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The Scramble for Pitching

   by Bryan Leonard - 06/27/2006

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 was talk earlier this season about the Red Sox possibly moving ace closer Jonathon Papelbon back into the starting rotation, where he was last year, because Boston has a shortage of starters because of injuries to David Wells, Matt Clement and the February trade of Bronson Arroyo. 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 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).

I used this strategy during a game Sunday, 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 will be out of sorts. He hadn't pitched for nine months before taking on the Tigers five days ago. 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.â€쳌 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 (Helling, Mark Prior), something sports bettors need to keep in mind.

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