If you haven't already noticed, baseball's top pitchers for much of the past decade are starting to retire. Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Mike Mussina, and Curt Schilling are just a few of the dominating pitchers that baseball has seen move on to retirement. There performances will always be remembered, but it is already clear in the first half of the 2010 season that a new wave of young pitchers are starting to emerge.
What really tipped me off to this idea was all the great performances by young pitchers early on this season. Not only are younger pitchers putting up good numbers, but they are attacking the strike zone and really making hitters work for base hits. I asked myself before I started writing this piece whether or not these early performances were common as hitters find their groove and see pitchers for the first time in nearly six months, maybe more.
Where baseball is currently at, with state of the art technology and a dozen or so scouts around the country, it is a tough argument to make that these hitters are not prepared for these guys. Let's take a look at some of these pitchers we're talking about and discuss the next generation of prominent pitchers.
There has already been one no-hitter and a perfect game, both coming against teams with relatively potent offenses. Rockies pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez, 26, burst onto the scene in 2007 when he helped lead the Rockies into the World Series. His numbers have only improved since then, and this season he is 6-1 with 0.93 ERA, the best start of his career. In fact, in the past two seasons, Jimenez didn't log six wins until July. Jimenez and his coaches credit his more aggressive approach on the mound to his early success this season.
"He was pretty much going after them," said Rockies manager Jim Tracy, who added that he and the coaches discussed the possibility that the Padres would take pitches. "He was saying, 'If you're going to take those, I'm going to just throw strikes.' That's the biggest difference between Ubaldo Jimenez in 2009 and what you see now."
In his past two starts, Jimenez has pitched 14 innings and has struck out 18 to just 6 walks. Equipped with a 100 mph fastball, he needs to have more consistent command of his secondary pitches if he wants to emerge as one of the top pitchers in the NL West.
In the American League, Oakland Athletics pitcher Dallas Braden jumped right back into the national spotlight by dealing a no-hit, no-walk gem to the Rays. Rays pitcher Andy Sonnanstine was especially with Braden's ability to change speeds and locate the ball inside. Braden has shown flashes of greatness, but he has been inconsistent at locating the strike zone and suffered for it.
Braden averaged one walk per game in his first four starts, and hasn't surrendered a walk in his past two. He has caught hitters off guard with his confidence on the mound, attacking the strike zone early and putting hitters in a position to swing the bat. A's GM Billy Beane found another gem, and I can't wait to watch this kid this season.
There have been several near no-hitters as well, most recently from Angels pitcher Jered Weaver and Nationals pitcher Scott Olsen. Weaver has been a solid pitcher since he joined the Angels in 2006, but his performance has been overshadowed by John Lackey, Kelvim Escobar, and even Bartolo Colon when he returned briefly. He posted 16 wins last season and is now the head of that rotation. So far, he has done nothing but dominate.
In seven starts this season, Weaver is 4-1 with 2.66 ERA and 47 strike outs to 10 walks. Against a division rival, Weaver shut down the Mariners for 7.1 innings, surrendered just two walks and struck out seven. There is no doubt that Weaver will be anchoring the Angels rotation for the foreseeable future.
Nationals pitcher Scott Olsen has made major improvements to his approach on the mound. Not only is he missing more bats, but he is keeping the ball down and working the inside and outside corner with more efficiency. He will probably fall victim to poor run support, but if he can limit teams to two or three runs, with the way Matt Capps is saving games, he would be putting the Nationals in a great position to win some games.
These are just a few pitchers who are emerging as the best pitchers in the league and will continue do so over the course of this season. Some will rise above others, some will fall by the wayside, but the future landscape of baseball looks very flush with pitching.
Here are some other young pitchers to keep an eye on: Phil Hughes (Yankees), Brett Cecil (Blue Jays), Rick Porcello (Tigers), Scott Baker (Twins), Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers)....