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Baseball Pitchers: A Different Breed

   by Jim Feist - 04/04/2011

As we start the baseball season this week, it's a good time to point out that this is an age of specialization for baseball pitchers. You have starters, closers, middle relievers, long relief, set-up men and lefty specialists. Some pitchers feel more comfortable and excel in the role of set-up man than closer, for example.
It can all seem overwhelming and even silly at times. I recall an interview with a pitcher a few years ago who was asked about what his role would be on the team. He looked strangely at the inquisitor. "A pitcher's role," he said, "is to get guys out." If more hurlers simplified things like that, we might see better pitching league-wide.
Pitchers are a unique breed in the sports world. One thing to keep in mind during the baseball season, especially early on, is that pitchers can perform very differently year to year, for a variety of reasons.
Back in the 1980's, the Houston Astros had a flaky lefty starter named Bob Knepper. Here's how Knepper faired from 1986-89, all with the Astros:

Wins-Losses ERA
1986: 17-12 3.14
1987: 8-17 5.27
1988: 14-5 3.14
1989: 4-10 5.89

All those seasons were in the old Houston Astrodome, a cavernous pitcher's park. Yet, one season he was terrific, the next year he was pitching like an old man. A more recent equivalent might be lefty starter/reliever Omar Daal. Here's what Daal has did over five straight seasons:

Wins-Losses ERA
1999: 16-9 3.65
2000: 4-19 6.14
2001: 13-7 4.46
2002: 11-9 3.90
2003: 4-11 6.34

He had some good years, and some bad ones - some very bad ones. Sometimes pitcher's simply don't have it the next season, be it confidence or perhaps a nagging injury. Other times a player gets traded to a new team, one with poor defense or a very different ballpark.
The park partly explains what happened to Daal. From 2001-02 he was in the National League with the Phillies and Dodgers, and in 2003 he went to the AL and Baltimore. Camden Yards is a small, hitter-friendly park, and Daal is a junkball pitcher. A soft thrower like he was is better suited to a big park like Dodger Stadium than most AL parks.
Hard throwers aren't usually as influenced, such as C.C. Sabathia, who went from Cleveland to the Yankees two years ago and wasn't affected by the small confines of Yankee Stadium. Remember seven years ago when the Yankees picked up Kevin Brown. Brown went from one of the best pitcher's park in baseball - Dodger Stadium - to Yankee Stadium and didn't throw as well. It is a big easier to go from the AL to the NL and not face the DH, as we saw with Philadelphia ace Roy Halladay last season (league leading 21 wins).
You may recall the careers of pitchers Mike Hampton, Jose Lima and Darryl Kile. All three had great seasons in the Houston Astrodome, then played in much smaller parks the next season and got clobbered. Hampton and Kile went to Coors Field in Colorado, while Lima went from 21-10 in the final year of the Astrodome, to 7-16 with a 6.65 ERA in 2000, the first year Houston moved to its current smaller park.
It's essential for sports bettors to keep up on moves, parks and injuries like this. Early in the season, betting lines on pitchers can be based largely on what happened last season, and as I've outlined, pitchers can vary significantly from year to year.
Injuries, too, can be significant. Randy Johnson went 20-4 with a 2.28 ERA in 1997, then the next season struggled with back trouble and a contract squabble, going 9-10 with a 4.33 ERA in Seattle before they traded him to Houston. There, he went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA the rest of the season! Pedro Martinez was never the same after leaving Boston as age took a toll on his golden right arm. Betting lines are made around the starting pitcher, but be careful - starters don't always pitch the same from season to season for a variety of reasons.

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