WHAT'S WRONG WITH PITCHING?
Whether or not the balls are livelier or the bats are loaded, one thing is certain about this season: The pitching stinks. "It is at a critical low throughout the industry," says Milwaukee general manager Harry Dalton. The pool of pitching talent is so shallow that 43 pitchers who are now on major league rosters have at one time been released. Steve Carlton, 43, has found four teams willing to sign him since the Phillies ditched him in 1986. Tommy John, released in 1985, has won more games this season, at age 44, than any rookie. "It used to be that no one ever traded an everyday player for a pitcher," says Dalton. "Now you couldn't trade two everyday players for a quality Number 1 starter." And, says Indians G.M. Joe Klein, the pitching shortage "isn't going to stop soon."
Yes, today's body-by-Nautilus sluggers are making it tougher for pitchers. But they are only part of the story. Pitching is a much finer art than hitting. Indeed, Tigers president Jim Campbell says, "It takes 20 good pitching prospects to develop two good pitchers." But even at that ratio there should be more good pitchers in baseball. So, what happened?
"If you want to know what's happened to pitching, go to a Little League game," says Dodger scout Jerry Stephenson. "I went to one of my son's games, and all they threw were breaking balls. In Little League." To some degree the youngsters are merely emulating their heroes, but, believe it or not, they have a practical reason for throwing trick pitches: the aluminum bat. "The fear of the aluminum bat has changed pitching patterns," says Mets player-development director Joe McIlvaine. "You can make a good pitch inside to a hitter, and he can still hit the ball hard with an aluminum bat. A young pitcher learns, however, that he can get hitters out with breaking balls. So he develops neither his arm nor his fastball, and he only pitches away. By the time he's 22, he can't change his bad habits."
Baltimore manager Cal Ripken says, "Years ago, a kid just went out and threw fastballs. But now he watches television, hears them talk about 'keeping hitters off balance' and 'spotting the ball.' That's fine in the big leagues, but it's making fastballs disappear." Says Cubs scouting director Gordon Goldsberry, "Two thirds of all college pitchers now are breaking-ball pitchers."
Red Sox hitting coach Walt Hriniak thinks there aren't more than five hitters in the AL who can hit the high fastball. But how many 90-mph throwers are there? Count 'em: Roger Clemens, Jose DeLeon, Jack Morris, Dan Plesac, Bret Saberhagen, Bobby Witt, Juan Berenguer, Jay Howell and Tom Henke. Period. In the NL are Floyd Youmans, Steve Bedrosian, Nolan Ryan, Mike Scott, Todd Worrell, Lee Smith, Randy Myers and Dwight Gooden. Once, there were a lot more. Says Padres manager Larry Bowa, "I didn't need a gun to know that in the late '60s there were staffs with three and four pitchers who threw in the 90's."
Two pitching greats agree. "When I started out, youngsters took more pride in the fastball," says 318-game winner Don Sutton. "Now they seem to think good velocity and control are not enough. Young guys are in a hurry to become three-or four-pitch pitchers sooner than they have to. They're more interested in tricking hitters." Adds Houston's Ryan, "I don't think people throw the fastball anymore when they're coming up. This year I've seen only about two or three pitchers that I thought had pretty decent arms." Says Baltimore third baseman Ray Knight, "That's why there are so many homers being hit. When a pitcher misses on one of those slow pitches, they're going to get hit out of the park."
A MINOR PROBLEM
John says pitchers don't throw enough in the minors, because clubs on every level began going to a five-man rotation after the Mets first found success with it in 1969. "Minor league pitchers rest for four days and throw once on the side between starts," says John. "So if a kid gets knocked out, he may throw two innings in nine days. In the minors, I was on a four-man rotation and threw batting practice between starts. I think that's very important."
"There's no question that we baby pitchers too much," says Giants G.M. Al Rosen. "Managers and coaches want to protect their arms. Protect them? Hell, we're crippling them. All those pitchers in the Hall of Fame, I don't remember seeing them ice their arms. If ice cost us a dollar a pound, we'd be bankrupt." Dalton points to the number of pitchers (77) who have been disabled this season. "That should tell us something," he says. Opponents of the designated hitter, like NBC's Tony Kubek, believe that the DH, introduced in 1972 and used now in every league except the National, is responsible for much extra wear and tear on pitchers' arms.
Agreement is widespread that pitching prospects reach the majors too quickly. "They're here before they've learned to be complete pitchers," says Pittsburgh G.M. Syd Thrift. "They're making mistakes because they don't have experience. And, because we've developed so many breaking-ball pitchers, those mistakes are doubly costly." Says Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach Ray Miller, "When a young pitcher has to learn against a Jack Clark, he's in deep, deep trouble."
Bobby Witt was 0-6 in his one minor league season and was pitching for Texas the next. The Rangers' Bob Malloy had nine professional starts before coming up, the Indians' Greg Swindell had three. Dozens have made the majors with less than two years of pro experience.
THE STRIKE ZONE
A pitcher's job isn't made any easier by the incredible shrinking strike zone, which now extends roughly from the belly button to the bottom of the kneecaps. "I've never seen so many 3-2 pitches in my life," says Brewers coach Larry Haney. "Every pitcher seems to be behind in the count all the time, which makes a .240 hitter into a .280 hitter and a .280 hitter into a .320 hitter."
