I have often said the game should be called Pitching and not Baseball. After all, if a team can pitch, it seems that team can win. That’s especially true in the era of fewer balls being put in play and more home runs leaving the park.
The team that contains the opposition has a darn good chance of winning a baseball game, even if their offense is only mediocre. Defense, including pitching, is crucially important in being on the better side of the final score.
True, chicks dig the long ball. Everybody digs the long ball. Is it any coincidence that so much buzz is going out to Aaron Judge, Cody Bellinger, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper? They mesmerize us with their awesome power. Fans don’t go to the bathroom or to the concession stand when one of those guys approaches home plate. And there are others just like them.
Pitchers? Well, even as important as pitchers are to the game, they don’t have the same pizazz as the guys with the lumber in their hands.
Think about how important pitchers are. The San Francisco Giants began their entry to the dumpster this season at the time Madison Bumgarner took a spill on his dirt bike, ultimately costing his team and himself almost his entire first half of work. Bumgarner’s loss to his team was like asking a guy to run in a bike race in France with a flat tire. It was almost impossible for the Giants to overcome the odds. Bumgarner is a marquee pitcher. His team went nowhere without him. And now, it really is way too late for the Giants to get back in the NL West race.
This is the same Bumgarner who almost single-handedly defeated the Kansas City Royals in the 2014 World Series. That’s how great-and I do mean great-Bumgarner was. But even those victories against the Royals didn’t earn him the buzz achieved by Judge, Bellinger, Trout or Harper.
Last season the Indians limped through the playoffs and World Series with Carlos Carrasco, their second best pitcher, and Danny Salazar, arguably their third best pitcher on the shelf with injuries. Could they have won the World Series if Carrasco was healthy? We’ll never know. But pitching is important. Very important.
Had any team assembled a better starting rotation on paper than the New York Mets? If you are a manager or general manager, how would you like to have Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler planned to be your rotation for years and years to come? Who would need an offense with that starting five? They could win games 1-0 if need be. And of course, they were developing Robert Gsellman, Rafael Montero and Seth Lugo as a second tier of future arms.
A funny thing happened on the Mets journey to pick up their World Series rings. Each of their starters blew out an elbow, shoulder, forearm, etc. etc. etc. So much for premier pitching. Yes, pitching is king. No pitching, no World Series rings. Just ask the Mets. Just ask the Indians. Just ask the Royals and many more clubs beaten by great arms what pitching or the lack thereof can do.
One might argue that Dallas Keuchel’s injury absence has not derailed the amazing Houston Astros. In all fairness, even though I am a huge Keuchel fan, Dallas Keuchel is not yet Kershaw, or Max Scherzer or Chris Sale. He may be on his way, but he isn’t there yet.
THE PLOW HORSES
We do live in an era with some amazing starting pitchers and relievers. We can watch Max Scherzer dispatch hitters with relative ease. Or is that relative tease? He has such great stuff that he altars the eye level and balance of almost every hitter he faces. He’s a bulldog. In most instances, the hitter will not get the best of Max Scherzer. He’s 33 and in his prime. And he has a supporting cast of oft-injured but remarkable Stephen Strasburg and highly, highly underrated Gio Gonzalez pitching behind him in the Nationals rotation. Gonzalez is having a great season, but he is lost in the weeds next to Scherzer and Strasburg.
Why do the Nationals have a great chance to be wearing World Series rings after the coming fall? Good hitting and lights out pitching. They have enough starting pitching to carry the club if the hitters slump in the postseason.
I did get to see Dodgers Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax in his career. I am also lucky enough to have seen pitchers like Bob Gibson, Early Wynn, Bob Feller, Warren Spahn, Bob Lemon and on and on. They were great, great and greater. But many of the guys that take the ball every fifth day now don’t need to take a back seat to those Hall of Famers.
How great is Clayton Kershaw? Pretty great. No, he doesn’t have the World Series Championships of Koufax. Yes, he has wilted a bit in his postseason career. But man, can he pitch. Everything he throws, moves. He owns the at-bat, not the hitter. He would have to make a huge mistake to get beaten. And yes, it happens. But it also happened to every pitcher who ever played the game.
So for me, Scherzer and Kershaw, now 29 head the list of this generation’s Hall of Fame pitchers. Need your field plowed? Call on either Scherzer or Kershaw, two amazing workhorses that will get the job done efficiently, effectively and on time. They are such competitors they have the opposition down in the dumps before they throw their first pitch. Reputation precedes them. Victories follow in their wake. Lots of victories.
Tall, thin and razor sharp, Chris Sale dissects hitters like a biologist hovering over a lab specimen. He can make a hitter look awful. Not once in a game, but over and over and over. Four trips to the plate? Four trips back to the dugout with bat in hand. It happens. He’s that good. And he does it with a frame that a strong wind can blow over. He does it with a whip of an arm that is so quick and so fast, even the best sluggers can’t figure out what to do with him. Sale is only 28. The Red Sox will be running him out every fifth day for years to come. So Scherzer, Kershaw and yes, Sale are on the short list.
