Wednesday, May 13, 2009

You can't ever be satisfied with your pitching

Last weekend's Dustin Pedroia story in the Union Leader sparked some thoughts about the Baltimore Orioles -- and some thoughts about how a World Series team became an also-ran for almost a decade because its pitching staff didn't perform as expected.

Pedroia last year became the first Rookie of the Year to win Most Valuable Player honors the following season since Cal Ripken in 1982 and 1983. (Don't look now, but Evan Longoria has an inside track on replicating the feat this season.)

Like Pedroia, Ripken was a young cornerstone of a World Series winner -- the Red Sox won the World Series during Pedroia's Rookie of the Year season, and the Orioles won the World Series during Ripken's Most Valuable Player season.

The real strength of that Orioles team, though, was its pitching staff. Only the Rangers -- no, really, the Rangers -- had a better staff ERA in the American League than the Orioles' 3.64 ERA that season; no team had more shutouts than the Orioles' 15.

Among the pitchers on that staff:
* Mike Boddicker, 25 years old, 2.77 ERA
* Scott McGregor, 29 years old, 3.18 ERA
* Mike Flanagan, 31 years old, 3.30 ERA
* Storm Davis, 21 years old, 3.59 ERA

That, along with a lineup that included a 22-year-old Ripken and a 27-year-old Eddie Murray, looked like it had all the makings of a perennial contender.

Two years later, though, the Orioles were a fourth-place team and just treading water with a middle-of-the-pack ERA of 4.38. What happened? Here's that same starting staff:
* Mike Boddicker, 27 years old, 4.07 ERA
* Scott McGregor, 31 years old, 4.81 ERA
* Mike Flanagan, 33 years old, 5.13 ERA
* Storm Davis, 23 years old, 4.53 ERA

The sensational starting pitching that carried the Orioles to a World Series title had all but fallen apart within two years. Davis is a particularly apt cautionary tale -- eased into the major leagues by way of the bullpen in 1982, he won 13 games with a 3.59 ERA in 1983 and 14 games with a 3.12 ERA in 1984. A year later, though, his ERA jumped by almost a run -- and two years after that, after the Orioles traded him to San Diego and he bounced from around and landed in Oakland, his ERA was 5.23.

Boddicker, meanwhile, saw his ERA climb from 2.79 in 1984 to 4.07 in 1985 to 4.70 in 1986. It wasn't until 1988, the year the Orioles traded him to the Red Sox for Brady Anderson and Curt Schilling, that his ERA once again came in below 4.00.

And Flanagan, a New Hampshire native who won the Cy Young Award in 1979, finished with a sub-4.00 ERA only once after the 1984 season. By the middle of the 1987 season, the Orioles had dealt him to the Blue Jays for someone named Oswaldo Peraza and a player to be named later (who, interestingly, turned out to be a 21-year-old Jose Mesa).

What's the lesson here?

You can't take your pitching for granted.

The Red Sox came into this season with a starting rotation featuring Josh Beckett, John Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield and Brad Penny; all but Wakefield had at one point been or were candidates still to be the ace of a rotation.

So far, though, the group has underachived. Lester and Beckett each have ERAs above 6.00 (despite encouraging strikeout-to-walk numbers), Penny has been even worse, and Matsuzaka has spent much of the season on the disabled list.

Most fans expect Beckett and Lester to turn things around and Matsuzaka to come back strong; most fans expect Penny either to pitch well or to be replaced by Clay Buchholz at some point.

But talent and track record doesn't guarantee anything when it comes to future performance.

The 1983 Orioles looked to be set for a decade with three talented starting pitchers younger than 30 and a former Cy Young Award winner whose 30th birthday wasn't that far behind him. But that fell apart in a hurry, and the Orioles didn't get back to the playoffs again until 1996.

The Red Sox, so far, have stuck with their pitchers -- and given the recent history of (and money invested in) guys like Beckett and Matsuzaka, it makes sense to do that. But if you spend too much time trying to recapture past successes, you're sometimes going to forfeit future ones.

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