Sept. 20, 12:30 p.m. ET
If I were asked to predict the future of baseball a couple of years ago, I would have told you that hitters would dominate big-league pitching for years to come. With expansion, pitching was so watered down it seemed there was no end in sight to increased offensive production. But over the past few years, especially with this year's crop of pitchers, my view has changed -- and now, I'm not so sure.
Here's a peek at some of the young bucks who are causing a stir around the major leagues right now.
|Indians starter C.C. Sabathia has Rookie of the Year numbers, but Ichiro is tough competition.|
The best new pitcher in the AL is clearly C.C. Sabathia. At 15-4 in 29 starts, this 21-year-old makes it look easy. Trust me, it's not. As the starter on the first-place Indians, Sabathia's 100-mph fastball, wicked breaking ball and solid changeup have earned him 146 strikeouts in 157.2 innings. He's given up only 17 home runs.
Out West, the Oakland A's have four great starters -- Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Cory Lidle -- who all throw Cy Young stuff. Collectively, these guys are better than any other four in the game. I would liken these nasty young hurlers to the Atlanta Braves' staff of the early '90s when Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery ruled the mound.
Mulder and Hudson are 19-7 and 16-8, respectively, and Zito and Lidle are both quality guys who are working to improve their consistency.
The Mariners have a great young pitcher in 24-year-old Freddy Garcia. He leads the AL in ERA (2.85) and is in the top five in several other categories. In two-plus years, he has a sparkling record of 43-18. With his strong arm, he could wrestle the Cy Young away from Pedro Martinez or Roger Clemens in the next few years. In fact, if it weren't for Clemens' 20-1 record, he might have won it this year.
The NL has plenty of youngsters to choose from. We could start by looking at Kerry Wood and Matt Morris, but this column is intended to celebrate the babies of the bunch, such as Astros starters Wade Miller (16-7) and Roy Oswalt (14-2). They have been nothing short of awesome.
At Enron Field, Miller is 8-2 and Oswalt is 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA in what's considered a hitter-friendly ballpark. With a few years under their belts, these two pups will be as good as any one-two punch in baseball. Well, maybe not as lethal as Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, but the Astros can still count their blessings.
If not hampered by tendinitis in his shoulder, Milwaukee's Ben Sheets was making a run at a tremendous year. At the All-Star break, Sheets was 10-5. After the break he lost four straight, but Sheets still leads the Brewers with 10 wins (10-9).
Other notable pitching achievements
Montreal's Javier Vazquez: His 16 wins and five complete games would be the equivalent of 22 wins on a more accomplished team like Cleveland or Seattle. By the same token, Mark Buehrle's 13 wins would translate to 18 wins on last year's White Sox.
Atlanta's Jason Marquis is still in need of more seasoning, but it won't take long for him to become a stud.
The Marlins' staff features future superstar Josh Beckett along with Brad Penny, A.J. Burnett and Ryan Dempster. All will be formidable foes for years to come.
Chicago's Kyle Farnsworth is a closer extraordinaire just waiting to happen, with 24 holds and 100 strikeouts in 74.2 innings. He brings the century heat in the Windy City.
Luke Prokopec, who is from Down Under, has also shown brilliant flashes for the Dodgers.
Bud Smith in St. Louis, Casey Fossum in Boston and Joe Mays in Minnesota. But please, I can't in good conscious put the last three guys in with the flame throwers! (I'm kidding ...)
The main thing I like about all of these young phenoms is that they all know they belong in the Show. They don't back away from challenges and they'll come after you with everything but the kitchen sink.
While I was in San Francisco recently, Giants manager Dusty Baker and I talked about these great young pitchers and how we thought they'd mature over the next five years. Baker pointed out that in addition to the arrival of great pitching, older sluggers like Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds will simultaneously be leaving the game -- potentially creating a period of dominant pitching. Also, scouting and the drafts are now going after pitchers. Now is the time for young pitchers, which bodes well for the defensive side of baseball.
I'd like to see a few more bruised ribs and guys looking up at the stars wondering: "How close was that to me?" We need more of knocking guys off the plate. Pitchers need to take back part of the plate and instill fear in the minds of hitters. When I played, the best part of pitching was making hitters uncomfortable in the box.
In recent years, I thought the new crop of pitchers was wimpy at best. But with this newer wave of talent, it looks to me like a pitcher's paradise. In fact, pitchers could be the next wave of Major League Baseball -- the way it's supposed to be played. Sorry, home run hitters ...