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ARMED TO THE TEETH; With the steroid era over, baseball's pendulum has swung back to put the pitchers in command. ERAs are down, no-hitters are up and teams know the mound is where champion contenders are built

In 1968, a year of political violence and upheaval, baseball had the quietest offensive year in its history. The average big-league team scored 3.42 runs a game, the fewest in 60 years, and batted .237, the lowest ever. Baseball's aggregate ERA was a microscopic 2.98. They called it The Year of the Pitcher.

The men who ruled the sport called it a calamity. The owners fretted about declining attendance, the rise of the NFL, and a lack of excitement in baseball. After the '68 season, they hired a new commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, who ordered the strike zone reduced: armpit to the top of the knee. They also lowered the pitcher's mound from 15 to 10 inches, and promised to monitor it closely. Some teams, like the Dodgers, had used mounds that were like small mountains. Imagine trying to hit Sandy Koufax or Don Drysdale at such a height disadvantage.

Offense picked up right away in '69. Having four expansion teams helped. Over the years, a number of factors contributed to a rise in scoring. A number of new stadiums were built that favored offense. There was a dilution in pitching talent. Then, about two decades ago, the advent of performance-enhancing drugs sent offensive numbers soaring to unprecedented levels.

Slowly, too slowly, baseball responded to the steroid scourge. Some of the game's most prominent players were implicated. In 2004, baseball began mandatory drug testing. A number of teams built new ballparks that actually favored pitchers. Offensive production began to decline, and general managers began to experience a new-found love for defense.

A year ago, baseball had a flashback, a new Year of the Pitcher. Scoring fell by nearly a quarter run per game, to its lowest level since 1992. Teams averaged under one home run a game for the first time since '93. Strikeouts reached the highest rate in major-league history.

There were six no-hit games in 2010, and a number of near-misses. Roy Halladay and Dallas Braden pitched perfect games 20 days apart. Halladay became the second pitcher to throw a no-hitter in the playoffs. Felix Hernandez won a Cy Young at 24, despite a 13-12 record.

The Giants surged to the NL West title behind a pitching staff that posted a 1.76 ERA in September, the best in any month by a team since 1968. They followed that up with four shutouts in 15 postseason games. The Giants beat Texas in the World Series, four games to one, limiting the Rangers to a .190 team batting average in the five games.

So baseball is no longer a home-run hitting spectacle. Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Fame pitcher and Rangers CEO, says the trend has turned to starting pitching. Braden, the outspoken A's hurler, says it's not a one-year phenomenon. He says we've moved beyond the era of the asterisk -- a reference to hitting stats inflated by steroids -- to "the era of the pitcher."

Hank Aaron, who had the career home run record until a juiced-up Barry Bonds came along, predicts that hitters will have their way again this year. Maybe, but I side with Braden. We've entered a new golden age of pitchers and there's no reason to expect it to change.

There's a proliferation of pitchers who are entering or already in their primes. Of the 50 pitchers with the most strikeouts last season, 36 are under the age of 30. And that doesn't include some of the best pitchers in the game, like Halladay, Cliff Lee, Chris Carpenter, CC Sabathia and Roy Oswalt, who are still going strong after 30.

Many of the top prospects in the sport are starting pitchers. You'll be hearing plenty in the coming years from Kyle Drabek, Jeremy Hellickson, John Lamb, Zach Britton, Michael Pineda and Mike Minor. Then there are such budding stars as Neftali Feliz and Aroldis Chapman, currently working in relief.

Somehow, you get the impression that baseball, which is predicting record attendance for the 2011 season, will survive until Stephen Strasburg returns from Tommy John surgery.

The Giants have the best young quartet of starters since the Braves teams of the 1990s. Tim Lincecum, a two-time Cy Young winner, was close to unhittable in September and October. Matt Cain, one of the most reliable arms in the game, didn't allow an earned run in 21 1/3 innings in the postseason.

Lefty Jonathan Sanchez allowed the fewest hits per nine innings of any pitcher in the majors. Not bad for a No. 3 starter! Madison Bumgarner had a 1.18 ERA in his final six starts as a rookie, then tossed eight shutout innings against Texas in his lone World Series start.

Success breeds imitation. The Phillies, who lost to the Giants in the NLCS, looked at the world champs and decided to beef up an already strong rotation. They signed free agent lefty Lee, giving the Phils a mound foursome to rival the Giants': Lee, Halladay, Oswalt and Cole Hamels.

In a telling move, the Phillies chose pitching over offense, throwing big money at Lee and allowing All-Star right fielder Jayson Werth to walk as a free agent. Werth got a seven-year, $126 million deal from Washington. The Phils gave Lee $120 million over five years.

