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The Scramble for Pitching

   by Bryan Leonard - 06/27/2007

This is a good time of the baseball season to take a second careful look at starting pitching. Because pitchers need time to work. They need to pitch regularly to build up arm strength and hone their command. You often see a pitcher throw a couple of good innings and then, WHAM, he gets pounded, giving up 4 hits and 3 runs in the blink of an eye.

If you watch the slow-motion replays of what is happening, you usually see a loss of command. The pitcher who was carefully working the corners of the strike zone, suddenly loses it, leaving a few baseballs near the heart of the plate. Command is so essential and it takes time to hone that ability.

Another factor is arm strength. There has been talk the last two seasons about the Red Sox possibly moving ace closer Jonathon Papelbon back into the starting rotation, where he was when he first came up in 2005. However, this is not going to happen. One important reason is that you can't take a closer or middle reliever in the middle of a season (throwing 1-2 innings on average), and suddenly stretch that guy out to 5, 6 or 7 innings. It would likely hurt his arm. Something like that needs to be done gradually, over the course of several months.

I bring all this up because this is the time of year when teams scramble to find new starting pitching. All kinds of changes are taking place. Bad teams are often bad because of a lack of starting pitching, so it's time to give up on some lousy starters and try something else, like a journeyman starter they just added or some kids from the minors.

Good teams are also shopping for starters and trying new options to stay in the thick of the pennant race. Look carefully at these new additions to staffs. Do they have enough work? Are they suited to the team? The new ballpark? Is the infield defense conducive to their style (sinkerballers need infield defense, fly ball pitchers would prefer large parks with speedy outfielders).

The Yankees are a team in need of pitching depth and it was interesting that last week the White Sox had a scout looking at Yankees’ Double-A pitchers Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain. Chicago general manager Kenny Williams has vowed to make changes, and if he wants to deal Mark Buehrle or Jermaine Dye, expect the Yankees to be interested. Williams talks regularly with Brian Cashman and the disappointing White Sox may be on the verge of a fire sale, something common this time of the season.

Potential free agents Mark Buehrle and Jermaine Dye are considered most likely to go. Pitcher Javier Vazquez is the only pitcher with a limited no-trade clause. "There's no energy, there's no production offensively," GM Williams said after getting swept at home by the Cubs. The White Sox rank last in batting average, runs, hits, total bases, RBIs and on-base and slugging percentage. Among the teams that have scouted the White Sox recently are the New York Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Trade talk is heating up!

I mentioned off the bat that pitchers need time to develop and get to the top of their game. Last week I went against Florida Marlins starter Josh Johnson twice as he was making his first starts of the season. It takes time to get command of pitches, develop arm strength, find the strike zone and attack live hitting. Pitchers can often struggle when brought up to the big leagues after a long layoff.

I used that same strategy a year ago when Milwaukee was forced to go with Rick Helling against the Royals. I noted, "It takes time to get into playing shape when coming off the DL and Rick Helling hasn't pitched for nine months before taking on the Tigers in his last start. In that game he lasted just 2.3 innings as he was pounded for 7 earned runs. We are not as concerned about his bad performance as we are about his lack of innings. You need to build up strength in your body when coming off such a long layoff and that short outing simply won't get it done." The Royals won the game 6-0. Helling, making his second start of the season after spending two months on the disabled list with a sprained right elbow, was pulled after 63 pitches and three innings. He allowed one run, three hits and three walks.

"He was just laboring from the first pitch on," Brewers manager Ned Yost said. "He was pitching with a lot of heart. When he got up to 60 pitches in three innings, the way Redman is on us, I didn't want to take a chance they'd throw two or three quick runs on us." Whatever work activity or craft we attempt to do, we need practice to hone our skills. A pitcher can't just head to the mound after weeks of layoff and expect to be sharp, something sports bettors need to keep in mind.

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