It is halftime 1990 in major league baseball, and already the season has given us these mind-benders: The Chicago White Sox are a mere game out of first place; the Kansas City Royals are in last. The manager of the New York Yankees is named Stump; the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals is not named Whitey. Reliever Barry Jones has 10 wins; starters Bruce Hurst and Joe Magrane have nine combined. Bip Roberts has as many homers as Don Mattingly. Felix Fermin has more doubles than Tim Raines. Cecil Fielder, fresh from Japan, leads the majors in home runs and RBIs. And there have been six no-hitters, as many as in the last six seasons combined.
None of this can be easily explained, which, of course, is the beauty of baseball. But there is one phenomenon of this season that begs for explanation. It is a trend that has become increasingly disconcerting with each 23-8, 16-11, 15-12 and 13-11 score. All those no-hitters notwithstanding, the quality of the pitching is definitely down.
"Down? It stinks," says Chicago Cub manager Don Zimmer. "All I know is that [Cub broadcaster and former third baseman] Ron Santo is 50 years old, the man's been out of the game for 15 years, and he wants to come down and take swings at some of these guys."
Hold on a minute, Zim. Can't some of those jumbo scores be traced to the effects of the spring lockout? Or possibly to a livelier ball? And shouldn't we give a little more credit to the hitters?
"No, it's the pitching," says Zimmer, who knows about bad pitching from watching his Cubs, who had a team ERA of 4.66 at the All-Star break. "I get a report from the minor leagues. Says a guy has a good fastball, good slider. Compared to what? This guy gets to the big leagues, and he can't get anyone out."
Consider the evidence: In the season's first half there were so many blowouts that six nonpitchers took a turn on the mound. At the All-Star break, teams had scored in double figures 137 times—including 10 such outbursts by the Toronto Blue Jays, who have found their Sky-Dome to be a launchpad this year. The Boston Red Sox used eight starting pitchers in their first 17 games in a frantic search for useful arms, yet they entered the All-Star break with the best pitching staff in the American League East.
Boston found its way into first place using four previously released pitchers: Jeff Gray and Greg Harris, who were dumped by the Philadelphia Phillies; Jerry Reed, who was axed by the Seattle Mariners; and Dennis Lamp, who was released by the Blue Jays and the Cleveland Indians. Boston's No. 5 starter is Dana Kiecker, a 29-year-old rookie who had two winning seasons in seven years in the minor leagues.
From May 25 to June 6, the Milwaukee Brewers recalled four pitchers from Triple A Denver: Tom Edens, Jaime Navarro, Mike Capel and Randy Veres. Only Navarro had an ERA of less than 5.00 at Denver. The San Francisco Giants won 18 out of 20 games from May 29 to June 18. During that stretch the Giants used 11 pitchers; five of them had been released at one time in their careers.
"We lost three pitchers to free agency in the off-season," says Montreal Expo manager Buck Rodgers, "and teams have been asking us for pitching."
Then there's Zimmer's team, the fifth-place Cubs. On June 13, against the New York Mets, reliever Les Lancaster allowed four hits to the first five hitters in the top of the seventh. Normally such ineptitude would warrant a trip to the showers, but Zimmer knew his bullpen was so thin that he might need Lancaster again—so he put him in leftfield. Paul Assenmacher came in to face three batters, retired none, and then Lancaster returned to the mound to get the last two outs. Zimmer said he was "embarrassed" to have to resort to such a move.
It has been an embarrassing season for many pitchers, especially in the National League, which is threatening to finish with a higher ERA and a higher batting average than the American League for the first time since the latter league adopted the designated hitter rule in 1973. Runs and home runs are up significantly in the National League.
Injuries to key pitchers are one reason for this. For example, erstwhile big winners Rick Reuschel, Rick Sutcliffe and Orel Hershiser have been limited to a combined 15 starts, and John Smiley missed six weeks after slamming his hand in a cab door. Also, a number of quality pitchers, including Mark Langston and Pascual Perez, both free agents who skipped out on the Expos, went over to the American League in the off-season. On top of all that, some established pitchers have been ineffective much of the season; these include Hurst, Magrane, Tim Belcher, Mike Bielecki, David Cone, Scott Garrelts, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Mike Scott and John Smoltz. At the All-Star break the 16 pitchers mentioned in this paragraph were 62-92 with a 4.35 ERA. Last year they finished 244-162 with a 2.97 ERA.
But the reasons for the pitching decline go far beyond off years and injuries. It's a malaise that has deepened over the past few years, and it extends beyond the major leagues to the grass roots of the game. Why? Here are 10 theories.
Theory 1 Kids don't throw as much as they used to.
"It all starts in Little League," says Tom House, the Rangers pitching coach, who works with children aged six and up every winter at the San Diego School of Baseball. "There's a lot of ability, but kids don't throw enough, and they don't throw right. I know. I see it. There are lots of good intentions in Little League, but not much good information."
