Lincecum leads spectacular crop of young pitchers in All-Star Game
A group of young arms -- probably the best in 20 years -- defines today's game
The seven best ERAs in baseball belong to pitchers 28 and younger
Trevor Hoffman: "It's a young man's game right now, there's no doubt about it"
ST. LOUIS -- This All-Star Game is a monument to one man like no other I've seen before. Albert Pujols, 29, is at the peak of his career, playing in his home ballpark, chasing the Triple Crown, a testing-era record 62 home runs and 400 total bases and mindful of his professional and civic responsibilities. This game, this stage, this city ... they belong to him in ways no other ballplayer knows.
Pujols, however, is the anomaly, a one-man trend. He is the best hitter in baseball and no one else is close to him. He blows away the field in slugging and home runs, for instance. You could give the second-place leader in total bases, Justin Morneau, seven more home runs and Pujols still would lead everybody in baseball in total bases.
Lost in the pomp for Prince Albert is what is really happening in baseball. The developing trend is the emergence of a strong group of young starting pitchers, probably the best crop in 20 years. Of the 17 starting pitchers here, 11 of them are between the ages of 23 and 28, and seven of them are first-time All-Stars. If AL manager Joe Maddon had a better sense of the baseball tides, he would have started Zack Greinke, 25, against Tim Lincecum, 25, recalling the 1986 pitching matchup between Roger Clemens, 23, and Dwight Gooden, 21.
Instead, Maddon is giving the ball to Roy Halladay, a relative geezer at 32 and the only starting pitcher here who has more than three previous All-Star selections. "Based on this season and a body of work, I thought he deserved the nod," Maddon said. It helps that Maddon sees his AL East rival a handful of times every year.
So stocked with great young pitchers is the game right now that you could throw together a pretty good staff of young guns who didn't make the All-Star Game: Yovani Gallardo, Jon Lester, Jair Jurrjens, Clayton Kershaw, Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto, Ubaldo Jimenez, John Danks, Rick Porcello, Ricky Romero, Tommy Hanson and Dallas Braden.
"It's a young man's game right now, there's no doubt about it," said veteran closer Trevor Hoffman. Want proof?
Of the top 40 ERAs in baseball, 26 of them belong to pitchers 28 and younger. Just six years ago, only 19 such young pitchers made the top 40.
The old starting pitcher has become a dinosaur, the knuckleballing Tim Wakefield being an exception in every way. Ted Lilly, 33, is the oldest All-Star starting pitcher otherwise. Of the top 40 ERAs in baseball, none of them belong to pitchers 35 and older. Here are the year-by-year counts of 35-and-older pitchers in the top 40 beginning with 2002, the last year without any kind of testing for PEDs: 8, 6, 7, 5, 6, 3, 3, 0.
Forget, as commissioner Bud Selig would love to do, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez. They are not here. The brothers-in-artificially-enhanced-arms were All-Stars every year since 2000. This is the first All-Star Game since 1997 without either one of them. They are not missed, unless you happen to be a fan of industrial waste accidents. Who needs steroids to be the narrative of the All-Star Game? Other than the freshly convicted Miguel Tejada and Ryan Franklin, this All-Star Game is noticeably absent of walking reminders of baseball's disgraced era.
The new face of baseball happens to be nearly whisker-free, peeking out from underneath a black-knit cap and between a curtain of cascading hair, a video game star with only a skateboard missing from the youthful tableau. Lincecum represents what's next.
"He can command any pitch at any time, whatever the situation," Braves catcher Brian McCann said. "His changeup is really the pitch that sets him apart."
Said Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun: "I would go with Lincecum as the one guy who stands out the most in this group of young pitchers. It's a battle when you face him. The fact that he commands three excellent pitches is what makes him so tough. Whatever you want to call his third pitch is as good as his first. And he's still got a fastball at 95 and 96 that you have to honor."
Lincecum just passed 500 big-league innings, and at this milepost you have to rank him with some of the greatest pitching prodigies of the past quarter century. Here's just one sampling of the company he keeps, comparing him to Clemens, Gooden and Pedro Martinez when they passed the 500-inning mark:
Lincecum was named to the All-Star Game last year, but missed it because he fell ill on the eve of the game. So really, this is the first time you can see Lincecum, Greinke, Cain, Jackson, Hernandez, Johnson and Zach Duke all suited up for an All-Star team. These are the guys, with Gallardo, Lester, Kershaw and Stephen Strasburg, who will own the game. And don't forget Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, Jered Weaver, James Shields, Adam Wainwright and other young pitchers who already have established a track record. Back in 1988, the group of 28-and-under pitchers among the top 40 included Clemens, Gooden, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Frank Viola, David Cone, Bret Saberhagen, Mark Langston and Chuck Finley. Of course, it also included Allan Anderson, Jeff Robinson, John Dopson and Kelly Downs.
"It's going to be tough for this group of guys to follow Clemens and those guys," Lilly said. "Those were very, very special pitchers. There's no question these guys have a tremendous amount of talent. But to duplicate what those guys did, we'll have to wait and see. It takes time. So while these guys may be very exciting, I have a tremendous amount of respect for those guys who did it for so long."
So who's next 10 years would you take? I would put Lester, Hernandez, Greinke, Johnson and Verlander near the top of the list. But I would have to begin the same way the All-Star Game begins: with Lincecum. He has a dash of a young Pedro in him, an amazingly efficient and entertaining small bundle of quick-twitch muscles and pitching smarts. This may be Pujols' town and time, but make way for Lincecum and the young guns.
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