Giants manager Roger Craig feels pitchers have been discriminated against since the pitchers' year of 1968, after which the mounds were lowered from 15 to 10 inches. "The worst thing is [the umpires'] not letting anyone pitch inside," says Craig. "All the big hitters today dive into the ball. Anytime a pitcher throws a fastball off the inside corner to establish his strike zone and keep the hitter from diving, they warn the pitcher. Hitters can do whatever they want. It's a joke. All the silly rules take away from the natural way the game is played and have created this aberration—all the home runs." Adds Boston pitching coach Bill Fischer, "There isn't a hitter I know who isn't afraid of being hit by a ball. But if a pitcher stays on the outside part of the plate all the time, he's going to get his brains beat out."
"When hitters have to think about not diving over the plate," says Craig, "they won't be hit as often, and pitchers can begin pitching inside again."
WILL IT EVER END?
"When I look at the sluggers on their way up to the majors and see those Triple A pitching staffs filled with veterans on their way down from the majors, I figure the pitching drought is going to get worse," says Cleveland's Klein. But if the ebb and flow of history is a reliable guide, the current hitters' era will end. Fischer has preached for two years that all pitchers should throw cross-seam fastballs up in the strike zone because hitters can't handle the pitch. And as pitchers throw higher, the top of the strike zone will gradually return to the armpits, as written in the rule book.
"The strike zone has already moved up since the All-Star Game," says Orioles pitcher Scott McGregor. The Tigers' Bill Lajoie says it's also widening. "More and more I'm seeing catchers set up outside, and when the pitchers hit the glove, they're getting strikes." The White Sox reinstated four-man rotations throughout their minor league system last season. Toronto and Boston have done the same. "We've got to build up arms and develop more hard throwers," says Blue Jays G.M. Pat Gillick. "We're making a concerted effort not to rush kids anymore," says Seattle G.M. Dick Balderson. "I think a lot of teams are doing the same."
Sometime around the year 2000, we'll probably be talking about the great era of pitching dominance led by 36-year-olds Bret Saberhagen and Dwight Gooden, and 37-year-old Roger Clemens, and wondering whatever happened to all those sluggers we used to see.
Early exits are now common for struggling aces like Fernando Valenzuela.
MITCH REIBEL/FOCUS WEST
Kids want to throw like the pros.
Metal bats give pitchers a beating.
¬¨¬®¬¨¬©TOPPS CHEWING GUM INC.
Happy 50th to the Ancient Mariner.
BETWEEN THE LINES
SOAP OPERA JOURNAL
All My Children (WPIX, SportsChannel): George the Owner, known by his employees as Phineas T. Bluster, is no longer speaking to Lou the Manager, and has told Woody the G.M. not to talk to Lou, either. This is because when Mr. Bluster placed a prearranged phone call to Lou's hotel room on Aug. 4, Lou was supposedly having lunch. "The simple fact," Bluster said in a press announcement last week, "is that Piniella didn't even bother to 'come back from lunch,' if that is where he really was, to get the call from his boss at 2 p.m....I don't know of too many guys—even sportswriters—who, if their boss told them to be available for a call at a certain time, wouldn't be there!"
Since the Yankees began skidding, Lou has wanted to recall catcher Joel Skinner from Columbus, but says, "I haven't been in control of the roster moves for a while now," as evidenced by the fact that chubby pitcher Al Holland was recalled without his knowledge. Bluster, who does control the roster moves, said, "We're close to falling apart," as the Yanks were losing three of four to Detroit last week after having won five of six, including two of three against the Tigers, the week before. What's more, star player Don Mattingly said he didn't expect to end his career in Yankee pinstripes and added, "A lot of things are bottled up inside of me." Bluster responded, "I hope he doesn't think he's threatening me."
At the end of the week's episodes, the Toronto Blue Jays were in first place.
Despite the protests of commissioner Peter Ueberroth, the Rangers recalled Steve Howe, whose career has been interrupted seven times by drug problems. After signing with Texas, Howe had spent just 3¼ weeks in Triple A. Ueberroth prefers that multiple drug offenders spend at least 60 days in the minors (hence Pascual Perez's holding pattern in Indianapolis before the Expos can recall him).
Howe was tested four times in five days before he flew to Texas, and he says he has passed more than 200 drug exams in the last two years. "I was concerned about his control," quipped manager Bobby Valentine. "But after being tested 200 times I feel his aim is pretty good."
•The 23 homers by Detroit's rookie catcher Matt Nokes are one more than the combined output of the four free-agent catchers: Lance Parrish, Rich Gedman, Bob Boone and Ernie Whitt.
•The Twins have the best home record in baseball and play 28 of their final 49 games in the Metrodome.
•Howard Johnson and Darryl Strawberry are the first National League teammates to hit 20 homers and steal 20 bases in the same season since Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson of the 1963 Reds. With Strawberry in the cleanup spot, the Mets are 13-2.
•Rookie Steve Kiefer's grand slam on Aug. 4 was the first for a Brewer in two seasons—but his third this year. He had hit two in Denver.
•Brian Dubois of the Hagerstown Suns in the Carolina League has picked off 31 runners and committed no balks in 23 starts.
•The injury-plagued Oakland Athletics have already called up 22 players from Tacoma this season.
•Andre Dawson has driven himself in more times (34) than have his teammates (24). So has Mark McGwire (37 to 29).
•Vince Coleman is hitting .318 on grass and .271 on phony turf, on which one would think his speed would give him a higher average.
•Ron Darling was observed completing a New York Times crossword puzzle in nine minutes last week but insists, "I usually do them quicker."
•Philadelphia stopper Steve Bedrosian is the first reliever to have 30 saves before August.