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Pitchers hit the mark with ‘new’ strike zone

Jun 5, 2001 6:59 AM

For the last few seasons, there has been talk around Major League Baseball about the possibility of a "juiced ball," and the disintegrating pitching in the game. There is still plenty of bad pitching in baseball. But thanks to the enforcement of the real strike zone, teams are scoring fewer runs, and team ERA’s, as well as the performances of some of the game’s top starters, show it. Last season, no team in the American League had an ERA under 4.23, at which Boston led the league. This season, the Red Sox are once again the top pitching team in the AL, but they are one of four AL teams with ERA’s under 3.80. After pitching four shutouts all of last season, Boston already has seven shutouts this season. Of course, the Red Sox have the best pitcher in baseball, Pedro Martinez, on their staff, and he hasn’t disappointed this season. After last Wednesday’s game against the Yanks, Pedro was 7-1 with an incredible 1.44 ERA. He’s given up 53 hits and 18 walks in 81 innings, while striking out 121.

Winning the Cy Young Award in the American League doesn’t look like a certainty for Pedro this season, though. The Mariners are off to an incredible start, and the most valuable player on the team hasn’t been Ichiro or Edgar Martinez - it’s been Aaron Sele. Sele became the American League’s first eight game winner after shutting down the Orioles on Thursday night. He’s 8-0 with a 2.65 ERA, and the Mariners are a perfect 11-0 in games he’s started. Sele’s other numbers aren’t as impressive as Pedro’s, but he is a solid innings-eater at the top of the Mariners’ rotation and could wind up with 25 wins at this pace.

The other big surprise in the American League, the Twins, have also been spurred on by their pitching. Most notably Brad Radke. Radke has slowed down a bit recently, his ERA has climbed from 2.22 on May 6th to 3.42 after his May 27th, no decision against the A’s. He’s only won once in his last four starts, but he’s the leader of Minnesota’s young staff that has shown no signs of buckling under the oncoming pressure of a pennant-race summer. He’s been one of the most solid, and least heralded, pitchers in baseball throughout his career, and doesn’t figure to wilt under the first spotlight of his career.

Things are much the same in the National League. The Braves led the Senior Circuit with a 4.06 ERA in 2000, but this season, five NL teams are under 3.90 and nine teams are under 4.20. Last season, 10 teams had ERA’s over 5.00 in the Majors. This season just five teams allow more than five earned runs per game. The Cubs lead the National League with a 3.79 ERA, but the Dodgers and Diamondbacks are just hundredths of points behind Chicago.

Arizona’s best pitcher so far hasn’t been Randy Johnson, despite his 20-strikeout performance. Johnson is 5-4 with a 2.84 ERA and 123 strikeouts in 84.1 innings. Curt Schilling has been completely dominant. Schilling is 8-1 with 2.77 ERA. He’s walked just 11 and given up 71 hits in 84.1 innings, while striking out 93. Schilling is also the center of the most controversial bunt play, maybe ever. His dominance over the Padres on May 26th was so complete, that San Diego catcher Ben Davis felt compelled to bunt in a 2-0 game. As everyone knows by now, Schilling also had a perfect game going at the time, and controversy surrounding the "unwritten rules of the game" has followed ever since. Schilling is finally all the way back from surgery, and could continue to overshadow Johnson all season. He still throws very hard, but his breaking stuff has had more life than ever in his career, making him nearly impossible to hit consistently.

The Diamondbacks’ Western Division rival, the Rockies, also have one of the top pitchers in the game. Many thought Mike Hampton was making a mistake by signing with Colorado, but the lefty has been outstanding. He is 7-2 with a 2.68 ERA in 11 starts, and has actually been better at Coors Field than on the road. At home, he is 3-0 with a 2.30 ERA, while on the road he is 4-2 with a 2.88.

In the Central Division, the Cardinals have fallen behind the Cubs, but they still have two aces at the top of their rotation. Darryl Kile led the Cardinals to the playoffs last season, and he already has seven wins this season. Matt Morris has stepped up to tie Kile with seven wins, as well as leading the Cardinals in ERA. Morris is 7-3 with a 2.47 ERA in 11 starts, while Kile is also 7-3 with a 3.07 ERA. As long as those two stay healthy, the Cardinals will be able to stay, and probably win, the NL Central division race.

There are many more good starting pitchers, including most of the Yankees’, Braves’ and Dodgers’ rotations, but the pitchers mentioned have not only been among the best, they’ve also been among the most valuable players on their own teams.