With Atlanta ahead by five runs entering the bottom of the fifth
in a ball game last September at Fulton County Stadium, Braves
pitching coach Leo Mazzone strode across the dugout, patted
pitcher Tom Glavine on the back and said, "That's enough. Go on
in," and motioned toward the clubhouse. Glavine, who gives up
the ball about as easily as a Doberman does its bite on a bloody
slab of beef, threw Mazzone a look of disgust.
This is an article from the March 12, 1996 issue
"What's the matter?" Glavine snarled. "Don't want me to catch
Maddux in innings pitched?"
Such is the camaraderie among the Braves' pitchers that Mazzone
instantly knew Glavine was joking. That explains the pitching
coach's easy rejoinder: "I don't care about that, but I do want
you to catch him in wins."
Besides being baseball's most talented and coveted starting
rotation, Atlanta's Four Aces--Glavine, 29; Greg Maddux, 29; John
Smoltz, 28; and Steve Avery, 25--are tighter than Charo's
spandex. Hardly a day goes by that they don't gladly compete
with one another in something, be it golf, clubhouse putting,
Rotisserie golf or, of course, quality starts.
A two-hitter by Maddux to open the World Series? Check. Eight
one-hit innings by Glavine to close it out. Checkmate.
These guys can't get from the airport to the hotel without
engaging each other in some kind of gamesmanship. That includes,
Maddux says, the always popular "guess the color of the next
Volkswagen we're going to see" game. And after somehow enduring
November and December apart, the foursome rendezvoused in Palm
Springs in January to play their usual competitive golf.
"Does it affect what we do on the field?" Maddux asks. "Let me
ask you this: Have you ever had a job where you enjoyed working
with everybody and one where you didn't? Which one do you think
you were better at? It's great when you come to the park and you
enjoy being around the guys. I think it helps. I know this: It
doesn't hurt--like it can if you don't like everybody. There's a
difference between competing egos and competing in a fun way."
And there's a big difference between the Braves' starting
rotation and that of every other staff in baseball. Pitching
talent in the major leagues is in precious short supply; because
of injuries, inconsistency and incompetence, rotations these
days change quicker than the nocturnal winds at Candlestick.
Says Rockies manager Don Baylor, who oversees one of the most
unstable groups, "I don't know the last time I sent the same
five guys out there twice in a row. I don't know if I've ever
Major league clubs tried 271 starting pitchers last season--an
average of nearly 10 per team. Both leagues set records (in a
strike-shortened season, at that) for most pitchers used overall
(starters and relievers combined): 290 in the National League
and 295 in the American League. The Marlins all but pulled
volunteers from the bleachers, auditioning 27 pitchers last
"For a starting rotation nowadays," says Texas general manager
Doug Melvin, "you pretty much just have to go with the five best
arms you can find."
Thank goodness for the Braves, the Cleaver family of starting
pitchers. As if it weren't enough that their rotation is the
perfect balance of left- and righthanders and hard throwers and
finesse throwers, it is also sprinkled with that elusive magic
called chemistry. Heck, this is even the kind of rotation that
Gene Mauch and Jeanne Dixon would love: All but Smoltz are
Aries, with Maddux and Avery actually born on the same date four
years apart. And the Braves' quartet doesn't have to deal with
the generation gap that some staffs do.
"We're all in the same boat," Maddux says. "I remember when I
first came up to the big leagues with the Cubs, Chris Speier had
a party at his house. His son was 15 years old. I was 20. And
his kid outweighed me. It was hard to fit in."
In short, Atlanta is the gold-plated template of starting
pitching, the ideal rotation--so ideal, in fact, that most every
organization doesn't even bother dreaming about such a thing.
"Sure, you'd like a couple of hard throwers followed by softer
throwers," says Phillies general manager Lee Thomas, "and
lefthanders and righthanders. But the way pitching is, it's
gotten to the point where it's hard to do that. Most teams
aren't sure about their staff beyond two or three starters. The
fourth and fifth spots are almost always question marks.
"Everybody talks about Atlanta and their throwing program and so
forth," Thomas continues. "Listen, we pretty much do the same
thing. Don't think they've got some magic secret. What Atlanta's
got is four or five guys who dedicate themselves. I'm not saying
our guys or other guys don't. But they've got a friendly rivalry
over there between guys who work hard, take good care of
themselves and are real good athletes."
Over the past five years, only 13 pitchers have started a game
for Atlanta, and only nine of them have been used as starters
more than twice. The Phillies have employed 34 starters in that
same span, including 28 who have made more than two starts.
Philadelphia has had particularly rotten luck with injuries.
