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July 15, 2011

On the Beat

Invasion of the Young Arms

by John Perrotto

The cry around the major leagues at the turn of the millennium and well into the beginning of the 2000s was that there was not enough quality pitching to fill 30 rosters. The lack of pitching, some people inside the game claimed, was as much the reason that scoring had risen to record levels as was the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Mariners right-hander Felix Hernandez was just 12 years when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were hitting home runs in record numbers in 1998 and still only 15 three years later when Barry Bonds set the single-season homers record with 73. King Felix could only laugh when it was related to him that it was not long ago that a dearth of pitching caused so much consternation to front-office types and scouts.

"It's not like that anymore," Hernandez said. "There a lot of good pitchers now. It seems like every team has at least of couple of young pitchers."

The Mariners are right at the top of that list with Hernandez and 22-year-old rookie right-hander Michael Pineda fronting their rotation. Hernandez has 2.8 WARP, a 3.37 FRA, and a 3.30 SIERA in 144 innings, and Pineda has put up 1.2, 4.21, and 3.33 figures in those categories in 113 innings. Hernandez and Pineda were among a group of 19 pitchers age 27 or under who were on the rosters at this week's All-Star Game in Phoenix.

Pineda was the youngest, and there were three 23-year-olds (Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw, Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, and Angels closer Jordan Walden), 24-year-old Royals set-up man Aaron Crow, Hernandez and three other 25-year-olds (Athletics lefty Gio Gonzalez, Braves right-hander Jair Jurrjens, and Rays lefty David Price), six 26-year-olds (Giants righty Matt Cain, Nationals set-up reliever Tyler Clippard, Indians closer Chris Perez, Yankees set-up man David Robertson, Blue Jays lefty Ricky Romero, and Braves set-up man Jonny Venters) and four 27-year-olds (Phillies lefty Cole Hamels, Red Sox lefty Jon Lester, Giants righty Tim Lincecum, and Rangers righty Alexi Ogando).

Several theories have been advanced to explain why the game has seen an influx of quality young pitching in recent years. They range from explanations as simple as baseball being cyclical to explanations as complex as young players concentrating more on pitching than playing an all-around game because they feel it is a quicker route to professional baseball and, eventually, the major leagues.

Lincecum, the winner of the National League Cy Young Award in the 2008 and 2009 seasons, acknowledges that there are many reasons for a spike in talented young pitching. However, he believes it comes mainly from young pitchers having a desire to learn more about their art at a young age and the availability of more qualified coaches to teach them.

"Obviously, everybody is trying to refine their art, whether they are in high school or college or whatever level," Lincecum said. "The key is having the know-how to do it and a matter of having someone to show you. You look now, and a lot of kids take private pitching lessons. You've got better pitching coaches at the high-school and college level. It's making for better pitchers from high school to college to the minor leagues to the major leagues."

Kershaw believes simple mathematics plays a part in young pitchers getting a chance to succeed. Almost every major-league club now has a 12-man pitching staff, as opposed to three decades ago when most teams only carried 10 pitchers. Twelve-man staffs and 25-man rosters mean that 48 percent of major leaguers are now pitchers, compared to 40 percent in the 1980s.

"There are more opportunities than ever," Kershaw said. "Teams have learned the risks of overworking starting pitchers and now have seven-man bullpens. You have to find the pitchers from somewhere to fill the spots, and that gives guys an opportunity to move through the farm system quickly."

Kershaw is certainly a prime example of that. He was the Dodgers' first-round draft pick in 2006 following his senior year at Highland Park High School in Dallas and made his major-league debut less than two years later, on May 25, 2008.

Another example is Crow, drafted by the Royals in the first round in 2009 from the University of Missouri but signed too late to make his professional debut that year. After just one season in the minor leagues, Crow made the Royals out of spring training this year and wound up at the All-Star Game.

"Teams are very willing to give young guys chances," Crow said. "The Royals are a great example. When they feel someone is ready to handle the competition, they bring them to the big leagues."

Another trend is teams giving youngsters the opportunity to close. Kimbrel, Perez, and Walden are all closing for contenders, pitching in game-on-the-line situations that were once reserved almost strictly for veterans, and Crow filled the position for a spell earlier in the season when the Royals' Joakim Soria struggled.

