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Baseball's 2nd Half Key: Pitching

   by Al McMordie - 07/12/2009

You’ll notice that in baseball the Wild Card entry has won three of the last seven World Series. That’s the Angels, Marlins and Red Sox from 2002-04. None of those teams impressed in the first half of the season, and in fact the Marlins were very poor. And don’t ignore the 2006 Cardinals, a team that didn’t impress during an 83-win regular season, then got hot in October. All four had to play like gangbusters down the stretch to squeeze into the playoffs. All those teams had players that said something similar: “It’s good to be pressed to make the playoffs, because it helps in October.” They felt it was better to have to win late in the season, rather than have a big lead in September and coast into the postseason.

The point is, just because a manager can rest players in September doesn’t mean that team has an edge in the postseason. And just because a team has to go down to the wire to clinch doesn’t mean they might be burned out in October. We are starting the second half of the baseball season where pitching depth, both on the mound in the first inning and in the pen, is going to be even more important.

Four years ago at this juncture the Houston Astros were 38-42, in third place in the NL Central. They certainly didn’t look like World Series material at that point, did they? But Houston got hot in the second half, riding its outstanding pitching troika of Clemens, Oswalt and Pettitte all the way to the pennant.

Five years ago the Oakland A’s were 46-34 and primed to either win the division or secure a Wild Card spot, just like the previous season. They went 45-37 after that, which isn’t bad, but 91 wins didn’t cut it, either, losing out to the red-hot Angels and Red Sox.

The best story of 2006 was the Detroit Tigers roaring to an AL pennant. How did they do it? Pitching! Lots of it, mostly talented young arms. The lack of pitching was their downfall last season, with breakdowns to injuries, tired arms and ineffectiveness all over. But they are having a good 2009 season because the pitching has stabilized, with Justin Verlander back as an ace anchoring the rotation. Actually, their main problem has been an underachieving offense.

Teams like the Tigers, Giants and Red Sox will probably be shopping for a bat the next few weeks, but most teams are going after that rarest of commodities: quality arms. Everyone is buzzing about Roy Halladay will go (probably nowhere), but the real thing to look for is good relief pitchers to shore up bullpens. You can’t have enough bullpen arms in October and some good relievers will be sought after as the trading deadline approaches in a few weeks.

Two years ago the Red Sox loaded up on pitching depth, signing Japanese pitchers Daisuke Matzusaka and Hideki Okajimi, and both were important additions. Dice-K even started Game 7 of the 2007 ALCS. That’s the key, really, regarding consistent play in the second half of the season: Pitching depth.

If you examine the teams that are in contention now, take a look at their pitching depth, both starting and relieving. Do they have more than one consistent starter? Or at the very least a deep, versatile bullpen? That was the key to the Angels success in 2002 and 2008. They had all kinds of injuries to the pitching staff in the first half of this season, but weathered the storm. As for having more than one strong starter, only a handful of teams can claim this, such as the Rays, Giants, White Sox, Angels, Red Sox and Yankees.

Why do you think the defending champs were looking to add pitching help, reportedly after 37-year old Pedro Martinez, a three-time Cy Young winner. A hamstring injury hampered him last season, when he went 5-6 with a 5.61 ERA in 20 starts. The Phillies were impressed by what they saw with Pedro recently, but the fact is several other major league scouts have revealed less than glowing reports.

Heck, the biggest surprise of the 2008 season was the Rays. How did they do it? Exceptional pitching depth. In 2004, the eventual NL Champion Cardinals had brilliant defense, a monster offensive lineup and a deep pen. The one thing they lacked was strong starting pitching. Tony LaRussa was able to mask that deficiency because of a deep pen and the team’s terrific defense in the field. The loss of Chris Carpenter in the 2004 postseason was a big blow, as he was their ace. They could have used him in the World Series, getting swept by the Red Sox and their pair of aces (Schilling, Martinez).

There have been several surprise teams in baseball this season, and it’s going to be interesting to see if they have strong second half finishes or folds. The Giants have impressed with their starting five, staying in the race. If you want to get a jump on predicting which teams might rise and which might fall, your first step should be to check out pitching reliability and depth.

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