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WHAT'S WRONG WITH PITCHING?
Whether or not the balls are livelier or the bats are loaded, one thing is certain about this season: The pitching stinks. "It is at a critical low throughout the industry," says Milwaukee general manager Harry Dalton. The pool of pitching talent is so shallow that 43 pitchers who are now on major league rosters have at one time been released. Steve Carlton, 43, has found four teams willing to sign him since the Phillies ditched him in 1986. Tommy John, released in 1985, has won more games this season, at age 44, than any rookie. "It used to be that no one ever traded an everyday player for a pitcher," says Dalton. "Now you couldn't trade two everyday players for a quality Number 1 starter." And, says Indians G.M. Joe Klein, the pitching shortage "isn't going to stop soon."
Yes, today's body-by-Nautilus sluggers are making it tougher for pitchers. But they are only part of the story. Pitching is a much finer art than hitting. Indeed, Tigers president Jim Campbell says, "It takes 20 good pitching prospects to develop two good pitchers." But even at that ratio there should be more good pitchers in baseball. So, what happened?
"If you want to know what's happened to pitching, go to a Little League game," says Dodger scout Jerry Stephenson. "I went to one of my son's games, and all they threw were breaking balls. In Little League ." To some degree the youngsters are merely emulating their heroes, but, believe it or not, they have a practical reason for throwing trick pitches: the aluminum bat. "The fear of the aluminum bat has changed pitching patterns," says Mets player-development director Joe McIlvaine. "You can make a good pitch inside to a hitter, and he can still hit the ball hard with an aluminum bat. A young pitcher learns, however, that he can get hitters out with breaking balls. So he develops neither his arm nor his fastball, and he only pitches away. By the time he's 22, he can't change his bad habits."
Baltimore manager Cal Ripken says, "Years ago, a kid just went out and threw fastballs. But now he watches television, hears them talk about 'keeping hitters off balance' and 'spotting the ball.' That's fine in the big leagues, but it's making fastballs disappear." Says Cubs scouting director Gordon Goldsberry, "Two thirds of all college pitchers now are breaking-ball pitchers."
Red Sox hitting coach Walt Hriniak thinks there aren't more than five hitters in the AL who can hit the high fastball. But how many 90-mph throwers are there? Count 'em: Roger Clemens, Jose DeLeon, Jack Morris, Dan Plesac, Bret Saberhagen, Bobby Witt, Juan Berenguer, Jay Howell and Tom Henke. Period. In the NL are Floyd Youmans, Steve Bedrosian, Nolan Ryan, Mike Scott, Todd Worrell, Lee Smith, Randy Myers and Dwight Gooden. Once, there were a lot more. Says Padres manager Larry Bowa, "I didn't need a gun to know that in the late '60s there were staffs with three and four pitchers who threw in the 90's."
Two pitching greats agree. "When I started out, youngsters took more pride in the fastball," says 318-game winner Don Sutton. "Now they seem to think good velocity and control are not enough. Young guys are in a hurry to become three-or four-pitch pitchers sooner than they have to. They're more interested in tricking hitters." Adds Houston's Ryan, "I don't think people throw the fastball anymore when they're coming up. This year I've seen only about two or three pitchers that I thought had pretty decent arms." Says Baltimore third baseman Ray Knight, "That's why there are so many homers being hit. When a pitcher misses on one of those slow pitches, they're going to get hit out of the park."
A MINOR PROBLEM
John says pitchers don't throw enough in the minors, because clubs on every level began going to a five-man rotation after the Mets first found success with it in 1969. "Minor league pitchers rest for four days and throw once on the side between starts," says John. "So if a kid gets knocked out, he may throw two innings in nine days. In the minors, I was on a four-man rotation and threw batting practice between starts. I think that's very important."