Youth being served among pitching elite
Golden age of pitching headlined by several 26-and-under phenoms
Having faced Clayton Kershaw as a National League West rival and embraced him as a teammate, Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez is convinced there is no better pitcher in the Major Leagues than the 25-year-old Texan.
"I think he's the best in the game right now," said Gonzalez, the former Padres and Red Sox slugger. "Whose numbers are better than his?"
Stiff arguments will arrive in support of Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, David Price, Stephen Strasburg and Jered Weaver. Voices will rise up on behalf of Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia and Matt Cain, among others.
Yet, in one respect, there can be no debate: Kershaw heads a remarkable group of arms in the 26-and-under category that generally defines the first third of a normal playing career. The middle third is the 27-to-31 age group, with those 32 and over falling into the final third -- unless you're a true freak of nature such as Nolan Ryan, who was still throwing in the mid-90s in his mid-40s.
This is taking shape as a golden age of pitchers. Everywhere you look across the Major League landscape, you'll find extraordinary young talents, already fully evolved artistically in special cases such as Kershaw, the Nationals' Strasburg, Madison Bumgarner of the World Series champion Giants and Chris Sale of the White Sox. Strasburg and Sale are 24, Bumgarner 23.
"Overall, as you look around the game, the arms are better than they've ever been," Padres manager Bud Black said. "We had some great arms when I was with the Royals -- [Bret] Saberhagen, [Danny] Jackson, [Mark] Gubicza, [Charlie] Leibrandt, [David] Cone before they traded him to the Mets. But those guys didn't have the size and body types you see now, other than Gubby.
"You've got starters throwing 94 [mph] and up, and every team has relievers throwing 94 to 97. These guys have deep repertoires with multiple pitches and deliveries."
Managers tend to prefer experience in the pressure-filled closer's role, but a case can be made that the two best in the game are the Braves' Craig Kimbrel, at 25, and the Reds' Aroldis Chapman, also 25. White Sox closer Addison Reed is 24.
In Los Angeles, South Korean import Hyun-Jin Ryu has alleviated some of the sting from the loss of Zack Greinke with a broken collarbone. Ryu, 26, has shown superb stuff and command behind the great Kershaw, whose season began with a shutout of the Giants and a game-turning home run. He's clearly in the form that took him to the 2011 National League Cy Young Award and runnerup to R.A. Dickey in 2012.
Hernandez falls just out of the youth brigade at 27, along with Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler, Strasburg's rotation mates in Washington. Price, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, also is 27, but three other Rays starters -- Jeremy Hellickson (26), Matt Moore (24) and Alex Cobb (25) -- are part of the youth corps.
Yu Darvish, Mr. Almost Perfect in Texas, is 26 and breaking out big time. Rangers teammate Derek Holland also is 26, and Martin Perez (22) was a spring injury away from carving out a role. Excluding Bartolo Colon, the A's can showcase an entire rotation of talented youngsters in Jarrod Parker and Dan Straily (both 24), Brett Anderson and A.J. Griffin (25) and Tommy Milone (26).
The Angels have Tommy Hanson (26) and are relying on Garrett Richards (25) in the absence of Weaver, the ace, with a fractured left elbow. The Mariners back Hernandez with Blake Beaven (24), Hector Noesi (26) and Brandon Maurer (22) -- with Taijuan Walker (20), Danny Hultzen (23) and James Paxton (24) on the horizon.
The defending AL champion Tigers have Rick Porcello (24) behind mid-career guns Verlander, Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer. The Twins are leaning on Vance Worley (25), Scott Diamond (26) and Pedro Hernandez (24) in the rotation.
The Orioles have 20-year-old phenom Dylan Bundy in waiting. He's rated the No. 2 overall prospect in the game by MLB.com. Five other arms -- Walker (No. 5), the Marlins' Jose Fernandez (No.7), the Mets' Zack Wheeler (No. 8), the Pirates' Gerrit Cole (No. 9) and the D-backs' Tyler Skaggs (No. 10) -- round out the top 10.
