In arms race, young pitchers win out

Fresh faces on the mound signal a changing of the guard.

Now pitching: youth. With the start of the baseball playoffs this week, the eight qualifiers offer vivid reminders of Major League Baseball's cherubic crop of aces.

Start with the Detroit Tigers, a club featuring 23-year-old Justin Verlander, a "Sports Illustrated" cover boy who won 17 games this season, and Joel Zumaya, a flame-throwing reliever who struck out 97 batters in 83 innings. For a bit of perspective, it's worth noting that Zumaya was born several weeks after Detroit claimed its last World Series title in 1984.

Detroit is hardly alone. Nearly all of the other playoff teams – the Twins, Yankees, A's, Cardinals, Padres, Dodgers, and Mets – has at least one important pitcher in his mid-20s or younger. Across the rest of baseball, contenders who fell short of the post-season are brimming with young talent. "To me, this is the best group of young pitching I've seen in a long, long time," says John Kruk, an ESPN analyst and former All-Star with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Examples abound, from the Yankees (26-year-old Chien-Ming Wang tied for the most victories in 2006 with 19) to the Twins, whose dazzling Francisco Liriano (12-3, 2.16 ERA) was the game's most dominant hurler before an injury cut his season short. He turns 23 this month. By comparison, the Twins' ace, 2004 Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana – who led the big leagues in wins, strikeouts, and ERA – is a relative graybeard at 27.

The cluster of young talent comes at a time when many observers had grown accustomed to outlining the reasons for pitching's demise. Smaller ballparks. Stronger hitters. Too many teams diluting the pitching pool, a problem stemming from the addition of four new franchises from 1993 to 1998. Too many pitchers unwilling to learn the craft – the list went on and on.

Baseball experts say the reason for the upswing in strikeouts and lower ERAs among young hurlers can be traced to one factor: economics.

As pitching talent has become more coveted, the salaries for established starters and closers have escalated. Mike Mussina of the Yankees is the highest-paid pitcher this season, with a $19 million salary. With plenty more pitchers commanding multimillion-dollar contracts, teams are motivated more than ever to develop younger, cheaper talent – and give those prospects a chance to shine.

Baseball's most fearsome young pitching corps didn't make it to the playoffs. In Philadelphia, 22-year-old Cole Hamels propelled the Phillies toward a playoff run. Also narrowly thwarted in its post-season hopes are the Los Angeles Angels, whose 24-year-old Jered Weaver went 11-2 with 105 strikeouts. The best relief pitcher during much of 2006 was Boston's Jonathan Papelbon, who missed the end of the season due to injury.

Experts routinely cite the fresh-faced Florida Marlins' staff as one that will prove dominant over the next several seasons, if not longer. It includes a trio of 22-year-old players (Scott Olsen, Anibal Sanchez, and Josh Johnson) as well as Ricky Nolasco, 23. Dontrelle Willis, who became a rookie sensation during the Marlins' 2003 championship run, is all of 24.

Sanchez didn't even join Florida's staff until June 25, but still managed to win 10 games in 13 decisions while posting an impressive 2.83 ERA. Along the way, he threw the first no-hitter in the big leagues since 2004, blanking Arizona on Sept. 6. Olsen, Johnson, and Nolasco also posted double-digit victory totals, as did Willis.

While the Marlins possess the most obvious embarrassment of riches, even baseball's dregs have hope in the rotation. Witness the Pittsburgh Pirates, consistent doormats whose long years of suffering may yet be relieved by starting pitching. The Pirates have several hot prospects, led by 20-something Ian Snell, who went 14-11 this season with 169 strikeouts.

"It's hard to find five starters that you feel good about," says Dave Littlefield, general manager of the Pirates. "Every team is looking for five, and most of them have three good ones – and maybe a fourth – but rarely do they have a fifth. So we're more open to giving opportunities to younger guys."

The pitching studs aren't all starters, either. In the current San Diego-St. Louis divisional series, each team boasts a young but vital reliever: Cla Meredith, a 23-year-old who set a new Padres record for scoreless innings earlier this year, and Adam Wainwright, who, at 25, was a successful set-up man this season before being thrust into the role of closer for the playoffs.

"I think we're in an unbelievable era in baseball right now with some of the great young talent," says Steve Phillips, a broadcaster at ESPN.

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