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The Scramble For Pitching

   by Bryan Leonard - 06/28/2008

This is a good time of the baseball season to take a second careful look at starting pitching. 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. A few years ago the Red Sox talked about the possibility of moving ace closer Jonathon Papelbon back into the starting rotation, where he was when he first came up in 2005. However, it’s a risk to do this. 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.

This is why it’s going to be interesting to watch young NY Yankees righty Joba Chamberlain, who started the season as a middle reliever and is now a starter. One the one hand, his stuff is very good, a terrific strikeout pitcher. On the other hand, he still walks far too many batters, walking 23 in 42 innings. His last four starts he averaged just over 4 innings pitched and 3 walks – not very good.

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 Tigers may have a losing record, but they have gotten 2 key members of their bullpen back, plus appear to have starters Kenny Rogers and Justin Verlander straightened out. Detroit is playing well and if they keep it going, look for the Tigers to be shopping for any available starter. They might even be worth a look to win the division in this mediocre AL Central.

The Yankees, it seems, are always a team in search of pitching depth. Chien-Ming Wang is on the shelf until September with an ankle injury, and you have to wonder when age may catch up to 36-year old Andy Pettitte and 39-year old Mike Mussina. With Wang gone until at least September, the Yankees lose their most reliable starter. Adding Sidney Ponson is not going to be an answer.

The Cubs probably don’t have to worry too much about finding a replacement for ace Carlos Zambrano. Zambrano thinks he's healthy enough to start next weekend against the White Sox on the South Side, so he initially reacted angrily when he was told Saturday that he was going on the 15-day disabled list. It appears to be more of a cautionary move. The difference between putting Zambrano (8-3, 3.13 ERA) on the DL or not doing so amounts to two missed starts instead of one. He'll be eligible to return July 4, when the Cubs open a three-game road series against the St. Louis Cardinals.

I mentioned off the bat that pitchers need time to develop and get to the top of their game. 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. 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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