego Padres. In the team’s first 70 games, the Padres’ lineup has been blanked 11 times, putting them on target for 25 shutouts. If the San Diego offense does achieve that ignominious feat, it would be tied for the 16th highest total in major league history (a ranking mitigated a little by the longer 162-game schedule) and represent the greatest single season tally since the 1972 Texas Rangers.

On the other end of the spectrum, every team’s pitching staff has also recorded a shutout. Leading the pack in this regard is the Tigers, who have shutout the opposition in nine ballgames. Although not as historically unique as the Padres’ futility, Detroit’s current pro-rated target of 22 shutouts would still rank among the top 3% in big league history and represent the highest total since the 1992 Atlanta Braves recorded 24.

2011 Shutout Breakdown by Team

Note: All data as of June 14, 2011.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

Why have there been so many shutouts over the past two seasons? I am ashamed to admit that I am completely drawing a blank. Perhaps, after years of marketing the home run, baseball has now adopted an entirely different strategy? In the past, there have been rumors of juiced balls, so maybe the sport has decided to surreptitiously shift the balance back in favor of the pitcher? Whatever the reason, you can bet Bud Selig is delighted to see a clean break from the stigmas of the steroid era. Whether the fans agree is another story, but if the shutout really has become the new home run, baseball is set for a banner year.

Categories:  1: Featured  Baseball  Games We Play  Yankees

Tags:  color by numbers  william j

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1 Shaun P.   ~  Jun 16, 2011 11:31 am

I wonder how much the weather has impacted things. I don't know about the rest of the country, but outside of a small heat wave that temporarily took us into the 90s, the temperatures in the greater Boston area have been consistently cooler (50s and 60s) than one would expect for a "typical" spring.

I also wonder if talent dilution has something to do with it. Over the last 3-4 years, the number of awesome young pitchers seems to be much greater than the number of awesome young hitters. Small sample, but look at the AL East. One could argue that the 5 best hitters to make their debut in the East since 2008 are, in some order, Evan Longoria, Adam Jones (who did play in '06 and '07 and so maybe should not count), Brett Gardner, Ellsbury, and Lowrie. Not exactly a fearsome crop of power hitters there.

2 rbj   ~  Jun 16, 2011 11:53 am

Weather could be a part of it. I suspect however, that it's part of a natural cycle: teams used to rely so much on power hitters that it made sense to develop better pitchers to counteract those hitters. Now that is in full bloom. Next will be developing "small-ball" hitters, with bunting & stealing. Then someone will come along and say "hey, lets develop power hitters."

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