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Stadiums can make or break hurlers

Apr 6, 2004 3:51 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, for example.

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 early on, is that pitchers can perform very differently year to year, for a variety of reasons.

Back in the 1980’s, the Houston Astros had a flaky lefty starter named 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 pitched like an old man. The modern equivalent of Knepper might be lefty Omar Daal.

Over the last five years, Daal has had some good seasons and some bad. Sometimes pitchers simply don’t have it the next season, be it confidence or perhaps a nagging injury. Other times 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. Camden Yards is a small, hitter-friendly park, and Daal is a junkball pitcher. Clearly, he is better suited to a big park like Dodger Stadium than most AL parks.

It will be interesting to watch pitchers like Kevin Brown, Andy Pettitte, Jeff Weaver and Cory Lidle this season. Brown went from the best pitcher’s park in baseball ”” Dodger Stadium ”” to Yankee Stadium, which is a better hitter’s park, especially for left-handed batters. Pettitte goes from Yankee Stadium to Houston, Lidle goes from hitter-friendly SkyDome in Toronto to the National League (Cincinnati), while Weaver goes to spacious Dodger Stadium.

Weaver had his best success in Detroit, which is a great pitcher’s park, struggled badly the last year and a half in New York, and now gets a new life in LA. The Dodgers led the majors in pitching last season, and the big park certainly was a factor.

You may recall the recent careers of pitchers Mike Hampton, Jose Lima and Darryl Kile. All three had great seasons in the Houston Astrodome, then played in much smaller parks the next season and got clobbered. Hampton and Kile went to Coors Field in Colorado, while Lima went from 21-10 in the final year of the Astrodome, to 7-16 with a 6.65 ERA in 2000, the first year Houston moved to its current homer-happy park.

It’s essential for sports bettors to keep up on moves, parks and injuries like this. Early in the season, betting lines on pitchers can be based largely on what happened last season, and as I’ve outlined, pitchers can vary significantly from year to year.

Injuries, too, can be significant. 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 the rest of the season!

In recent years, ace pitchers like Chan Ho Park and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez got off to poor starts. Often they went off as big favorites and came up with injuries.

It will be interesting to see how San Francisco ace Jason Schmidt performs. He was 17-5 with a 2.34 ERA last season, but had nagging injuries in spring training has further contributed to an injury-prone career.