"Well," Thomas says, "we do like big power pitchers." Philly has
had problems with pitchers who, shall we say, appear to favor
cheese steaks, such as Tommy Greene, Ben Rivera, Bobby Munoz,
David West and Fernando Valenzuela. So who do the Phillies bring
back for '96? The quintessential heavyweight of unreliability,
Sid Fernandez, who has averaged 19 big league starts in the five
seasons since he turned 28.
Expansion is the reason most often cited by baseball executives
to explain why they must now be less selective when it comes to
building a starting rotation. After all, in 1960, the last year
before expansion, only 152 pitchers started at least one game.
Last season, clubs needed 119 more starters than that. The fact
is, though, that on a per-team basis, the number used is about
Nonetheless, as Dodgers minor league director Charlie Blaney
says, "It's getting more and more difficult to find prospects
with an average major league fastball--85 to 89 on the gun."
This imbalance between supply and demand explains why several
clubs went gaga this winter when two recently defected Cuban
pitchers became available, as if dropped from the sky. Livan
Hernandez, 20, and Osvaldo Fernandez (who is listed at 27 but
could be as old as 35) spoke no English--with the possible
exception of the words free agent. They enjoyed a whirlwind
junket from interested clubs, an itinerary that included private
jet service, four-star dinners, a tour of the CNN studios and
tickets to an NBA game. Not even Letterman's immigrant friends,
Sirajoul and Mujibur, have ever had it this good. Hernandez
eventually signed with the Marlins for $4.5 million. His
compatriot settled for $3.2 million from the Giants. Is this a
great country or what?
Florida general manager Dave Dombrowski says Hernandez will get
an opportunity to make the rotation in spring training. If he
does, he'll join three other former free agents--Kevin Brown, Al
Leiter and John Burkett--on a typical patchwork starting staff.
"We felt we had not reached a point in player development where
we could compete this year just with our pitching from within,"
Dombrowski says. "This is probably the most difficult chore in
today's game: bringing up young pitchers."
Says another G.M., "Leiter gets $8.6 million, and he's never
started 30 games in a season. Ben McDonald wins three games
[last season] and gets $6 million [from Milwaukee]. It's crazy.
And with 30 teams [in 1998], it's only going to get worse."
Outside of Atlanta, the rest of baseball must go to
extraordinary lengths (and sums) to turn up pitching, chemistry
be damned. Consider four case studies:
--The Fledgling Foursome. The Mets intend to begin the season
with a rotation that includes four starters no older than 26,
three of whom were selected in the same draft (1991): Bobby
Jones, Jason Isringhausen and Bill Pulsipher. The fourth, Paul
Wilson, was the first pick overall from 1994 and is considered
the most talented of them all.
"Whenever it came our turn to pick," says Gerry Hunsicker, who
ran the Mets' 1991 draft and is now Houston's G.M., "if two guys
were rated fairly closely and one was a pitcher and one was a
position player, we'd always take the pitcher. That's where you
build a team."
The Mets are the rare team that has built its rotation with
homegrown pitchers. Even Atlanta, for all its accolades, traded
for Smoltz out of Class A ball and signed Maddux as a free
agent. (Jason Schmidt, a eighth-round Atlanta pick from 1991,
will audition this spring for the No. 5 spot in the Braves'
rotation, the very definition of a fifth wheel.)
Such an approach is, of course, not without precedent. Oakland
opened the 1980 season with four homegrown starters no older
than 25 who were born within 16 months of one another: Mike
Norris, Matt Keough, Steve McCatty and Brian Kingman. The
rotation also included Rick Langford, then 28, who had been
obtained three years earlier from Pittsburgh. The A's won 83
games and finished in second place. But manager Billy Martin
allowed the five young pitchers to throw a whopping 94 complete
games. Four years and numerous injuries later, only McCatty and
Langford were left with the club. Nothing wrecks a rotation
quicker than overuse.
Mets general manager Joe McIlvaine promises to be kinder and
gentler to a rotation that, he says, "absolutely" has the
makings of another Braves staff. The only danger sign here is
the lack of a veteran at the front of the rotation to take some
heat off the youngsters, the way veteran lefty Charlie Leibrandt
did at the dawn of Atlanta's wonder years.
That's why the Mets made a big last-minute pitch for David Cone
on the free-agent market this winter. "He would have been that
type of leader," McIlvaine says. "We could still possibly go in
that direction during the season after we see how [our young
pitchers] do. But I'm more than willing to go with what we've
--The United Nations Rotation. The Dodgers have had horrible luck
drafting pitchers. They did, however, boast baseball's
second-best starting staff last season--their 3.45 ERA trailed
only Atlanta's 3.25--with almost as many international arrivals
as LAX. Hideo Nomo (Japan), Ramon Martinez (Dominican Republic),
Ismael Valdes (Mexico) and Tom Candiotti (that foreign place
called California) could be joined this year by Chan Ho Park
(South Korea). All of them were acquired as free agents.
