Earlier on Friday, one of baseball's best young pitchers, Jose Fernandez, underwent Tommy John surgery. Martin Perez, Matt Moore, Jarrod Parker, Brandon Beachy and a list of far too many players have also been victimized by the same elbow injury. Just two months into the baseball season and it's growing hard to find teams that haven't been affected by this year's rash of pitching injuries.
After these surgeries, we're seeing more and more teams rely on their sixth starter, their seventh starter, and at times pitchers that we've hardly heard about. Just two days ago, the Yankees sent Chase Whitley to the mound after he had made just 14 minor league starts. And despite the talent level of pitchers seemingly declining with every subsequent injury, pitching in baseball has hardly taken a hit. We're seeing a ton of these no-names pitch better than some of the big-money starters of just a decade ago.
In 2013, starting pitchers owned an average 4.01 ERA, a 3.95 FIP, an 18.9 strikeout percentage, and a 7.4 walk percentage. This season, numbers have improved to an average 3.85 ERA, a 3.85 FIP, a 19.7 strikeout percentage, and a 7.5 walk percentage. I've seen and heard a handful of theories to explain baseball's evolution toward lower run totals. Some say that shifts significantly help pitchers save hits, while others say that the steroid era has ended and with it the home run boom of the 1990s and 2000s. Whatever you believe, there's no denying that even with a plague of injuries to very talented pitchers, more and more young starters are emerging in their place.
With the weather warming up and pitchers continuing to build arm strength, Friday night featured some prime examples of starter dominance. We saw a handful of shutouts, and even some complete games to go along with them. Teams like the Red Sox, Royals and Rangers were held to no runs. Starting pitchers dominated the night.
Max Scherzer was perhaps the most predictable success of the night, however, it came against the reigning World Series champion Red Sox. Despite a 47-minute rain delay, Scherzer and Jon Lester pitched following the weather stoppage and both succeeded. Lester's five innings of four-hit and one-run ball just wasn't good enough to overcome Scherzer's six innings of shutout stuff. While we expected a pitching duel from both starters, their success through a rain delay and against such daunting offenses was somewhat unforeseeable.
Perhaps one of the night's most stunning performances came inside baseball's toughest pitcher's park. Jorge De La Rosa of the Rockies allowed just two baserunners all night, and didn't give up his first hit until the seventh inning. He ended the night with seven shutout innings, five strikeouts and 11 groundouts with no flyouts. Inside Coors Field, that is nearly the perfect strategy, keeping the ball on the ground or simply avoiding contact all together. After a dominant 2013 and a sour start to 2014, De La Rosa has now put together six consecutive quality starts.
Then there was Chris Tillman, who pitched a complete-game, five-hit shutout to shut down the Royals. Though he didn't dominant Kansas City's lineup with strikeouts (he had just three strikeouts while he walked just one), he showed a great command of the strike zone and induced weak contact with his four-seamer. Tillman now owns the lowest ERA (3.34) in the Orioles' rotation, beating out Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris and Ubaldo Jimenez.
The Reds' rotation, which projected to include Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake and Tony Cingrani in the offseason, is now showcasing Alfredo Simon, a career reliever prior to this season. But Simon has emerged as far more than adequate, and after pitching 7 2/3 shutout innings with eight strikeouts against the Phillies, the right-hander now owns a 2.45 ERA over his first eight starts of the season.
Yet the strongest performance of the night came by a 23-year old right-hander who's hardly a household name in the prospect scene. Drew Hutchison, who has spotted lofty peripherals all season, finally put together a brilliant performance for the Blue Jays against the Rangers. Entering the game, Hutchison owned a strong 9.73 K/9 ratio, a 2.98 BB/9 ratio and an outstanding 3.14 FIP. The problem with that was he also had a 1-3 record with a 4.37 ERA. On Friday, Hutchison dominated the Rangers with a complete-game shutout. He allowed only four baserunners and finished with six strikeouts. He outdueled Rangers ace Yu Darvish and it only took him 105 pitches to finish off Texas.
There were a handful of other great starts on Friday, as baseball is slowly evolving towards a pitcher's game. Even with the injuries taking a toll on countless teams, it feels like young and unexpected starters are taking to the scene faster than ever.
Michael Eder writes for It's About the Money, a blog on the New York Yankees.