Fight for majors' higher ground always decided by pitched battle

April 01, 2001|By JOHN EISENBERG

BASEBALL IS ALWAYS changing, and it has changed dramatically in the past two decades, becoming a game of big guys, big bats and little ballparks. But there's one constant that will never change: If you can't pitch, you're almost certainly doomed.

As much as the game is almost unrecognizable at times now with pinball scores and cheap home runs, it still comes down to pitching, the element that faithfully weeds out contenders from pretenders, especially in October. You can crunch today's astonishing offensive numbers and quantify and complicate matters all you want, but in the end, the teams with quality pitching still tend to win.

The Orioles, who will open their 2001 season against the Red Sox tomorrow at Camden Yards, are a perfect metaphor for what has happened to baseball and, more to the point, the importance of pitching.

They were a model of excellence during the 18 seasons from 1966 to 1983, winning six American League pennants, three World Series titles and more regular-season games than any other team. Their success was attributable to a variety of factors, including the managing of Earl Weaver, the defense of Brooks Robinson and others, and the hitting of many All-Stars. But at the heart of their success was a pitching staff that produced six Cy Young Awards, 22 20-win seasons and the AL's lowest team ERA seven times in those 18 seasons.

Since the end of that era, in the ensuing 18-year span that will conclude this year, the Orioles have experienced far less success. One division title. No AL pennants. You know the gory details. And it's no coincidence that the club's pitching has been far more pedestrian in that time, producing no Cy Young Awards, one 20-win season (Mike Boddicker in 1984) and a team ERA ranking more often among the league's worst than best.

When the Orioles were pitching as well as anyone, they were winners.

Once they stopped pitching so well, they became just another club.

That's worth remembering as they embark on a new season with an unstated goal of finishing over .500 for the first time since 1997 -- a goal few expect them to reach with former ace Mike Mussina now pitching for the Yankees.

The Orioles had the highest team ERA in franchise history (5.37) last season, and that was with Mussina ranking among the AL leaders in innings, strikeouts and complete games. It's hard to envision things getting better with veteran Pat Hentgen (4.72 ERA in 2000) replacing Mussina and the rest of the rotation basically unchanged.

Yes, there is hope in the potential of Sidney Ponson and Jason Johnson, who have winning stuff, and a batch of interesting, young arms is slowly developing in the minors. It might help if the major-league pitching coach lasted for more than one season for a change, as it appears Mark Wiley will.

Either way, until the pitching improves, there's little use in bothering to assess the other parts of the Orioles' equation.

Only when their pitching stabilizes can they begin to think about escaping the losing cycle that has lumped their past three seasons into a depressing glop of failure.

It's not as if some profound transformation needs to occur -- the overall AL ERA was 4.92 last year, as opposed to 4.22 in 1979, the last time the Orioles led the league. There's your evolution of the game in a nutshell right there. You don't have to pitch nearly as well to pitch decently now.

But pitching as well as the rest of the league is the least a quality team should do, and the Orioles have done it only twice in the past five years, otherwise finishing with a higher ERA than the overall league mark. Last year, they were almost a half-run higher than the rest of the league.

Knowing that, it's easy to understand the club's decision to change the dimensions of Camden Yards for this season, pushing home plate closer to the backstop and lengthening the average home run pop by some 7 feet. Their pitchers needed help, quite simply.

Camden Yards is a wonderful place, but it has been a haven for home run hitters since it opened in 1992, a place where a routine fly can leave the park and cost a pitcher a game. The park has boosted the club's revenues and helped its stature within the industry, but anyone who thinks it has been an on-field positive is wrong. The Orioles' pitching hasn't been that good to begin with since 1992, and the park has emphasized the weakness.

The effect of the change in dimensions will be interesting to monitor, but don't expect even minor miracles until the pitchers start doing a better job. It's what has to happen with any club that wants to win, even in this hitter-happy era. The Red Sox scored fewer runs than all but two AL clubs in 2000, but they contended for a playoff berth until the final days because they had the best pitching.

Without it, you don't have a chance.

With it, you're almost certainly going to win.

That's never going to change, no matter how much the rest of the game does.

Just look at the Orioles.

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