In most youth league programs there is an innings-per-week limit for pitchers, but, according to House, "that idea rewards a kid who is wild. It punishes the kid who throws strikes. A kid with control might throw only 90 pitches per week, where the wild kid might throw 170 pitches. They should be charting pitches per week, not innings."
As for the notion that youngsters don't throw enough, House points to his son, Bryan, who is 12. "He's a good little athlete," says House. "But you know how it was when we were kids. We played catch every day, from the time the sun came up until the time the sun went down. My kid might play catch for 15 minutes a day, then he wants to ride his skateboard or go to the beach."
"There aren't as many hard throwers today," says Blue Jay manager Cito Gaston. "You build arm strength as a kid by throwing every day. I don't think kids today play as much. They have other things to do, like playing video games."
Theory 2 There is inadequate—and sometimes damaging—coaching at the high school and college levels.
"I hate to say things like this, but amateur baseball just doesn't teach well," says Joe McIlvaine, vice-president of baseball operations for the Mets.
Mark McGwire, who plays first base for the Oakland A's and who played at USC in one of the country's most successful college programs, says, "College was a great experience, and I met a lot of friends, but it doesn't prepare you for the big leagues—not even close. College coaches don't know what it takes to play in the major leagues."
A number of major league scouting directors and farm directors insist—often angrily—that pitchers are mistreated in college and high school. There are hundreds of stories about amateur pitchers who throw, say, 170 pitches one day and then pitch in relief two days later. "We have a serious problem with burnout," says Sandy Johnson, scouting director for the Rangers. "You can abuse young pitchers. It's the win-at-all-cost attitude, even in Little League. One scouting director told me he doesn't like signing high school pitchers anymore. He said he lets them go to college, hurt their arm, and then the college pays for the operation."
Says one major league pitching coach, "If we did some of the things that college coaches do today, we'd be fired on the spot."
The Baltimore Orioles were concerned last season that their No. 1 pick in the draft—Louisiana State righthander Ben McDonald, who was signed for approximately $1 million over three years—had been overused by LSU coach Skip Bertman. Cliff Gustafson, coach of the University of Texas's highly successful program, has produced a number of major league pitchers, including Greg Swindell and Roger Clemens. Both have had arm trouble, and Swindell, who has struggled since the middle of last season, may still be showing the effects. Kirk Dressendorfer, who pitched for Gustafson for three years, had shoulder tendinitis in 1990, his junior year. Originally expected to be a high first-round pick, Dressendorfer was selected 36th overall by the A's.
But Joe Klein, director of player personnel for the Royals, doesn't lay all the blame for burnout and injury on high school and college coaches. "I don't understand the mentality of the parents who allow their sons to be overpitched," he says. "Are they that thirsty for glory? Do they really care?"
Theory 3 The use of aluminum bats forces young pitchers into bad habits.
Aluminum bats are used in high school and college programs, but not in professional baseball. A hard, tight pitch that would shatter a wooden bat might end up as a single to the outfield off an aluminum bat. "With aluminum bats, kids are afraid to throw inside, because a guy can fight the pitch off and get a hit," says Rangers manager Bobby Valentine. "Plus, pitchers don't throw their best fastball, because if the batter gets just a piece of it, he gets a hit. So the pitchers try to trick the hitters. You can't trick hitters in the major leagues."
Says Klein, "College pitchers don't pitch inside. It has to be taught, just like throwing a good curveball has to be taught."
Seattle manager Jim Lefebvre talks about the Mariners' 12th-round selection in the 1989 draft, reliever Jim Newlin from Wichita State: "In college it was slider, slider, slider—because of the aluminum bat. When we got him, we wanted him to work on his fastball. His velocity was about 86 miles an hour. Now it's up to 92. To throw hard, you have to throw hard. You have to air it out sometimes. My son told me this year, 'Dad, I don't want to throw too hard. Coach said it might hurt my arm.' I told him that it's the exact opposite. To develop into a power pitcher, you have to throw hard. There aren't enough big, hard throwers now, not like there used to be."
Theory 4 Top athletes are choosing sports other than baseball.
"There was a time when the biggest, strongest kid became a pitcher, starting in Little League," says Pirate pitching coach Ray Miller. "But, now some of the big, strong athletes are playing college football or basketball. They realize that becoming a pitcher could mean four years in the minor leagues. They may not be attracted to that."
Klein shares Miller's opinion but adds, "We [in baseball] are winning some of the battles. And for every Jose Canseco contract [five years, $23.5 million] that's signed, some other kid is going to think about playing baseball."
Theory 5 Athletes opting for baseball are selecting positions other than pitcher.
"A number of players who have a choice choose to be position players, not pitchers," says Minnesota Twins pitching coach Dick Such. "You don't see many sons of former major leaguers who are pitchers. They'd rather play a position than go through the mind work of being a pitcher. It's more of a mental workout. And as a pitcher, if you hurt your arm, you're done. If you can catch a ball and throw, and hit a little, you can stay in the major leagues."
That attitude has made pitchers an even more precious commodity. Says Cardinals pitching coach Mike Roarke, "The quickest way of getting to the major leagues is still as a pitcher."
