What age are we living in?
Jayson Stark [ARCHIVE]
June 15, 2012
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Elsewhere on this site, you can find my look at a fascinating question:

Is this the Age of the Pitcher -- or just the Age of No Offense?

I don't think I settled that debate. But it did inspire me to spend a lot of time kicking around another scintillating related question:

If this is really the Age of the Pitcher, shouldn't we be seeing an influx of great young starters who will become, for this generation, what Steve Carlton, Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver and Catfish Hunter were to the generation that came along in the late '60s and early '70s?

Well, maybe that's happening. Maybe that's exactly what Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Felix Hernandez, Cole Hamels and Zack Greinke have already become.

But maybe they're just a reflection of an era in which it's become harder to hit than it's been at any time in the past 40 years. So I decided to see if there's a way to measure that.

Plan A -- The War Room

I started by clicking on baseball-reference.com's indispensible Play Index. Then I broke down how many starters, age 24 and younger, have had seasons worth at least 4.0 Wins Above Replacement over the past five years. Once I had that list, I compared it to the previous five years. See what you think:


Age 21: 1 (Kershaw)

Age 22: 2 (Kershaw, Cain)

Age 23: 7 (Kershaw, Cain, Hernandez, John Danks, Chad Billingsley, Jair Jurrjens, Scott Kazmir)

Age 24: 9 (Cain, Lincecum, Hernandez, Danks, Greinke, Hamels, Jon Lester, David Price, Edison Volquez)


Age 21: None

Age 22: 5 (Kazmir, Mark Prior, Francisco Liriano, Carlos Zambrano, Mark Prior)

Age 23: 6 (Zambrano, Jake Peavy, Mark Buehrle, Jered Weaver, Dontrelle Willis, Joel Pineiro)

Age 24: 8 (Peavy, Zambrano, Johan Santana, Barry Zito, Odalis Perez, Brandon Webb, Roy Oswalt, Mark Mulder)

So what did we learn here? That there were 19 "dominating seasons" by starters in that age group from 2007-11 -- but 19 in the previous five-year span, too. So that's a wash.

The only significant difference: This period gave us more pitchers who were able to repeat their dominance. Thirteen pitchers combined for those 19 dominating seasons from 2007-11. The 19 seasons like that over the previous five years were spread out among 16 different pitchers, with Kazmir spanning the two periods.

But did we prove anything conclusive? I'm afraid not. So it was time for …

Plan B -- Adjust your ERA

How about we look at this another way? How about we use Adjusted ERA-Plus as the standard, since that's a stat that specifically takes both League ERAs and Ballpark Factors into account?

So we re-ran the numbers. Same years. Same age group. But the cutoff was a season with an Adjusted ERA-Plus of 140 or better, meaning the pitchers who rose above the pack were qualifying starters who were 20 percent better than the average starter in their league. Here's how that turned out:


Age 21: 1 (Kershaw)

Age 22: none

Age 23: 4 (Kershaw, Hernandez, Jurrjens, Jaime Garcia)

Age 24: 6 (Cain, Lincecum, Hernandez, Hamels, Lester, Price)


Age 21: None

Age 22: 2 (Prior, Oliver Perez) Age 23: 3 (Peavy, Zambrano, Willis)

Age 24: 3 (Oswalt, Webb, Zito)

Edge: 2007-11, with 11 dominating seasons to the previous generation's eight. And yes, you read that right. One of those eight really was Oliver Perez.

But again, let's ask: Did this really prove anything significant? And again, that answer seems like a no.

We won't really know, possibly for another decade, how unique this group of young aces really is -- until we see what kind of careers Kershaw, King Felix, Cain, Lincecum and the rest go on to have.

It's too soon to say for sure. But I just have a feeling they're all going to wind up outpitching Ollie Perez. Only a hunch. Call me crazy.

But there are other ways to look at this, too. So how about …

Plan C -- Aces versus aces

A scout friend of mine says he thinks there are many more true No. 1 starters now than there were 10 years ago. I'm the skeptic. I don't agree. So we'll put this to a test. Here's his list (assuming everybody is healthy):

Kershaw, King Felix, CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay, Stephen Strasburg, Verlander, Chris Carpenter (when he returns), Cliff Lee, Jered Weaver and Cain -- with cases to be made for Gio Gonzalez, Hamels, Greinke, David Price, James Shields and (how can you leave him off right now?) R.A. Dickey.

His not-quite group would include Brandon Morrow, Chris Sale and Yu Darvish. And until very, very recently, it would have been crazy to leave Lincecum, Lester, Josh Johnson, Josh Beckett or Santana off that list. But they're not on it anymore, even though my scout friend says: "I don't think you can get real easy admission to this club -- and I don't think you can get kicked out real easily, either."

I invite all of you reading this to include or exclude anyone you want. There are no right answers. But remember, no matter which names we leave off or on, the goal is to try to figure out if this is a special era, filled with a special array of pitchers.

So stack up his list of aces, or yours, against this list of aces who were performing their artistry a decade ago. Look it over and see if you think it's still possible to argue that today's pitchers are better than this group:

Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Roger Clemens, a young Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Hudson/Mulder/Zito, Mike Mussina and an emerging Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Johan Santana.

I'm still arguing no. I'll run that turn-of-the-21st-century staff out there against any of your names and take my chances. You might feel differently. But if this is truly the Age of Pitching, should there even be a debate? Sorry. Not in this courtroom.

Plan D -- The age we live in

Finally, I'll end this opus with an anecdote. It comes from Padres general manager Josh Byrnes, formerly the GM in Arizona. It revolves around Ian Kennedy, a fellow who might have sneaked onto the ace list at the end of last season -- but not necessarily because he wins with pure, dominating, untouchable stuff.

What Kennedy really is, Byrnes argues, is the ultimate product of pitching in this age -- an age when massive amounts of information are available to pitchers everywhere and some use it better than others.

"When we traded for Ian Kennedy in Arizona," Byrnes says, "he was a true four-pitch guy who could do a lot of different things to a hitter. I don't know if he has what you'd call 'dominating' stuff, but it's better than people think.

"After we made the trade, I talked to [catcher]...
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