Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Arms Race

It's only mid-May, but this Bay Area baseball season is shaping up to be something special for folks who enjoy good pitching.

As I write, the A's staff ERA is 2.75, best in the American League. 23-year-old righthander Trevor Cahill is already 6-0 with a gaudy 1.72 ERA. Somebody with a lot of time on his hands at the Elias Sports Bureau figured Cahill's start is the best by an A's pitcher since 1925 (only he and Sam Gray of the '25 A's can claim to have started a year 6-0 with an ERA under 2.00).

Across the Bay, Tim Lincecum may be pitching better than he ever has. Although his record is just 3-3, The Freak has posted a 2.11 ERA (his career best for a season is 2.48), he's striking out 10.7 batters per 9 innings (his career best for a season is 10.5), and his WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) is the lowest of his career at 1.03. He's on pace to strike out more than 270 hitters after leading the league in that category the last 3 years.

But Cahill and Lincecum are merely the anchors of two very good pitching staffs. The A's starters have been very good. The Giants' starters have been pretty good, but the bullpen has been ridiculously good. Each team has lost a starter to injury (Dallas Braden in Oakland, Barry Zito in San Francisco) but has gotten more-than-capable help from the fill-in starter (Tyson Ross for the A's and Ryan Vogelsong for the Giants).

Each team has fielded some terrific pitchers in the 44 years they've shared the Bay Area baseball market. The A's might have the single-season edge with their staffs in 1971 and 1974. In '71, Vida Blue put up ridiculous numbers in winning the Cy Young Award (24-8, 1.82, 301 K's, 8 shutouts) but teammate Catfish Hunter also threw 4 shutouts and went 21-11 with a 2.96 ERA.

Three years later, Hunter was The Man on an A's staff that led the league with a 2.95 team ERA. Catfish won the Cy Young with 6 shutouts, a 25-12 record, and a 2.49 ERA. Blue and Ken Holtzman (19-17) were strong backup acts.

The Giants have had their share of great pitching seasons, too, although you have to hand it to the A's for the real headline-grabbing years. One Giants staff that flies below the radar was the 1987 edition. The Giants led the league in ERA that year, despite the fact that their top winner was 13-10 Mike LaCoss.

The '89 Giants featured very effective starters Rick Reuschel and Scott Garrelts and a righty-lefty closer combo of Steve Bedrosian and Craig Lefferts--while across the Bay, the world champion A's led the league in ERA and had 4 starters with 17 or more wins (Dave Stewart, Mike Moore, Storm Davis and Bob Welch). That '89 season, of course, saw the A's and Giants in the World Series.

Last year, each team led its league in ERA and each saw the emergence of young stars like Dallas Braden, Madison Bumgarner, Gio Gonzalez, Cahill and Brett Anderson. The Giants' starters get the headlines, but you could argue that it was their bullpen that made the difference in a World Series-winning season.

It's too much to hope, of course, that we'll replay 1989 and see a Bay Bridge World Series. But we might just be watching the best collective pitching staff the Bay Area has ever seen. Chicks may dig the long ball (as the advertisement went), but real fans find the beauty in a 1-2-3 inning.

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