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ONLY LAST year Michael Wacha (now 22), Carlos Martinez (22), Trevor Rosenthal (23), Kevin Siegrist (24) and Seth Maness (25) were pitching in Double A. This year they pitched for the Cardinals in the World Series, along with fellow homegrown pitchers Joe Kelly (25) and Lynn (26). Wacha, the Game 2 winner, became the youngest pitcher ever to win four starts in one postseason and was scheduled for a fifth in Game 6. Over his first four outings he had an ERA of 1.00 and struck out 28 in 27 innings.
Young pitchers traditionally were liabilities who needed to "pay their dues" while "learning to pitch" in the big leagues. In 22 completed seasons from 1987 through 2009, pitchers age 25-and-younger never had a collective winning record. Yet such young guns have compiled a winning record in two of the past four seasons, including a .529 winning percentage this year, the highest for the age group since 1935.
This year nearly as many pitchers 25-and-under struck out 100 batters (35) as did pitchers 30-and-older (36). Just eight years ago there were almost twice as many older pitchers with 100 strikeouts (32) as youngsters (18). Young pitchers are reaching the big leagues with more velocity, better mechanics and better training, allowing them to make a quicker impact. "We've done a good job as an industry of understanding the mechanics of throwing," Cherington says. "You are going to see more and more young pitchers with plus velocity. You see them in the minor leagues now. You see them in Latin America. Years ago it used to be that you would see 16-year-old kids in Latin America throwing 86, 87 [mph], and those are the ones who were being signed. Pedro Martinez was part of that generation. Now it's not unusual at all to go to Latin America and sign teenagers who are throwing 90 and above."
Amateurs now realize the quickest, least complicated route to a professional contract is to show velocity off the mound. Latin Americans, for instance, understand a pro contract can be within reach simply by throwing 90 mph in a workout at age 16. American kids understand the showcase system for colleges and pro scouts, in which pitchers throw in a workout or to a limited number of batters in a controlled game, rewards one skill—velocity. Those who have it get the scholarships and draft selections, those who lack it don't. "As a position player you have to show multiple skills, on offense and defense," Cherington says. "But to get noticed as a pitcher requires one discipline. It really is the least complicated way of advancing, and that's why it's attracting so many players, including many of the better athletes."
The rate of strikeouts has reached a record high in six consecutive seasons. With more power arms in the pipeline, and with the long at bat afforded more prestige, games will continue to get longer with the ball being put in play less. To reverse such a trend, baseball may need to consider rules changes, as it did in reacting to the last major downturn in offense by lowering the mound in 1969 and adding the DH in '73. The Bonus At Bat is one idea. Noted sabermetrician and Red Sox analyst Bill James, responding to the plethora of bullpen moves that create downtime and are designed to depress offense, has proposed another: limiting mid-inning pitching changes to one per inning, or more if the reliever has allowed a run.
Sound radical? Consider that once the notion of creating a new "position" for a player who does not play defense but takes a regular turn in the lineup seemed radical. Once, too, it might have sounded radical for a game to take three hours, 27 minutes with only seven runs scored. Now, in this age dominated by pitching, it is your typical postseason game.