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THE HOT CORNER: New ball is pitcher perfect

by Jim Allen (Jun 9, 2011)

Love pitching duels? Then Nippon Professional Baseball has the game for you. One doesn't have to be a stathead to notice this year's low scores. Shutouts have happened twice as often this season as in the previous 10 years.

Over this spring's first 343 games, teams have failed to score 92 times, including two games in which both teams were goose egged. More than a quarter of this season's games have been shutouts. From 2001 to 2010, shutouts occurred once in seven games.

We've had 20, 1-0 games this year--2-1/2 times more common than in the past.

What's going on? Are the pitchers suddenly better?

Yes and no.

We have a new ball, one that does not carry as well. Because the ball doesn't fly as far, it makes pitchers' jobs a little easier, and some pitchers are learning to exploit the situation and raise their game.

By changing the ball, NPB has dramatically changed the balance of power.

Everyone expected the ball to result in fewer home runs, but compared to games from the same period last year (April 12 to June 6) the number of runs per nine innings has dropped by 27 percent.

That's because the ball has done more than simply reduce homers.

The new ball has triggered an across-the-board offensive drought. Although the ball was advertised as being less lively, it has likely made it harder on hitters even before the ball gets to them.

With a different surface and stitching, the ball performs differently in flight than balls previously used.

Right-hander Shohei Tateyama, one of four Central League pitchers with an ERA under 2.00, has said the new ball has really helped his forkball.

Since batters have just a split second to judge how a ball is going to behave, adding even a slight amount of uncertainty to the equation can wreak havoc with a batter's ability to make solid contact.

Whatever the cause, solid contact has been scarce, meaning many fewer extra-base hits and lower batting averages.

What happens if a pitcher sees it is harder for batters to square up his pitches in the zone?

That's right. He's going to work in the zone more often.

This appears to be happening with the Saitama Seibu Lions' Hideaki Wakui. A week ago on Wednesday, the right-hander threw a 102-pitch complete-game victory. This is from the guy who regularly runs up NPB's highest pitch counts.

"When I heard it was 102, I thought, 'That can't be right,'" Wakui said after Seibu beat the Yomiuri Giants 4-1 at Seibu Dome.

Until this year, Wakui has typically needed 140 pitches to work nine innings. He has been under 120 in just eight of the 39 games in which he's gone exactly nine innings in his career. Three of those have been this season.

Seibu skipper Hisanobu Watanabe said Wakui has become more confident.

"In the past, he's had high pitch counts because he got distracted by his control issues," the former Lions pitcher said of his ace. "He used to try too hard to aim his pitches instead of just trusting in himself.

"Now he's attacking in the zone, getting ahead in counts and taking command."

Wakui hasn't been the only one getting ahead in counts.

Pitchers have been getting to two strikes about 5 percent more often than a year ago. Not surprisingly, strikeouts are up 5 percent and walks are down 13 percent, meaning even fewer men on base and fewer scoring opportunities.

All in all, it's a rosy picture for pitchers.

If this situation lasts, it could mirror what happened in Major League Baseball from 1962 to 1969.

During that era, the majors' expanded strike zone and ultra-high mounds helped a generation of young pitchers achieve amazing feats and tower above the competition well into the '80s--in Nolan Ryan's case into the '90s.

So much of pitching is learning to compete in the strike zone. For those pitchers with good stuff who shy away from contact, the new ball could be just what they need to achieve their true potential on the mound.

"Wakui's always been very good," Watanabe said. "But he is now meeting his potential."


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