Commentary

New wave of pitchers taking over game

The old generation of elite starters have departed, giving way to the current pack

Originally Published: April 9, 2010
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

On the first night of the baseball season, on a spectacular evening at Fenway Park, Pedro Martinez threw out the ceremonial first pitch. A few feet away, Curt Schilling, in a coat and tie, just finished doing a TV appearance. Schilling will never pitch again. Pedro wants to pitch this year. But starting a season without them, and without Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Roger Clemens or Mike Mussina, is a little sad and a little … strange.

[+] EnlargeTim Lincecum
AP Photo/Bob LeaveyAt the age of 25, Tim Lincecum is already a two-time Cy Young Award winner.

For the first time in 15 years, a season has begun without one starting pitcher whom we can point to and say, without hesitation, "That guy is a Hall of Famer right now.''

For the first time in 10 years, a season has begun without an active pitcher with at least 260 victories. Jamie Moyer entered the season with the most wins (258). Tim Wakefield entered with the most wins among active right-handed pitchers, with 189. God bless both of them for what they've done -- they are miraculous in their own right -- but neither is a Hall of Fame pitcher.

For now, all the Hall of Famer starters are gone.

"Heck no, I'm not going to miss them,'' Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins said with a laugh about the great pitchers who have left the game recently. "Are you crazy? But it was fun facing them, stepping into the box and saying, 'Damn, I'm facing a Hall of Famer.'''

"I won't miss facing Randy,'' said Nationals first baseman Adam Dunn, with a smile. "Not one bit.''

From 2008 to 2010, four 300-game winners have retired, officially or not: Clemens, Maddux, Johnson and Glavine. There has been only one other three-year period in modern history in which four 300-game winners have retired: from 1987 to 1989, with Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Don Sutton and Phil Niekro. But as they were leaving, a new group had already begun to emerge: Clemens, Maddux, Glavine, Johnson and Martinez, all of whom have unquestioned Hall of Fame credentials, and Smoltz, Schilling and Mussina, who have convincing arguments. But now, unless Smoltz or Martinez gets an offer to pitch this year, eight pitchers with Cy Young credentials will be gone from the game in a three-year span.

But similar to the mid-1980s, there is a new wave of pitchers on the way. Last year provided the unofficial handoff from the old generation to the new when Johnson finished his career, and Tim Lincecum and Zack Greinke won the Cy Young Awards with a combined total of 31 wins, or as many as Denny McLain had by himself in 1968.

Greinke and Lincecum don't fit the profile of a Cy Young winner when it comes to size or win totals, but they are two of the dynamic leaders of the new pack, guys with nasty stuff, lots of strikeouts and low ERAs.

Jimmy Rollins They're coming up in the same way that the Hall of Famers once came up. These things go in cycles. Now, I'm sure we're facing some future Hall of Fame [pitchers].

-- Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins

"They're coming up in the same way that the Hall of Famers once came up,'' Rollins said. "These things go in cycles. Now, I'm sure we're facing some future Hall of Famers.''

Greinke and Lincecum, who has two Cy Young Awards at the age of 25, are among a group of potentially elite pitchers under age 26, including Josh Johnson, Tommy Hanson, Matt Cain, Ubaldo Jimenez, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, Jon Lester, Rick Porcello and Felix Hernandez. Behind them are two of the sensations of the spring, Stephen Strasburg of the Nationals and the Reds' Aroldis Chapman.

"I imagine that the way some young pitchers are going now is the way that Maddux and Glavine started out,'' Dunn said. "A guy like Lincecum, you hear about him getting to Triple-A, then there's a lull and before you know it, he's out there dominating in the big leagues.''

But will any of them ever be as good as, say, Clemens, Maddux, Johnson and Martinez? By most any statistical measure, they are among the top 20 pitchers of all time; Clemens, Maddux and Johnson are in the top 10-12 ever. Clemens won seven Cy Young Awards. Maddux was perhaps the greatest control pitcher of all time: He went three years without a passed ball occurring with him on the mound. Johnson had six 300-strikeout seasons, including five in a row. Martinez's 1999-2000 seasons might be the greatest back-to-back seasons by any pitcher in the history of baseball.

Will the way the game is played today allow us to ever see anyone as good as those four?

"These guys today are so talented, but we will never know how good they can be,'' said Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, who had 211 complete games in his career, 25 in 1975; last season, the Dodgers led the National League in ERA, won their division and had one complete game.

[+] EnlargeZack Greinke
Denny Medley/US PresswireZack Greinke, 26, posted a 2.16 ERA last season en route to winning the American League Cy Young Award.

"They will never learn how to get someone out for the third, fourth or fifth time in a game," Palmer said. "That's what tests your head, your heart and your physicality. The game has evolved. It's a different game now. Pitchers are asked to go 7 1/3 innings, not nine. We're going to have to change the criteria for the Hall of Fame. We're going to have to change the criteria on someone you want to watch.''

There are active starting pitchers who are getting closer to being in the discussion for the Hall of Fame. Andy Pettitte, 37, has 229 wins. Johan Santana, 31, has 123 wins, and two Cy Young Awards. Roy Halladay, 32, has 148 wins, and a bright future ahead pitching in Philadelphia. CC Sabathia is the best bet. He is 136-81, and is only 29 years old.

Chances are, none of them will reach 300 wins. Pettitte led the previous decade with 148 wins, the fewest wins by any pitcher to lead a decade (Walter Johnson had 265 wins from 1910 to 1919). With five-man rotations and pitch counts and loaded bullpens with relievers who make millions, it's going to be hard to find any pitcher who will pitch long enough in a career, or pitch long enough in games, to get to 300 wins. Santana has made 235 starts in his career, and completed eight.

Maybe we will indeed adjust our thinking, change the criteria. Maybe in five years, we will be looking at several of these guys and say, "He is a Hall of Famer right now.''

But it's also possible that we have seen the last of the great, great pitchers.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.