Tuesday July 13th, 2010

ANAHEIM -- Here's what to look for in the Midsummer Classic tonight:

It's the official theme of the first half, what with runs, home runs and batting average trends rolled back to 1992 levels. Veteran hitters such as Derek Jeter and Torii Hunter both said yesterday the quality and depth of pitching is noticeably better than it was eight to 10 years ago. "It's totally different," Hunter said. "These young guys have velocity and changeups they can throw any time. A lot more guys will throw their changeup 2-and-0. It's different."

Mix in a game that will be played through the early innings in twilight, and you have the makings of an All-Star Game that befits this season -- and perhaps an era. This generation of pitchers is not only the first to surface in the big leagues since the institution of rigorous testing and penalties for performance-enhancing drugs, it also is the first during a time in which general managers across the board have placed the development of young, controllable players -- especially pitchers -- as the most valuable mission in the game.

The draft-develop-and-hold approach to pitching is what drives every organization. The cataloging and availability of information have made the development of pitchers more science than art, and baseball is benefiting.

At the 2003 All-Star Game, you would have found Dontrelle Willis, 21, Mark Prior, 22, Mark Mulder, 25, and Kerry Wood, 26, at the forefront of that generation of young starting pitchers. Seven years later, only one, Wood, is still in the big leagues -- and he hasn't been a full-time starter since 2004. All of them broke down physically.

You would think, given the informational evolution, this generation is in better hands. One way to measure this evolution is to look what happens in the second half to David Price of the Rays (who will start tonight for the AL), Phil Hughes of the Yankees, Mike Leake of the Reds, Mat Latos of the Padres, Stephen Strasburg of the Nationals and Brian Matusz of the Orioles. All of them are important starting pitchers for their teams, many of which are in pennant races. And yet all of those pitchers, even with no signs of physical distress, will have their innings either capped or limited in the second half as a way of preserving their health.

Just watch the game tonight -- and all of its young, homegrown pitchers -- to get a sense of where the game is headed. And keep these notes in mind:

• Of the 19 starting pitchers named as All-Stars, 12 are in their 20s and pitching for the organization that originally signed them. Only two starting pitchers made this All-Star team after switching teams via true free agency, and both of them were bought by the Yankees: Andy Pettitte (who had originally been drafted and developed by the Yankees before leaving for a three-year stint in Houston) and CC Sabathia.

• The starting pitchers tonight, Price and Ubaldo Jimenez of Colorado, are first-time All-Stars. Twenty-five of the 34 pitchers were selected as All-Stars for the first or second time.

• Forty-three pitchers in their 20s who qualify for the ERA title reached the break with an ERA below 4.00, which if it held up over the full season would be the most such young guns since 1978. Ten years ago, in the height of The Steroid Era, there were only 11 pitchers in their 20s who could post an ERA under 4.00.

Seventh? When was the last time you hit as low as seventh, Mauer? "I don't know. It's been a long time," he said. "Had to be my first month when I got called up." True enough. Mauer hit mostly seventh and eighth when called up in 2004.

The problem for the Twins, however, is that Mauer has hit too much like a seventh-place hitter all year. The power growth he showed last year (career-high 28 home runs and a league-best .587 slugging percentage) has disappeared, especially at home. Minnesota's move from the Metrodome to Target Field has not gone well for Mauer: no homers and a .388 slugging percentage. His overall slugging percentage is .424 -- just a bit better than the average seventh-place hitter in the AL (.413).

"I've hit a few balls, yes, that I thought were out," he said about Target Field. "It seems it's playing as a pretty big ballpark right now."

One of the problems with the park is the hitting background. Hitters, catchers and umpires have complained that glare and bright objects during day games and in the early innings of night games make it difficult to track pitches. A similar problem occurred when Safeco Field in Seattle opened. The Mariners addressed the issue with a matte-finish paint and netting.

"That's the example we've heard," Mauer said. "It's an ongoing issue."

Arthur Rhodes, Evan Meek, Hong-Chih Kuo and Matt Thornton are All-Stars. They don't start games, rarely finish them and none have thrown even 50 innings this year. And yet there will be points in the game when managers Charlie Manuel and Joe Girardi will turn to such specialists because they want to "match up" a reliever on a hitter to gain the platoon advantage.

In other words, managers are making selections to facilitate how they run the game. I'd rather see guys who are important enough to start games and close games be selected over specialists (i.e. Mat Latos, Johan Santana, Clayton Kershaw, Roy Oswalt, Carlos Marmol, Jeff Niemann).

The Rangers' outfielder is the first AL cleanup hitter not from the Yankees or Red Sox in seven years. (The Yankees and Red Sox had accounted for nine of the 12 starters in the three and four slots since 2004.) Hamilton and Detroit first baseman Miguel Cabrera form a potent and rather interesting 3-4 combination -- both have undergone substance abuse rehabilitation and both are not only MVP candidates, but also, in the way people like comeback stories, role models. That was obvious yesterday when No. 1 overall draft pick Bryce Harper showed up around the batting cage.

Harper is in town for the announcement today of the Golden Spikes Award, the Heisman of college baseball. Harper is one of five finalists for the award. Harper met many All-Stars, including Mauer ("He's huge. Much bigger in person.") and Jeter ("Great guy.") But when asked which All-Star he most was thrilled about meeting, he quickly replied, "Josh Hamilton."

Eleven years ago, Hamilton was the Bryce Harper of the draft: a lefthanded-hitting teenage outfielder with prodigious power selected first overall. (Hamilton was 18 when drafted by Tampa Bay; Harper, selected by the Nationals first overall, is 17). Hamilton, though, fell in a dark abyss of drug abuse and didn't play his first full big league season until he was 27.

Asked what advice Hamilton gave him, Harper replied: "To stay humble and to trust in the Lord."

Harper will watch the game tonight from the luxury box of his adviser, Scott Boras. Negotiations with the Nationals are crawling toward the August 16 deadline. Meanwhile, Harper is working out in California in what is his first summer without competitive baseball since he was a toddler. "Actually, I'm enjoying it," he said. "It's been good to take a little break."

Actually, if you look for them you won't find many. There were nine free agents last winter who signed for more than $15 million in guaranteed money. Only one of them is now an All-Star: Matt Holliday, who signed the biggest deal ($120 million).

The second through ninth most expensive free agents are home tonight: John Lackey, Jason Bay, Chone Figgins, Arolidis Chapman, Randy Wolf, Placido Polanco, Joel Pineiro and Mike Cameron.

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