Why This Is No Ordinary Era of Dominating Young Arms

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Why This Is No Ordinary Era of Dominating Young Arms

"Youth! Youth! There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth!"

Oscar Wilde wrote that in "The Picture of Dorian Gray." It was either meant as a satirical lamentation of some sort, or as a prophetic appraisal of the pitching landscape in today's MLB.

It just might have been, for it seems that every time one happens to look up, a guy like Matt Harvey, Shelby Miller, Matt Moore or Patrick Corbin is doing something awesome. In the realm of pitching, youth is ruling.

Granted, we've seen pitching youth movements before...But this one is different. Perhaps not the best, but certainly extraordinary in its own way.

Per FanGraphs, there are 15 qualified starting pitchers age 26 or younger with ERAs under 3.00. Harvey, Miller, Moore and Corbin are in the mix, and they're joined by the following: Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, Travis Wood, Chris Sale, Zach McAllister, Alex Cobb, Jeff Locke, Mike Minor, Trevor Cahill, Yu Darvish and Madison Bumgarner.

Some of these guys appear to be out of place, but the list does read as a "who's who" of the great young pitchers doing work in 2013, and the sheer size of the group brings history to mind.

Per Baseball-Reference.com, there hasn't been a season in which more than 10 26-or-younger pitchers finished with ERAs under 3.00 since 1992. That class included Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling and John Smoltz, all five of whom could be in Cooperstown before long.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Bert Blyleven is the most recent inductee, of course.

Another year that stands out is 1971, in which 19 26-or-younger pitchers finished with sub-3.00 ERAs. That class included Bert Blyleven, Catfish Hunter, Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver and Don Sutton. All five of them are in Cooperstown.

How good are 2013's young studs compared to the young studs of 1971 and 1992?

Oh boy... With it only being six weeks into the 2013 season, we really shouldn't go there...

But what the heck. Let's do it anyway. 

The Game Score statistic, developed by Bill James to quantify how good a given start was, can help us out here. If we take a look at the average Game Score averages (try not to say that five times really fast) for our three key classes, we get the following:

It's early yet, and you can count on some of the eyebrow-raising youngsters to fall off the pace as the season goes along, but, well, there you go. Collectively, our primary 15 youngsters are stringing together some truly awesome starts.

There has to be a key, right? Today's top young pitchers have to be doing something that the top young pitchers from 1971 and 1992 weren't doing, right?

You bet, and it starts with an S and rhymes with "mikeouts."

Strikeouts are all the rage in today's MLB. A decade ago in 2003, the league strikeout percentage (K%) was 16.4, according to FanGraphs league data. It got up to 19.8 percent last year and is at an even 20 percent this year. Starters are doing their part with a K% of 19.0.

Bob Levey/Getty Images
Yu Darvish has a 34.7 K%, apparently because he always makes sure he chooses the right ball.

That number looks pedestrian next to what the league's top young guns are doing. Kershaw, Harvey, Miller and Darvish all boast a K% over 25.0. Corbin, Cobb, Minor, Strasburg, Moore, Bumgarner and Sale are between 21.0 and 25.0.

Collectively, the 15 young starters on our radar boast a K% of 22.99, practically four whole points above the league average for starters.

By comparison, the Class of 1971 had a 16.03 collective K%. The Class of 1992 had a 17.59 collective K%. Puny mortals compared to the young punch-out merchants of 2013.

As for why today's young pitchers are so good at racking up strikeouts, that's where it gets next to impossible to compare eras. We have mountains of data for pitchers who have come along in the last decade or so, but much of this data simply doesn't exist for pitchers of yesteryear.

However, we do have testimonials that we can put to the, um, test.

Earlier this year, Lyle Spencer of MLB.com spoke to San Diego Padres manager Bud Black, and he chalked up the abundance of great young pitching to things like larger body types, velocity and deep repertoires.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
The spindly Chris Sale goes 6'6.

The first two check out. Whereas only seven of the 19 pitchers from the Class of 1971 measured as tall as 6'3", 12 of the 15 guys from the Class of 2013 stand at least 6'3". And according to Baseball Info Solutions by way of FanGraphs, 10 of the 15 are throwing at least as hard as the league-average velocity for starters of 90.8 miles per hour.

But this is a "Bah, big deal!" situation. There were tall young pitchers before 2013, and goodness knows there were hard-throwing youngsters before 2013. 

Deep repertoires, on the other hand...that there's a point.

A deep repertoire is a must in the age of the strikeout, as ESPN's Jayson Stark noted last summer that starting pitchers are shying more and more away from their fastballs to keep hitters guessing. One look at the league pitch-type data over the last decade confirms this to be true, as the percentage of fastballs thrown by starters has fallen rather substantially.