The Cardinals can match the Mariners' stockpile of young arms. The class features 22-year-old Shelby Miller, who unleashed seven scoreless innings against the Brewers in his third Major League start, allowing one hit while striking out eight and retiring the last 17 hitters he faced.
"He acted like a veteran to a T," Cardinals third baseman David Freese said. "It was fun to watch, fun to play behind. Obviously, he expects that out of [himself]. We expect that out of him. But to go out there and do it, that's special."
Leaning on youth in the absence of Kyle Lohse and Chris Carpenter, the Cards also have Lance Lynn and Jaime Garcia (both 26) in the rotation, with Trevor Rosenthal (23) and Joe Kelly (25) bringing extreme heat in whatever roles manager Mike Matheny has in mind. Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha, 21-year-old right-handers, have tremendous upside.
The D-backs are so deep in young starters they felt comfortable dealing Trevor Bauer, one of the game's most prized arms, to the Indians. Ian Kennedy, at 28, is the senior member of a group that includes Wade Miley and Daniel Hudson (26), Trevor Cahill (25) and Patrick Corbin (23). Skaggs (21) and Archie Bradley (20) are expected to front the rotation in the not-so-distant future.
The reigning NL Central champion Reds also flaunt a relatively young rotation, with Mat Latos and Mike Leake (both 25) in support of Johnny Cueto (27), Homer Bailey (27 next month) and elder statesman Bronson Arroyo (36).
The Padres are rich in quality young arms led by Matt Wisler, Max Fried, Casey Kelly, Robbie Erlan and Joe Weiland. But patience is the watchword for Black and pitching coach Darren Balsley as they wait for them to either heal (in Kelly's case) or put it all together.
The challenge for managers and pitching coaches is keeping these valuable properties healthy and fit through a full season. That's why the Nationals' decision with Strasburg last season, capping his innings and holding firm, made sense in spite of the ripples of discontent it created.
Protecting investments is the underlying principle behind intensive study of pitch counts, which have become something sacred in most dugouts. To overextend a young pitcher is to jeopardize not only his future, but the long-term well-being of his club.
Critics howled as the Nationals, after leading the Majors in wins, kept Strasburg in wraps and were eliminated by the Cardinals last October with their implausible ninth-inning rally in Game 5 of the NL Division Series. A cautionary tale, coincidentally involving Nationals manager Davey Johnson in an earlier time and place, suggests Washington was wise in protecting Strasburg like the Hope Diamond.
In 1984, Dwight Gooden came to Johnson and the Mets with once-a-generation gifts. His heater was overpowering, and it was complemented by a 12-to-6 curveball that was virtually unhittable. Gooden, who came to be known as Dr. K, was almost too good for his own good.
After registering an NL-best 276 strikeouts in 218 innings in 1984, Gooden was arguably the greatest 20-year-old pitcher in history in 1985. He was 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA, striking out 268 men (leading the NL again) in 276 2/3 innings. Gooden came back with 250 innings in '86, but he would pay a price for all that early labor. He had some good seasons, but never again approached that overwhelming dominance of 1985.
Nobody gets close to that workload anymore. Lesson learned.
A similar tale involving closers serves to affirm the wisdom in prescribing limits for ninth-inning specialists bringing the heat. Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti came within 1 2/3 innings of an AL ERA title as a rookie with the 1981 Yankees, finishing at 2.05 compared to Sammy Stewart's winning 2.32. Righetti was moved from the rotation to the closer's role in 1984, averaging a whopping 101 1/3 innings of bullpen labor over the next four seasons.
The wear on Righetti's arm was severe. By age 29, he'd lost his premium stuff, spending the rest of his career getting by on guile and guts.
"We're much more aware of taking care of our guys, of monitoring their workloads, than in my day," Righetti said.
Chapman worked 71 2/3 innings in 2012, Kimbrel 62 2/3. Yes, lessons learned.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.