It’s harder to find consistent ‘aces’

May 8, 2007 1:32 AM

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. 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."

It would be refreshing if more hurlers simplified things like that.

Pitchers are a unique breed. 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 fans how they would describe successful pitchers like Curt Schilling, Chris Carpenter, Roy Oswalt and Randy Johnson and the term "ace" would pop up.

However, starting pitchers, even perceived aces, don’t always pitch the same each year. Carpenter won a World Series with the Cardinals last October, averaging 17 wins the last three seasons. Yet, he was bombed in his first start this season as a favorite with a 7.50 ERA. What happened? An injury, as he quickly went on the DL.

Some fans thought going back to the NL was just the thing veteran Randy Johnson needed, after two struggling seasons with the Yankees. As a favorite in his first game recently, the Big Unit got bombed in a 10-5 loss to San Diego. Johnson gave up 6 runs in 5 innings.

Pitchers are fragile commodities, probably more prone to breakdown than any other professional athlete. When the Red Sox traded for Curt Schilling four years ago, he responded in 2004 with a 21-6 campaign helping them to win the World Series. It was his third 20-win season in four years.

What happened the next season? Schilling was 8-8 with a 5.69 ERA. In Schilling’s case, coming back from a serious injury (ankle surgery) was the main reason. Sports bettors need to proceed with caution when examining pitcher’s stats from year to year because they can be quite different. Is it an injury? Are hitters making adjustments and catching up to him? Confidence or just a down year?

Baseball history is laced with roller coaster pitching performances from year to year. Back in the 1980s, the Houston Astros had a flaky lefty in Bob Knepper. 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 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 National League with the Phillies and Dodgers, and in 2003 he went to the AL and Baltimore.

One of the big pitching stories last season was the magnificent start by Cincinnati righty Bronson Arroyo, who pitched the previous three years in the AL and was traded in spring training from Boston to Cincinnati. Arroyo loved the NL, going 14-11 with a 3.24 ERA and a career-high 184 Ks. Going to the NL is better for pitchers, as there is no DH.

Early on, betting lines on pitchers can be based largely on what happened last season. Pitchers can vary significantly from year to year. Look to find out why they are struggling. Even off the field issues can come into play. Randy Johnson went 20-4 with a 2.28 ERA in 1997. The next season he struggled with back trouble and a contract squabble, going 9-10 with a 4.33 ERA in Seattle before being dealt to Houston. There, he went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA.

So much for that bad back! KNEPPERBOB KNEPPER

BOB KNEPPER

Wins-Losses ERA

1986: 17-12 3.14

1987: 8-17 5.27

1988: 14-5 3.14

1989: 4-10 5.89

OMAR DAAL

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