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In Major League Baseball, pitchers are back in command

Vicente Padilla took a no-hitter into the seventh inning at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night. That was not a big story, not this year.

In April, Ubaldo Jimenez pitched the first no-hitter in the history of the Colorado Rockies. On July 26, Matt Garza pitched the first no-hitter in the history of the Tampa Bay Rays, the fifth in the first four months of the season.

The outbreak of no-hitters reflects a larger change in the national pastime. After an era in which the home run was celebrated above all, pitchers have gained the upper hand.

Runs are down. Home runs are down. Strikeouts are up. Scoreboards no longer light up like pinball machines at every glance.

“It’s the time of the pitcher right now,” New York Yankees Manager Joe Girardi said.

The average runs scored per game per team is at an 18-year low. Runs and hits are on pace to decline for the fifth consecutive season.

No one factor explains the trend, but baseball insiders variously cite an influx of talented young pitchers who throw 98-mph fastballs for strikes, a perception that umpires are calling a bigger strike zone that favors pitchers, better fielding and Major League Baseball’s crackdown on steroid use, which may be speeding the decline of aging sluggers.

The record for no-hitters in a single season is seven, and that could be surpassed this year. Even the record for perfect games — two, set in 1880 — has been tied this season and would have been broken had an umpire not blown a call in a game in June, costing the Detroit Tigers’ Armando Galarraga his place in the record book.

The last time runs and hits were this scarce was in 1992. Baseball added two teams the next year and two more in 1998, moves widely considered to have diluted the pitching ranks.

“There is such an outcry every time the game expands, about watering down the pitching,” said John Farrell the Boston Red Sox’s pitching coach. “It’s been quite some time since that has happened.”

During that same period, smaller ballparks became the fashion, beginning with Baltimore’s Camden Yards in 1992. Nineteen major league ballparks have been built since then, most so cozy that a ball need not travel as far to clear the wall. In the interim, pitchers adapted to the smaller stadiums and to the need to master more than a fastball.

“Young guys are starting to come up and hit their spots,” said Heath Bell, the San Diego Padres’ All-Star closer. “It’s not all about throwing hard.

“When I was in the minor leagues, if you threw 95-96 [mph], you’d go straight to the major leagues, and they would teach you a curve ball. Now you have to have two or three pitches and have control. You can’t just throw hard and get up here.”

The starting pitchers in last month’s All-Star game at Angel Stadium: Colorado’s Jimenez, 26, for the National League and Garza’s Tampa Bay teammate, David Price, 24, for the American League. Of the 19 starting pitchers selected for the game, 11 were no older than 27.

“It seemed like 15 years ago, it was a time of young shortstops, and other times, it seems there’s an influx of great, young talent in outfielders,” Girardi said. “But right now the influx of young pitching in baseball is incredible.”

Beyond that, baseball mandated steroid testing six years ago and amphetamine testing four years ago.

“That has leveled the field slightly,” Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said. Hitters, he said, “are back to where they would have been without enhancement.”

Home runs have returned to pre- steroids-era levels, with teams hitting fewer than one per game on average for the first time in 17 years. And fewer older sluggers are able to overcome the effects of age.

Of the four players to hit 50 home runs in 2001, the only one younger than 32 was Alex Rodriguez, who has since admitted using steroids that year. Of the five players to hit 50 home runs since the start of steroid testing, none was as old as 32.

The advent of drug testing coincided with an increased emphasis on defense and a new wave of statistics that attempt to measure defensive contributions.

The Padres paid attention to those numbers in putting together the team that has posted the best record in the National League.

“Statistical information is available that proves run prevention can make a difference in your won-lost record,” Padres Manager Bud Black said. “We saw the difference with our eyes.”

The Red Sox stressed run prevention in their off-season maneuverings last winter after the Seattle Mariners won 24 more games in 2009 than they had the season before, largely by giving up 119 fewer runs.

The Angels emphasized defense this week, promoting rookie speedster Peter Bourjos to play center field and shifting nine-time Gold Glove winner Torii Hunter to right field.

The improved pitching statistics also reflect an approach in which batters no longer guard as heavily against strikeouts.

“There is a pretty good young crop of pitchers, and guys don’t care if they strike out anymore,” Torre said. “What I mean by that is that they get to two strikes and they swing from their rear ends. I think it plays into the pitcher’s hands when they do that.”

Boston slugger David Ortiz attributed at least some of the phenomenal pitching to umpires expanding the strike zone.

“A lot of the reason is the strike zone,” Ortiz said. “Nobody talks about it. It’s been crazy.”

Farrell, the Boston pitching coach, said young pitchers prepare much more rigorously than they did when he was pitching 20 years ago.

“They’ve grown up in the video game age,” Farrell said. “Video is so readily used now.

“Most athletes are visual learners. To have that preparedness, they feel more equipped, and more confident in executing pitches, because of the relaxation that comes to them because they are prepared.”

A torrent of information — on the tendencies of hitters and the strengths of pitchers, on video and on paper — has led pitchers to branch out from conventional strategies. With a few clicks, and within seconds, pitchers can review videos and statistics showing how any hitter reacted to any kind of pitch, whatever the count.

Hunter said he sees a fastball much less often on the first pitch, or when pitchers fall behind in the count.

“I think they’re a lot smarter,” Hunter said. “They’re not afraid to throw a certain pitch in a certain count.”

Dodgers catcher Brad Ausmus said the old-fashioned “throw inside” scouting report has given way to computerized breakdowns of a batter’s ability in as many as 16 hitting zones.

“Scouting is light-years ahead of where it was 20 years ago,” Ausmus said. “There’s so much more information in the pitcher’s hands.”

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

Times staff writer Dylan Hernandez contributed to this report.


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