History makes it pretty clear that adding an elite starting pitcher does more for a team's won-loss record than bringing in a slugger. That's why I've been arguing for years that starting pitchers should get much more consideration for league MVPs, regardless of whether they have "their own award" -- the Cy Young. Starting pitchers are the most important players in baseball. We find that out every year in October.

When the Phils stunned the world by signing Lee, people began comparing Philly's fab four with the greatest four-man rotations of all time. Halladay won the Cy Young. Lee, Oswalt and Halladay were 1-2-3 in the big leagues in WHIP ratio (walks and hits per inning pitched) last season. Hamels, Halladay and Oswalt finished among the top 12 in the NL in ERA and strikeouts. Oswalt (3.18) is second, Halladay fourth (3.32) in ERA among active starters. Lee pitched the Rangers into the World Series last year.

Lee made the Phillies the early favorite to win this year's World Series. There's not as much love for the Giants, who play in a weaker division. Maybe that's because fortunes shift so quickly in baseball nowadays. Critics say only a few teams have a chance to win, but over the last six years, there have been 11 different franchises in the World Series. Only the Phils have gone twice during that time.

Every year, it seems, a couple of teams surprise the experts and make a run. Last year, it was the Reds and Rangers. The Rockies did it in '09, the Rays in '08. If this truly is the era of the pitcher, it might be wise to look for teams with strong starting rotations, preferably one with at least four quality arms and a deep bullpen.

That's a crucial factor to keep in mind: bullpens. It's an era where more relievers are throwing mid-90s gas than ever before. Starting pitching is vital, but it's also important to have reliable relievers who can prosper in the sixth to eighth innings and deliver leads safely to the closers.

So who are some other teams that might mimic the Giants and ride a terrific pitching staff to October glory? One of them is right across the bay in Oakland. The A's, who play in one of the best pitcher's parks in the game, led the AL last season in ERA (3.56) and shutouts (17). The A's held opponents to a .245 batting average, second to Tampa Bay.

Trevor Cahill, 23, was an All-Star. He went 18-8 with a 2.97 ERA. Brett Anderson, also 23, is one of the league's top young lefties. Gio Gonzalez, 25, went 15-9 with a 3.23 ERA. Braden won 11 games and threw a perfect game.

General Manager Billy Beane (of "Moneyball" fame) has assembled the deepest bullpen in the AL. Closer Andrew Bailey is nursing an injured forearm, but Oakland has five relievers who are capable of finishing games: Brian Fuentes, Brad Ziegler, Craig Breslow, Michael Wurtz and Grant Balfour.

The staff to watch in the NL? Philly might not even have the best staff in its own division. Atlanta has a strong rotation and a deeper bullpen than the Phils. The Braves have a very good 1-2 starting duo in Tim Hudson (17-9, 2.83) and Tommy Hanson, who had a 2.51 ERA after the All-Star break and is on the verge of stardom.

Derek Lowe is 37. He's also as steady as it gets for a starter. Lowe (16-12, 4.00) has started at least 32 games the last nine years and is seventh in wins among active pitchers. If Jair Jurrjens rebounds from injuries and gets back to his form of '09, when he was third in the NL in ERA, look out.

Milwaukee finished second in the NL in homers and fourth in runs, but decided it might be useful to prevent runs, too. So the Brewers traded for Zack Greinke, who won the AL Cy Young in '09, and Shaun Marcum, who won 13 games for the Blue Jays last year.

Combine those two with Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf and you have a pretty sturdy front four, assuming they're healthy. Greinke broke a rib playing basketball over the winter and Marcum has suffered from shoulder soreness. Still, if the Brewers get them back soon, and if their shaky bullpen comes through, they could dethrone the Reds in the Central.

There's one more pitching staff to watch out for: Tampa Bay has enough arms to remain in contention in the AL East, despite the departures of Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza. The Rays don't spend a lot of money, but they spend it well and they have a knack for developing young pitchers.

Hellickson is the latest. He's the best young hurler in the AL and could win Rookie of the Year. Lefty David Price (19-6, 2.72 ERA) finished second to Hernandez in the AL Cy Young voting in his first full season. If James Shields returns to form, and if Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann continue to develop, the Rays could return to the playoffs.

That's bad news for the Yankees. The Red Sox have a very good starting rotation, a terrific defense and a solid offensive lineup. The Yanks' starting pitching is suspect after Sabathia. Despite a $200 million payroll, they've managed to patch together a pitching staff that has a lot of question marks.

You never know with pitchers, though. But starting pitching is where it's at nowadays. The one sure thing is that, if things aren't going well come summertime, the Yankees will open their wallet and do something about it.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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