For me, Corey Kluber isn’t quite on the same level as Scherzer, Kershaw and Sale. Those three live in the penthouse in the condo. Kluber may reside in a floor below. Why? I think Kluber leaves more balls out over the plate to be hit hard as opposed to the others. Kluber is tough as nails. He goes deep in games. But for me, Kluber falls short of the others. And so does Bumgarner. But not by much. Maybe I don’t think either is dominant anymore.
THE THOROUGHBRED RACE HORSES
There are lots of other very good pitchers in baseball. I don’t mean to slight any pitcher. I don’t like to throw the word great around willy-nilly. I do think Scherzer, Kershaw and Sale are great.
I can’t help but think there are a number of young pitchers that have the upside to be very, very good starting pitchers. Will one or more become Scherzer, Kershaw or Sale? I don’t know. But one or more just may.
We have not yet seen all the cylinders that live within the frame of the Yankees Luis Severino. In my scouting and observations of Severino, he has the nasty repertoire that can stop an offense in its tracks. Severino hasn’t even scratched the surface of his capabilities. What happens if he figures it out? What happens if he can command his pitches at will? What happens if his control and command merge at the same time and he starts trusting his stuff and learns how to pitch at the highest level? If he repeats his delivery. If he consistently dispatches both right and left-handed hitters he will realize the potential I see? He can be really, really good. Get excited Yankees fans. I think he’s the real deal. He’s very, very close.
The White Sox Michael Kopech intrigues me. In the Futures Game, I saw him throw back-to-back pitches at 100 and 101 miles per hour. He also has backbreaking, knee-buckling secondary pitches. And he has a terrific mound demeanor that says, “Don’t mess with me” every time he stares at the hitter. I think Kopech is going to be outstanding. He’s so good the Red Sox had to give him up as part of the deal to get Sale. And Sale was probably the only guy young enough and good enough to fetch both Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech in a deal.
Triston McKenzie is a right-handed pitcher in the Indians organization. I’ll say this upfront. I wouldn’t give him up if I were Cleveland. McKenzie is only in Class-A Advanced. He’s long and lean. He’s got an amazing arm and I think he’s a star of the future. I won’t be effusive now because he’s still so far away from the major-league club. I just want him to appear on my radar screen. His fastball, curveball and changeup are all above average pitches that should play very well on the big-league stage. He’s a rising star with his best days at least two years from being noticed at the big-league level.
Jose Berrios could very well be a star in the making for the Minnesota Twins. Still only 23, Berrios was a former first round pick in the 2012 draft. He could lead the Twins staff beginning next year. At the ripe age of 23, he has already won nine games for the Twins and is part of the reason the Twins are hanging in the American League Central race. Berrios is the real deal. He’ll be the anchor of the team’s rotation and will keep his teams in games like an ace. Frankly, I never thought I’d like him as much as I do. But I do, I do.
At this point of his minor-league career, Brent Honeywell may have the best screwball in baseball. Honeywell is only 22. Just wait until this righty gets the chance to pitch for Tampa Bay. He will make hitters spin in their shoes with a wide variety of pitches including a fastball, curveball and cutter that set up the screwball as an out pitch. Just to be clear here, former Dodgers starter Fernando Valenzuela made a living throwing the screwball, a tough pitch to master. Honeywell should enjoy stardom in an organization that knows how to handle pitchers.
Had he not blown out his elbow, the Cardinals Alex Reyes was on my radar as a future 20-game winner. He has it all. He threw a fastball that graded at 75 before his elbow injury. He also had a curveball and a changeup that were each above average. Will he be able to come back? Many have. Some have not. I would not count Reyes out as a future high profile starting pitcher capable of carrying his Cardinals pitching staff and being among the league leaders in several categories. If he comes back from his injury fully recovered and healthy he can be a huge pitching star.
Will any of the new racehorses be able to match the superstardom of plow horses Scherzer, Kershaw and Sale? I can’t wait to find out.
The Diamondbacks gave up very little in their trade with the Tigers for slugger J.D. Martinez. Dawel Lugo (22), Sergio Alcantara (21) and Jose King (18) are all young and viable utility players. Lugo is best at third base, but he doesn’t have as much power as a prototypical third baseman may have. He isn’t as good defensively at shortstop. Alcantara is an excellent defensive shortstop with not much offense in his game. I have not seen King play. But he’s only 160 pounds on a 6-foot-0 frame. The Dbacks will live without those three infielders. The Tigers, who could have and should have gotten more for Martinez will have infield depth.
On the other side of the deal, Martinez is a proven power hitter on a rental from Detroit. He should hit very well in hitter-friendly Chase Field as his home park. Hit in his hand in his first Dbacks game, Martinez has missed time in his career with a fractured elbow and a foot injury. Here’s hoping he can stay healthy and finish this season off with a few Arizona bombs.
The Yankees acquisition of Todd Frazier will help them at either third base, first base or maybe both. The injury to Greg Bird has really hurt New York. However, their biggest acquisition may well be reliever Tommy Kahnle. He is a guy with a power arm that will let New York shorten the game for their starting pitchers. They can turn to him as yet another piece of the pen. Giving up Blake Rutherford was an indication that in every trade a team must give up something of value to get something of value in return. Rutherford is a valuable outfielder and he’ll be part of the White Sox future. But he’s a prospect. And he’s a few years away. He was the logical guy to use to fetch answers to holes in the Yankee system. It was a good trade for both teams.
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