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The revival of the 20-game winner
American League supremacists can dismiss Ian Kennedy’s success all they want, but his 1-0 victory over the Pirates on Monday night wasn’t just another miniature classic, it elevated the Diamondbacks right-hander to hallowed ground.
Kennedy became the major leagues’ second 20-game winner — a fraternity that increased to three on Tuesday night and could swell to five before the end of the regular season.
Clayton Kershaw got his 20th victory Tuesday against the Giants; CC Sabathia takes his 19-8 record to the mound against the Rays on Wednesday. Jered Weaver, at 18-7, could squeeze in two more starts. Roy Halladay, who was pursuing his 19th win against the Cardinals on Monday night, will miss out on any chance on a 20th after a 5-4 loss.
What’s the obsession with 20 wins? Other than the fact it’s a symbol of excellence — not unlike, say, driving in 100 runs — it lately represents the baseball’s pendulum-swing away from the steroid era and over-muscled sluggers who’d turned the game into glorified softball.
Put it this way: Two years ago, MLB didn’t produce a single 20-game winner. Same thing in 2006: not one. There was just one in 2007 (Josh Beckett) and two in 2010 (Halladay and Sabathia).
If five starters finish with 20 wins, it would be highest total since 2003, and reason enough to ask why. Could MLB ever return to the era when 20-game winners were a swarm?
Probably not, at least not like the 60s and 70s. There were 15 20-game winners back in 1969 (Tom Seaver, Denny McLain, Mike Cuellar, Phil Niekro, Juan Marichal, Fergie Jenkins, Dave Boswell, Mel Stottlemyre, Larry Dierker, Claude Osteen, Bill Singer, Jim Perry, Bill Hands, Dave McNally, Bob Gibson) followed by 14 in 1971 and 13 in 1973. The last instance of double-digit 20-game winners was 1974, when 11 hurlers reached the mountaintop.
The biggest difference, of course, was the four-man rotation, which increased win totals as well as innings. Today’s rotations have expanded to five and sometimes even six, with win totals additionally suppressed by pitch-counts.
All the more reason to appreciate the great Justin Verlander and, yes, Kennedy, too. They’re billboards of the modern hurler’s evolution — they train harder, eat healthier and benefit from advances in video and computer analysis. What the new millennium pitcher lacks in durability is erased by better mechanics and a greater understanding of sequencing. That’s critical in an era where strike zones are tighter and ballparks are, generally, smaller.
As if you needed further proof, look at today’s radar-gun readings. Although Kennedy is an exception, it’s not uncommon to see high-90s fastballs coupled with splitters in the low 90s. Even the modern-day change-up lights up the gun to the tune of 88-90 mph. Twenty five years ago, that was considered fastball velocity.
According to pitching guru Tom House, a former major league pitcher in the 70s, now an instructor/theorist based in California, “there are more hard throwers today that at any time in the history of the game. When I played, if a staff had one of two guys who threw 92- or 93-mph, it was a big thing. It was like, ‘wow.’ Now every staff has six or seven guys who throw between 95-100 mph.”
And it’s not just velocity that’s giving pitchers the advantage.
“(Pitchers) today do more things with the ball; there’s more movement, more action on the ball than I’ve ever seen,” said Yankees hitting instructor Kevin Long. “That’s why you don’t see hitters today with that big leg-kick, like (Darryl) Strawberry and (Juan) Gonzalez used to have. There’s no time for all the extra movement. Hitters have to react so much quicker because the pitching is better.”
The result is an unmistakable dropoff in offense. A year ago all 30 MLB teams averaged 4.38 runs per game. This year that total fell to 4.28. The overall OPS in 2011 was .728; this year it’s .719.
The comparison to the 2001 season, considered the height of the steroid era, is even more revealing. The average OPS was .759 back then, along with 4.78 runs per game.
Additionally, there were 10 teams that finished with more than 200 HRs. This year, there’ll be only three.
Put all the data into the blender — better pitching, fewer artificially enhanced hitters — and it’s no surprise the 20-game winner is making a bit of a comeback. If you think run-prevention is baseball’s purest art-form, then you should appreciate the golden era while it lasts.
Rivera picks up 602nd career save
We’ve all run out of adjectives to describe Rivera’s run of excellence as a closer since 1997 and how lethal his cut-fastball is. But how fitting was it that Rivera’s history-making sequence on Monday afternoon was a three-pitch strikeout?
The backdoor cutter to Chris Parmelee was so surgically placed on the outside corner it froze the synapses of the rookie’s brain. Parmelee’s bat never moved as the cutter thundered into Russell Martin’s glove.
It was the right way for Rivera to set the all-time saves record, more dignified than, say, forcing Curtis Granderson to run down a blast at the centerfield wall. The same synchronicity applied to Derek Jeter’s 3000th hit — it would’ve never been as compelling as a dribbler up the third base line. Even Jeter’s detractors have to admit his long HR off David Price was an iconic moment.
Not that Rivera needed the ego boost on the way to the record book. The right-hander remained so humble in the postgame news conference that he took time to congratulate WFAN’s Sweeney Murti on the recent birth of his daughter.
And as if we didn’t already know, Rivera reminded us of the gimmick-free run he’s had for the last 14 years.
“I have no muscles, no beard, I have no hair,” he said. “I just trust the tools God has given me.”