"It's not like the old days when a broken-down starting pitcher became the closer because he could handle the pressure," Perez said.

Indeed, all 309 of Perez's appearances in professional baseball have come in relief since the Cardinals drafted him in the first round in 2006 from the University of Miami.

"I was groomed for this job from the first day I put on a pro uniform," Perez said. "I was ready to close the day I walked into the major leagues. Organizations put more emphasis on the position than ever before, and they develop guys who are physically and mentally ready for the challenge."

All the good young pitching has contributed to scoring levels that are the lowest in two decades. However, Kimbrel smiles when asked about being one of the game's many young guys.

"Hey, there are a lot of good young hitters, too, and they can hit the ball far," Kimbrel said. "That keeps us all honest. We know we have to work that much harder to be successful."

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Rumors and Rumblings:

The Brewers have no intention of allowing newly acquired reliever Francisco Rodriguez to get the 21 games finished he needs to reach 55 for the season and trigger his $17.5 million option for 2012... Two right-handed-hitting outfielders that interest the Phillies are the Padres' Ryan Ludwick and the Giants' Pat Burrell, and there is talk that they might make a big move and trade for Padres closer Heath Bell… Twins designated hitter Jim Thome will likely retire at the end of this season if he gets the five home runs he needs to reach 600 for his career… While Angels general manager Tony Reagins has a history of making impact trades at the deadline, it appears that won't be the case this season, as he has no wiggle room in a budget that includes $26 million in dead money to Scott Kazmir, Gary Matthews Jr., and the injured Kendrys Morales… If the White Sox drop out of contention in the American League Central in the next two weeks, look for them to take calls on right fielder Carlos Quentin at the deadline… The Tigers are pushing hard to add a starting pitcher, and Dodgers right-hander Hiroki Kuroda is their top trade target.

Other players who could be moved at the deadline include Rockies reliever Rafael Betancourt, third baseman Ian Stewart and outfielders Dexter Fowler and Ryan Spilborghs; Orioles left-hander Jeremy Guthrie, left-handed reliever Michael Gonzalez, right-handed reliever Koji Uehara, first baseman Derrek Lee, shortstop J.J. Hardy, and designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero; Athletics left-handed reliever Brian Fuentes, right-handed reliever Grant Balfour, outfielders Coco Crisp, David DeJesus, and Josh Willingham, and designated hitter Hideki Matsui; Mets right fielder Carlos Beltran; Marlins closer Leo Nunez, left-handed reliever Randy Choate and corner infielder Greg Dobbs; Royals left-handers Bruce Chen and Jeff Francis, infielders Mike Aviles and Wilson Betemit and outfielders Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur; Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake, shortstop Rafael Furcal, and infielder Jamey Carroll; Nationals right-hander Jason Marquis, reliever Todd Coffey, catcher Ivan Rodriguez, and outfielder Laynce Nix; and Cubs right-handers Matt Garza and Carlos Zambrano, left-handed reliever John Grabow, first baseman Carlos Pena, third baseman Aramis Ramirez, infielder Jeff Baker and outfielder Reed Johnson.

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Scouts' views:

Brewers right-hander Zack Greinke: "I know his numbers don't necessarily show it, but I don't think he's been all that bad. You can see he is pressing a little bit to prove himself to a new team and a new group of fans, but I really think he's going to settle down and have a big second half. He's still a No.1 starter in my book."

Rangers left fielder Josh Hamilton: "I wonder how the death of the fan in Arlington is going to weigh on him. He hasn't always been the best at blocking out things. This might be an even bigger test of his faith and mental toughness than his drug problems."

Cardinals center fielder Colby Rasmus: "The production doesn't add up to the raw talent. This guy should be a star. He can hit, he has power, he can run, he makes some great catches in center field. Yet he just keeps disappointing. I think there is definitely tension there with (Tony) La Russa, and he needs a change of scenery."

Rays right-hander James Shields: "He's really transformed himself from a good pitcher into an ace this season. He's always been a strike-thrower, but now he's attacking the zone with more confidence than ever. He's earned the Big Game James nickname."

Tigers closer Jose Valverde: "The numbers don't lie, he's 24-for-24 in save opportunities so far. Still, I just don't trust him in a pennant race. He's the type of guy who can melt down at any time. It's going to happen at some point."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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