For the most part, the 15 young pitchers on our radar fall in line with this trend. Using Baseball Info Solutions data, here's a look at their pitch types as compared to the league averages for starters:

Green means higher than the league average, and yellow basically means "Meh, close enough."

The only guys who stand out as being two-pitch pitchers are Shelby Miller, Zach McAllister and Patrick Corbin, and the label fits more on Miller and McAllister than it does on Corbin. Per BrooksBaseball.net, Corbin throws two different fastballs and he's not at all shy about busting out his changeup against right-handed batters.

So the big picture is that the top young starters on the 2013 landscape aren't one- or two-trick ponies. And it's not just the percentages that look sexy. Generally, these deep repertoires are serving our youngsters well.

Here's where we turn to Pitch Type Linear Weights, specifically the standardized variety. The following table shows us how many runs above average our pitchers are saving with each of their pitches on a "per 100 pitch" basis, once again as compared to the league averages for starters:

Just like before, there's a lot of green to be found here, and not just in the fastball department. Every pitcher has at least one non-fastball pitch that's working for him—though it should be noted that Zach McAllister's cutter isn't a primary weapon.

And yes, it's downright unfair that Matt Harvey, whose fastball is electric, has had all four of his pitches working for him. He's also a perfect example of how downright different today's young studs are when compared to young studs from yesteryear.

Though he's not a member of either the Class of 1971 or the Class of 1992, consider 23-year-old Roger Clemens in 1986. Though extremely talented, all he really had was a fastball and a curveball. The degree to which he relied on his heat really shows up when you go back and watch his first 20-strikeout performance:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

If you counted the strikeouts that came on fastballs, the number you should have is 17.

Now consider Harvey, who's only been 24 for a couple of months, and his near-perfecto against the Chicago White Sox:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com

Here, you see Harvey hitting all the notes, getting strikeouts on fastballs, sliders, curveballs and a couple of changeups. Whereas Clemens dominated the Seattle Mariners with heat and not much else, Harvey dominated the White Sox with everything but the kitchen sink (unless they left that out of the highlights).

It helps that Harvey knew the right situations for when to dig into his repertoire, and that he was able to throw those pitches where he wanted to. That speaks to another thing young pitchers have going for them: They can really pitch.

That was the view New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi had on young pitchers when asked at the 2010 All-Star Game.

“These aren’t just guys with stuff," said Girardi, via Hardball Talk. "These are guys who know how to pitch at a young age.”

Girardi was referring to the likes of David Price, Tim Lincecum, Jon Lester, Ubaldo Jimenez and Josh Johnson, who are all older now. But the sentiment applies to the new crop of youngsters, and it's another area where numbers can help us out.

"How to pitch" is a book-length subject, but at a base level, it boils down to: Get ahead in the count, pound the zone and get the hitter to chase when possible. From looking at the league averages, starting pitchers have gotten better at throwing first-pitch strikes in recent years, and this year, they've found a happy medium between pounding the zone and expanding it.

There's the line our young pitchers need to fall into. And if we take a look at the Baseball Info Solutions plate-discipline data for our 15 guys as compared to the league averages for starters, well, it looks like this:

As we saw previously, there is an awful lot of green here.

The majority of our 15 youngsters are throwing first-pitch strikes at an impressive rate, and most of the ones who are also happen to be pounding the zone at an impressive rate. It's no surprise that they're getting hitters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone, which helps explain their high swinging-strike rates.

The only guy who looks out of place is Jeff Locke, who, let's face it, is downright lucky to be a part of this discussion at all. He only made the cut because he's 25 and has a BABIP-aided 2.73 ERA. 

Locke isn't going to last long in the fraternity of young aces, and I'd bet good money on Zach McAllister, Travis Wood and Trevor Cahill not lasting, either.

But even if they don't, we're still dealing with the prospect of having a large wave of 26-or-younger pitchers finish the season with ERAs under 3.00, which would be as telling a sign as any that 2013 will have been a special year for young pitchers.

And indeed, there are guys who are off the radar now who could step in and join the fun, such as Mat Latos, Lance Lynn, Derek Holland, Hyun-Jin Ryu or Jose Fernandez. Our focus has been on the talented young pitchers leading the way in ERA, but they're by no means the only talented young pitchers out there.

There are plenty to go around, and no feat should be put past them. For if we've learned anything about today's young pitching studs in today's little exercise, it's that they've got the repertoires and the pitching know-how to make it in a landscape where such things are not optional.

This is a special time for pitching. It's only natural for there to be a special new breed of pitchers.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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