"It gets confusing sometimes," says pitching coach Dave Wallace.
"One time I went out to the mound to talk to a Dominican,
Martinez, and started speaking Korean."
All five do, however, have one thing in common: They're
righthanded. The Dodgers haven't developed a worthwhile
lefthanded starter since Valenzuela. They haven't sent a lefty
to the mound to start a game since Bob Ojeda on Sept. 24, 1992,
a string of 429 games. Is it wrong to be all right? Well, the
Dodgers did win a division title last year, and the 1984 Tigers
won a world championship without even one game started by a
lefthander. Then again, last season major league teams posted a
winning record when they started a lefthander (.518) and a
losing record when they started a righthander (.493).
"Lefthanders get away with below-average stuff more times than a
righthander," Hunsicker says. "Every once in a while you'll see
on a scouting report, 'A righthander with lefthander's stuff.' I
like to get all the lefthanded pitching I can get."
--Johnson and Pray for Rain. True No. 1 starters are like quality
centers in the NBA, frontline quarterbacks in the NFL and
legitimate presidential candidates: There are never enough to go
around. The Mariners have one of the few genuine aces in
baseball, Randy Johnson. Problem is, they have little else.
Seattle tried a dozen starters last season. The team was 27-3
when Johnson pitched and 52-63 with the other 11. So what else
is new? In his six full seasons with the Mariners, Johnson has
teamed with 40 other starting pitchers. "It seems like every
year we have to start all over again trying to put a rotation
together," manager Lou Piniella says.
The Mariners started last season with Dave Fleming, Bob Wells
and Tim Davis in their rotation and ended with Tim Belcher, Andy
Benes and Bob Wolcott. In their divisional series against New
York they did not send a single homegrown pitcher to the mound.
This year they're holding more tryouts, having traded for
Sterling Hitchcock, Paul Menhart and Edwin Hurtado.
Even with a weak supporting cast, Johnson did carry Seattle to
within two victories of the World Series. Fact is, his
contribution was reminiscent of Sandy Koufax's in 1966 for the
pennant-winning Dodgers. Remarkably, Los Angeles used only five
starting pitchers that entire season, a four-man rotation of
Koufax, Don Drysdale, Claude Osteen and Don Sutton, with Joe
Moeller picking up eight spot starts. Koufax was 27-9. The four
others were 43-44. But generally speaking, baseball is a lot
like poker: You're not going to win much with just an ace high.
--The Sox with a Hole. After the 1994 season, the White Sox
traded one of those precious No. 1 pitchers, Jack McDowell, on
the assumption that Alex Fernandez, Wilson Alvarez and Jason
Bere were ready to step up a notch in the rotation. Instead, the
young pitchers struggled without their ace. After combining to
go 35-17 with a 3.71 ERA in '94, they slumped to 28-34 with a
4.88 ERA in '95.
Fernandez, after an awful start, salvaged a 12-8 season, picking
up most of his wins after Chicago was hopelessly out of the
race. Bere and Alvarez finished second and third in the league
in walks (behind the nicely compensated Leiter). Says Chicago
general manager Ron Schueler, "It had more to do with the strike
than with McDowell. They didn't come to spring training ready to
pitch. We decided we weren't going to take a chance on hurting
them, so we didn't push them." That might account for the slow
start of Fernandez, who had put up some impressive numbers when
pitching in the No. 2 spot in the previous two years, but he
must still prove that he can pitch like an ace when it counts.
What exactly is an ace, anyway? A 20-game winner? A 250-inning
workhorse? Not in this era. The standards have been lowered.
Consider these yardsticks: a .500 record, 150 innings pitched
and an ERA no worse than 4.00. Pedestrian stuff, right? Well,
no. Only seven pitchers have managed to clear those small
hurdles each of the past three seasons: Johnson, Kevin Appier,
Alex Fernandez, McDowell and his new Cleveland teammate Dennis
Martinez, as well as Braves buddies Glavine and Maddux.
That's the sort of alarming perspective that explains why clubs
are perpetually adjusting their rotations. This is a baseball
world in which it's almost impossible to tell Bill Krueger from
Jim Deshaies and to know what uniform either one is wearing at
Come to think of it, Krueger and Deshaies both started in the
big leagues last year, both are 6'5" lefthanders, both have
college degrees, both have been with six teams over the past six
years and both have pitched for Minnesota, but not at the same
time. Rest assured, though, that neither has turned up in
season, with almost as many international arrivals as LAX."
Johnson. Problem is, they have little else."