On the diamond, a new wave of hurlers
Baseball's young guns take their place in the rotation
Now pitching: A NEW GENERATION of star hurlers, poised to claim the mantle from aging heroes such as Randy Johnson, John Smoltz, Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine, and Greg Maddux.
As those Hall of Famers remain in the rotation of their respective teams, a slew of young guns have burst onto the scene, armed with blistering fastballs and an unmistakable air of confidence.
A look at the earned-run average (ERA) leaders provides ample evidence of the talented arms under age 30. In the American League the ERA leader is Oakland's Dan Haren. Another West Coast pitcher, Jake Peavy of San Diego, tops the National League (NL). Both pitchers are all of 26.
Experts say the heralded young pitchers are overdue. The 40-somethings decorated with a trove of Cy Youngs and hundreds of wins apiece – those of the Clemens generation – ruled the pitching rubber with nary a successor in the next generation, save Pedro Martinez. And Martinez, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, is, at 35, nearing the end of his career.
"For a seven- to 10-year period, there was a real downturn in starting pitching," says Tom Verducci, lead baseball writer at Sports Illustrated. "We were due for a 'market correction' and now we've got it."
At last, though, a new crop has emerged. There is no Maddux in the group. Finesse pitching has taken a back seat to power, an approach bolstered by those ubiquitous radar guns registering high pitch speeds.
Even as Peavy and Haren display power, though, they also demonstrate a knack for improved strategy on the mound, mixing speeds and pitches with increasing effectiveness each season.
Although Peavy, for instance, has already won an ERA crown and a strikeout title earlier in his career, he seems to have discovered a new gear in 2007.
In April, Peavy struck out 16 batters against Arizona, within a few fastballs of the big-league record of 20 shared by Johnson, Clemens, and Kerry Wood.
He kept rolling from there. To date (as of June 20), Peavy has a 9-1 record, a 1.98 ERA and 110 strikeouts. At present, he reigns as the odds-on favorite to win the NL Cy Young.
"He looks like the best pitcher, period," Mr. Verducci says. "He's a real throwback player. I think he would love to play a position and pitch at the same time. If he's smart, he'll never leave San Diego because it is a great pitchers' park."
In Oakland, Haren has notched up a similarly impressive résumé this season. His stats nearly mirror Peavy's: an 9-2 won-loss mark, an AL-best 1.78 ERA and 84 strikeouts.
The gaudy pitching lines that Peavy and Haren have compiled represent the best of the young starters, but they have plenty of company.
Among the most notable: Fausto Carmona, Justin Verlander, Josh Beckett, and Johan Santana.
Consider Cleveland's Carmona. The 23-year-old served as both a starter and closer for the Indians last season, to disastrous effect. He won his first start before dropping 10 straight decisions.
The experience could have been devastating, much as Rick Ankiel's playoff meltdown in 2000 – he threw a record five wild pitches in a single inning – led to the end of his pitching days. Instead, Carmona bounced back as a full-time starter. He boasts an 8-2 record, among the AL leaders in wins.
Verlander, the 2006 AL Rookie of the Year, helped Detroit to a surprising World Series berth last season.
He has eluded a sophomore slump thus far this season, achieving an 8-2 record and a 2.90 ERA, including a no-hitter this month.
Santana, at 28, ranks as an elder statesman among the young starters. His repertoire is worthy of a sage – it has propelled Santana to two AL Cy Youngs in his brief career.
Beckett, who helped the Florida Marlins clinch a World Series championship in 2003, now pitches for Boston. At 10-1, he ranks second among AL pitchers in victories. His teammate, 26-year-old Japanese import Daisuke Matsuzaka, trails Beckett by two wins, with an 8-5 mark.
And still they keep coming. The pitching roster includes Arizona's Brandon Webb (age 28), the defending NL Cy Young winner, 23-year-old Cole Hamels of Philadelphia (nine wins this season) and Florida's 25-year-old Dontrelle Willis, who already has 65 career wins.
No matter where you look, young starting pitchers seem to be grabbing the spotlight from their acclaimed elders. Welcome to the changing of the arms.