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Baseball Pitchers: A Different Breed

This is an age of specialization for baseball pitchers. You have starters, closers, middle relievers, long relief, set-up men and lefty specialists. Some feel more comfortable and excel as a 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 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, starting pitchers, even perceived aces, don’t always pitch the same each year. Take a guy like Schilling. When the Red Sox traded for him 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. What happened the next season? Schilling was 8-8 with a 5.69 ERA, the worst for him since 1989. In Schilling’s case, coming back from ankle surgery was the main reason. He’s off to a fine start this year, but sports betters who backed him last year lost their shirts as he never found his control or fastball.


Baltimore starter Bruce Chen added a change-up a year ago and surprised everyone with a terrific season, going 13-10 with a 3.83 ERA. The most games he had previously ever won in a season was seven. However, this isn’t 2005 anymore. Chen isn’t pitching anywhere near as well, starting 0-3 with a 7.27 ERA. Is it an injury? Are hitters making adjustments and catching up to him? Lack of 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 from year to year. Back in the 1980s, the Houston Astros had flaky lefty starter Bob Knepper. Here’s how he fared from 1986-89:


Wins-Losses ERA

1986: 17-12 3.14

1987: 8-17 5.27

1988: 14-5 3.14

1989: 4-10 5.89


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. Here’s what Daal did during a recent five-year stretch:


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


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 American Leeague and Baltimore.


One of the big pitching stories for this season has been the magnificent start by Cincinnati righty Bronson Arroyo. He pitched the previous three years in the American League, and was traded in spring training from Boston. Arroyo has been on fire, starting 5-0 with a 2.06 ERA. One reason is he isn’t facing the designated hitter in the National League. NL hitters aren’t used to seeing him, plus he wasn’t originally 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 is another interesting example. He enjoyed a brilliant 2005 season at 17-9 with a 2.39 ERA allowing 17 home runs in 222 innings. This year, the ace has struggled starting 1-4 with a 5.25 ERA allowing seven home runs in just 36 innings. Why? It could be simply a cold start, an injury, or age – Pettitte turns 34 next month. It’s essential for sports betters to keep up on pitching moves, parks and injuries. 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.


Try and find out why they’re throwing well or struggling. Randy Johnson went 20-4 with a 2.28 ERA in 1997. Then the next season, he struggled with back trouble and a contract squabble, going 9-10 with a 4.33 ERA in Seattle before they traded him to Houston. There, he went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA the rest of the season. So much for that bad back.


-- Jim Feist

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