Pitchers should just specialize in outs

May 9, 2006 4:31 AM

This is an age of specialization for baseball pitchers.

You have starters, closers, middle relievers, long relief, set-up men and lefty specialists. For example, some pitchers feel more comfortable and excel in the role of set-up man than closer. 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 before the All-Star break, is that players can perform very differently year to year. Ask baseball fans how they would describe pitchers like Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Chris Carpenter, Roy Oswalt and Randy Johnson and the term "ace" would pop up.

However, even perceived aces, don’t always pitch the same each year. When the Red Sox traded for Schilling three years ago, Big Curt responded in 2004 with a magnificent 21-6 campaign on the way to winning the World Series. It was his third 20-win season in four years.

The next season Schilling was 8-8 with a 5.69 ERA, worst for him since 1989. In Schilling’s case, coming back from ankle surgery was the main reason. Schilling is off to a fine start this year, but sports bettors backing him a year ago lost their shirt.

Baltimore starter Bruce Chen added a changeup a year ago and surprised everyone with a terrific season (13-10, 3.83 ERA). The most games he had previously ever won in a season had been 7. However, this isn’t 2005. Chen isn’t pitching anywhere near as well this year, starting 0-3 with a 7.27 ERA. Is it an injury? Are hitters making adjustments and catching up to him? Confidence? It could be a variety of factors, but the point is the guy is not pitching the same.

Baseball history is laced with roller coaster pitching performances. Back in the 1980s, the Houston Astros had a flaky lefty starter in Bob Knepper. He pitched in the old Houston Astrodome, a cavernous pitcher’s park. One season he was terrific, the next year he was like an old man.

A more recent equivalent of Knepper might be lefty Omar Daal. Sometimes 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 NL with the Phillies and Dodgers. In 2003, he went to Baltimore in the AL.

One of the big pitching stories for this season has been the magnificent start by Cincinnati righty Bronson Arroyo, who had pitched the previous three years in Boston and was dealt to Cincinnati. Arroyo is 5-0 with a 2.06 ERA. Part of the reasons are that he isn’t facing the DH. Also, NL hitters aren’t used to seeing him.

Arroyo originally wasn’t happy with the trade and is highly motivated to show the Red Sox they made a mistake in trading him.

Houston ace lefty Andy Pettitte enjoyed a brilliant 2005 season (17-9, 2.39 ERA), allowing 17 HRs in 222 innings. This year at 1-4 with a 5.25 ERA, he’s allowed 7 HRs in just 36 innings. It could be simply a cold start, an injury, or age — Pettitte turns 34 next month.

It’s essential for sports bettors to keep up on pitching moves, parks and injuries. Early in the season, betting lines on pitchers can be based largely on what happened a year ago. As outlined, pitchers can vary significantly from year to year.

Find out why pitchers are throwing well or struggling. Randy Johnson went 20-4 with a 2.28 ERA in 1997, then struggled with back trouble and a contract squabble the next season, going 9-10 with a 4.33 ERA in Seattle. Johnson was then dealt to Houston, where he went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA the rest of the season.

So much for that bad back!


KNEPPER: 1986-89

Year W/L ERA

1986: 17-12 3.14

1987: 8-17 5.27

1988: 14-5 3.14

1989: 4-10 5.89

DAAL: 1999-2003

Year W/L 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