ANAHEIM, Calif. — Tim Hudson remembers when throwing fastballs registering in the upper 80s and low 90s was considered impressive. Now, in baseball’s Year of the Pitcher, that kind of speed is almost laughable.
Youngsters like Ubaldo Jimenez and Josh Johnson are routinely blasting the strike zone with severe heat, reaching near 100 mph.
“I do know the caliber of arms coming up these days are better than the ’90s and early 2000s,” said Hudson, a three-time All-Star with Atlanta who made the majors 11 years ago.
“You kind of scratch your head and you wonder what’s changed? Are the pitchers better or are the hitters worse? Now a 91, 92 fastball is bottom of the barrel. Guys just have better stuff nowadays.”
Indeed, pitchers dominated the first half of the season. Roy Halladay and Dallas Braden threw perfect games three weeks apart in May. Armando Galarraga came within a blown call of matching their feats. Edwin Jackson tossed a no-hitter. Rookie Stephen Strasburg struck out 14 in his major league debut. Heck, even a Cubs pitcher got into the act, with Ted Lilly taking a no-no into the ninth a month ago.
“Right now the influx of young pitching in baseball is incredible, and not just guys with stuff — guys that know how to pitch in tough division series at a young age,” said New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who will guide the American League team in Tuesday night’s All-Star Game at Angel Stadium.
Jimenez will start for the National League, which will try to end a 13-year drought in the Midsummer Classic. He is 15-1 with a 2.20 ERA in 18 starts for Colorado. NL manager Charlie Manuel figures to get Florida ace Johnson into the game, too. He is 9-3 with a 1.70 ERA — tops in the major leagues.
He’s also got Halladay and two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum in the bullpen.
“You’re seeing some of the better arms in the history of the game,” Hudson said.
The AL counters with Tampa Bay lefty David Price, who is 12-4 with a 2.42 ERA.
“There’s a lot of young guys like Josh Johnson, Lincecum, me,” Jimenez said. “We’re learning how to pitch. Every year we get better and better.”
Those young guns were a big part of why offense was down in the first half, while shutouts and strikeouts were at their high point, making for a lot of close contests.
“If you’re a true baseball fan, you embrace and you enjoy pitchers’ duels,” Hudson said. “The 1-0 games, the 2-1 games, the well-pitched games that are played without physical errors.”
So what’s led to the current arms race?
Lincecum said pitchers are making improvements like never before, including throwing four types of pitches.
“Guys are just becoming perfectionists with their art,” he said. “That plate is our canvas and we want to hit the spots that we want to.”
Hudson believes the game’s younger arms put more time into year-round preparation, whether it’s working out or fine-tuning their command.
“You got guys with great stuff. You’re talking about guys who are smart and guys who aren’t scared,” St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter said.
Halladay, traded from the AL’s Toronto Blue Jays to the NL’s Philadelphia Phillies in the offseason, believes the current trend is cyclical.
“Those things can easily turn around. It always seems like things end up being even at the end of the season,” he said. “To be able to see guys succeeding and pitching well, it’s fun as other pitchers to watch. It’s definitely more fun than seeing all the runs scored every night.”
Hudson can envision offense improving as the summer goes by.
“It may sway a little bit more toward the hitter because pitchers are going to wear down once you start getting innings under your belt,” he said.
Beth Harris/The Associated Press