Theory 6 Pitchers are being rushed to the big leagues.
"There are a lot of inexperienced young pitchers who aren't ready to compete against major league hitters, but they're here because there's no one else," says Baltimore Oriole manager Frank Robinson. "I don't think they're given enough time to develop. A lot of guys are rushed before they're ready. It's because of pressure on teams to win now. It's impatience on the organization's part, and impatience on the player's part."
The Yankees' Alan Mills and the White Sox's Scott Radinsky jumped from Class A to the major leagues this year, the first pitchers to do so since Dwight Good-en, in 1984. (Radinsky has flourished, Mills has struggled.) Last month the Atlanta Braves recalled Steve Avery, their No. 1 pick in the 1988 June draft, even though he had been knocked around in Triple A. The Braves, whose team ERA was well over 5.00, figured the 20-year-old Avery was bound to be better than what they already had. (He gave up eight runs in 2‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings in his first major league start, though he has thrown reasonably well since then.)
When the Minnesota Twins' young pitching disintegrated in June, the Twins promoted pitcher Scott Erickson from Double A; Erickson had made only 27 previous professional starts. (He won in his major league debut, pitching six strong innings, but was less successful in his next two starts.)
"Too many guys get here too quickly, and they get knocked around," says Miller. "It's not like the stable we used to have in Baltimore [in the late 1970s when Miller was the Oriole pitching coach] when we could leave a guy in the minor leagues at one level even if he was winning 12 to 15 games and later bring him to the big leagues in long relief. Now a team sees a good arm, a guy who throws about 90 miles per hour, and the team figures if it brings him to the major leagues, a pitching coach can probably help."
Theory 7 The shrinking strike zone has made pitching more difficult.
"How big is the strike zone?" asked Lefty Gomez, the Hall of Famer, two years ago. "Well, it goes from the top of the belt buckle...to the bottom of the belt buckle."
That's only a slight exaggeration. Years ago, a ball thrown between the letters and the knees was a strike. In the last few years the zone has been getting smaller and smaller.
"Anything above the belt, if you take it, it's a ball," says St. Louis reliever Tom Niedenfuer.
Says Whitey Herzog, who resigned last week as the Cardinals manager, "I don't think the pitching is really down in baseball; the reason for so many high ERAs is the umpires. The strike zone has gotten so little it's unbelievable. They don't call them in, out, up or down. And no one calls you out on an oh-2 pitch."
Theory 8 Pitching has become too specialized, and pitchers are being babied now.
Pitchers are groomed in the minor leagues to be short relievers, even middle relievers. Consequently, starting pitchers are increasingly content with going six innings and then turning the game over to the bullpen.
"I think a lot of pitchers have lost that aggressiveness," says one National League scout. "I think they've lost some of that competitive edge, I really do. There aren't as many bulldogs."
Zimmer says, "I bet if 10 years ago I asked 20 pitchers if they would prefer to pitch in a four-man rotation or a five-man rotation, 18 out of 20 would have said four. But today, if you go to a four-man rotation, the agents are jumping all over you, thinking a pitcher might get hurt. It's O.K. if a pitcher gets hurt in a five-man, but not in a four-man."
Theory 9 Coaches and managers are too inflexible about pitching.
"Too many pitchers are physically and mechanically overcoached," says Miller. "No one is allowed to be different anymore. If you have too big a windup or your first step back isn't right, they want to change you."
Says Herzog, "Isn't it incredible that there isn't a knuckleball pitcher in the National League?"
Everyone is teaching the same thing: the split-fingered fastball, or forkball. "I've had Little League kids write me letters on how to throw the forkball," says Miller. "They should be developing arm strength, not learning a trick pitch."
Theory 10 Expansion has diluted the pitching pool.
"I don't think we've recovered [in terms of pitching] from the last expansion [in 1977]," says the Rangers' Johnson. "Depthwise, at least. It sounds crazy, but I think it goes all the way back to when there were 16 clubs. After the first expansion [in 1961], pitching started thinning out, but it's more pronounced now."
"I understand that expansion is an ' economic issue, but I scoff at it," says ' Miller, wincing at the thought that the National League will expand by two teams in 1993. "Most teams look at themselves as being in good shape if they have seven [acceptable] pitchers and could improve on the other three. Second-division clubs have four and would like to improve on six. Expansion is going to bring back the .400 hitter. Tony Gwynn is going to get to face two more starting staffs made up of seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th pitchers."
As grim as things may seem to some in baseball, others contend that there is hope for a pitching revival. "I think we're on the road to recovery," says Johnson. "In the last three years baseball has signed a lot of high school pitchers, guys we can develop."
Even if he's right, though, it will take years for those high school pitchers to become good major league pitchers. In the meantime look for a lot more 13-11 games.
In the American League, 107 more homers have been hit than at this point last year. Two big reasons: Cecil Fielder (in Japan in '89) and Jose Canseco (injured in '89).
Pitchers have suffered most severely in Toronto's SkyDome, where home runs per game have risen dramatically—and inexplicably—over last season's.