Pitching's youth movement more trend than fluke

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — With four no-hitters, including two perfect games (and that’s not even counting Armando Galarraga’s perfecto robbery), this has definitely been the year of the pitcher.

Not only have we seen dominant performances on the mound, we’ve witnessed an incredible rise of talented young arms. These guys can not only bring the heat, but bring to the table a level of polish and maturity not often seen in pitchers with so little big league experience.

Case in point: the starters for Tuesday’s All-Star game. NL manager Charlie Manuel elected to go with Colorado Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez (15-1, 2.20 ERA), a 26-year-old right-hander who commands high-90s heat with unreal movement.

On the AL side, Joe Girardi went with Tampa Bay Rays left-hander David Price, who at 24 leads the American League in wins (12) and ERA (2.42), and has 100 strikeouts in 115.1 innings.

“It seems it’s the time of the pitchers now,” Girardi said, comparing the wave of young pitching to the golden era of shortstops 15 years ago. “These aren’t just guys with stuff. These are guys who know how to pitch at a young age.”

In addition to the starters, both rosters are filled with 26-and-under hurlers like Trevor Cahill, Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester, Josh Johnson, Tim Lincecum and Yovani Gallardo. But the remarkable thing about this group is not just that there are so many power arms, but that they have become polished so quickly.

“This is a good time for pitchers,” said Boston’s Lester, who is already 53-19 at age 26 and has a World Series-clinching victory on his resume from the 2007 World Series. “Development is getting better. They’re spending more time and money on those guys and giving them a chance to pitch at a younger age. Back in the day they probably wouldn’t have called all these guys up. They would have gone with a lot more veterans and kept paying those guys. And now teams are going with the younger guys with the salaries and all that. It’s just good to see the young guys come in and do well.”

Detroit Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander, who is already a three-time All-Star at age 27, believes that a trend started with his draft class in 2004, a group that also includes fellow All-Stars Jered Weaver and Phil Hughes, as well as Tampa Bay Rays mainstay Jeff Niemann.

“I was definitely at the front of the wave,” he said. “It’s like fantasy football where one guy picks a kicker and then everybody else starts picking kickers. Guys are going with young strong, talented pitching with good arms, and that’s what teams have started developing.”

Verlander said that improved coaching, from the youth level on up through college and into the minor leagues, has helped pitchers be ready for the majors more quickly.

“To be honest with you, there’s money in it,” he said. “All these youth organizations are making money by putting together some good coaches and having parents send their kids out. I think it’s a win-win.”

But is the trend toward young pitching really here to stay, or is it simply a blip on the screen, part of the cyclical nature of the game? It depends on who you ask.

“Overall I think there is maybe a trend you can look at, but it’s too early to make any assumptions,” said Angels manager Mike Scioscia. “But no doubt there are some real young power arms coming up in the American League that are prepared for a high level.”

Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, though, who has witnessed the maturation of teammate Jimenez from Class-A ball on up, thinks there is a movement afoot.

“(Coaches) know more about pitching then they did back in the day, and that’s helped these guys,” Tulowitzki said. “They can come in and handle pressure situations at the big league level and be real polished at a real young age.

“I would say we’re going to see some really special pitchers every single year coming up to the major league level and making an impact. I’ll take my chances and say it’s going to happen every year.”

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Tommy La Stella talks about his refusal to report to the minors in 2016

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In late July of 2016, Cubs infielder Tommy La Stella was demoted to Triple-A. It wasn’t personal. It was a roster crunch situation and La Stella had options left so, despite the fact that he had been an effective player to that point of the season, it made sense to send him down.

La Stella didn’t take the demotion well. In fact he refused to report to Iowa and went home to New Jersey instead. It was not until August 17 that he finally reported and then only after prolonged discussions with the Cubs and the assurance that he’d be back in the majors once rosters opened up. Which he was, after spending just over a week down on the farm.

Such a move by a player would, normally speaking, make him persona non-grata. His teammates would shun him and the organization would, eventually, cut bait, with the press characterizing him as a me-first player as he walked out the door. That did not happen with La Stella, however, who remains with the Cubs two years later and, by all accounts, is a popular and important guy in the Cubs’ clubhouse, even if he’s not one of the team’s big stars.

Today Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic has an in-depth story about La Stella, what went down in 2016 and how he and the Cubs have proceeded since then. The story is subscription only, but the short version is that there was a lot of understanding and empathy on the part of the Cubs organization and their players about what was going on in La Stella’s head at the time and how everyone allowed everyone else the space to work through it.

I’m happy to read this story, because all too often we only hear about such incidents as they occur, with little followup. To the extent the story is told, most of the time its completely one-sided, with the player who acts out being treated like a bad seed with little if any explanation of his side of things. And, yes, there are always two sides to the story. Sometimes even more.

Kudos to Rosenthal for telling this story. Here’s hoping the next time a player is involved in a controversy that, in the moment, makes him appear to be a bad seed or have a bad attitude, we hear more about it then too.