Before each game early in the 1997 season the bearer of the
opposing team's lineup card would also deliver condolences to
Terry Francona, the Philadelphia Phillies' rookie manager. "Hang
in there" or "It'll get better," the rival would say in a solemn
bedside manner, as if stumbling toward a 30-72 start was some
sort of illness. But once every five days Francona could fix his
counterpart with a devilish look, like a schoolboy with a laser
pointer in his pocket, and say, "Don't feel sorry for me tonight."
Then, as now, every fifth day the Phillies were as good as any
team in baseball. Every fifth day they wielded one of the rarest
and most potent weapons in the sport. Every fifth day they
featured an honest-to-goodness, certified-No. 1 starting
pitcher. They had righthander Curt Schilling. The real deal.
"One night we could be losing 6-0 and look just terrible,"
Francona says. "Then the next night maybe we still hadn't
scored--it's 0-0 or 1-0 in the seventh inning--but we've got
Schill out there, and we look sharp. Every fifth day, it doesn't
matter who we play or who he's matched up against, we feel like
we're going to win. So can you imagine how the Braves feel? They
get that feeling almost every night of the week."
With the possible exception of a hot goaltender in hockey, no
position in team sports controls the tempo, tenor and outcome of
a game as thoroughly as a premier starting pitcher. He is the
sun of the baseball universe; the game revolves around him.
March 29, 1999
Come Opening Day, every team will have a so-called No. 1
starter. After all, somebody has to take the ball first--and
increasingly, that's all he is: somebody. But we speak here not
of the Scott Karls of the world. Rather, we pay tribute to the
few virtuosos who can make opposing hitters rest uneasy the
night before a game they pitch; the ones who eliminate the need
for middle relievers, the weakest link in just about any staff;
the ones who take pressure off their rotation mates. Like jazz
to Miles Davis or pornography to Justice Potter, true No. 1's
are so obvious as to defy definition.
"To me, naming the Number 1's is like naming the days of the
week," Schilling says. "Everybody knows who they are. If you
have to stop and think if somebody is a Number 1, he's not."
Here is the A list: Schilling; Kevin Brown of the Los Angeles
Dodgers (page 64); Roger Clemens of the New York Yankees; Tom
Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves;
Randy Johnson of the Arizona Diamondbacks; Pedro Martinez of the
Boston Red Sox; and Mike Mussina of the Baltimore Orioles.
That's it. Our Starting Nine. End of discussion. That means 23
of the 30 teams in baseball, by our reckoning, don't have a No.
David Wells of the Toronto Blue Jays, 18-4 in '98, including a
perfect game? Three words: Do it again. The Yankees' David Cone?
These days the 36-year-old righthander frightens HMOs as much as
he does hitters. Even Mussina's inclusion in the club is an
indication of how elite pitching standards have declined in this
age of powerball and bullpen specialists. Mussina has never won
20 games or pitched 250 innings, the latter being a plateau even
journeymen such as Rick Mahler used to reach as recently as the
'80s. Over the past two seasons the Orioles righthander has won
four fewer games and thrown only eight more innings than
peripatetic Seattle Mariners lefty Jamie Moyer. Mussina, though,
gets the nod here because his ordinary 13-10 season last year
was marred by freak injuries (a wart on his pitching hand and a
line drive off his face), because he has consistently proved
that he can dominate a game (especially in the postseason) and
because he has the best winning percentage (.667, 118-59) of any
active pitcher with at least 25 victories.
Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz also deserve the smallest of
asterisks because each has the insulation of the other two. Each
would be a No. 1 on virtually any team in baseball. With
Atlanta, though, the pressure to stop losing streaks is both
rare and shared. Simple arithmetic tells you that two of them
miss the other team's best pitcher. For example, Maddux had a
loss and a no-decision against Schilling in the first 11 days of
last season. The Philadelphia pitcher Glavine drew was Garrett
Stephenson, who finished the season 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA.
"There are two things that make a pitcher a Number 1," St. Louis
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa says. "When it's his turn to
pitch, you can see guys on the team get excited because they
know they have a real good chance to win. The other thing is, he
takes the ball knowing his day to pitch affects the other four
days. That guy knows that if we lose tonight, the club is not
going to be as confident the next four nights. He allows the
bullpen to rest, and he allows all the other starters to fit in
slots behind him. They know they don't have to win 18 to 20
Winning 18 games now has roughly the same degree of difficulty
as slamming 40 home runs, except with more value attached.
Thirteen players hit at least 40 dingers last year, two more
than won at least 18 games. Only six of those power hitters did
so for a playoff team; all but one of the 18-game
winners--Clemens, the American League Cy Young Award winner with
the Blue Jays--pitched for a team that made the postseason.
Baseball legend credits Asa Brainard with being the George
Washington of No. 1's. Brainard won 56 of the Cincinnati Red
Stockings' 57 games in 1869, thereby reducing not just the
pressure on, but the relevance of, the rest of the staff.
According to baseball folklore, people later began calling great
starting pitchers "ace" in honor of Asa, though The New Dickson
Baseball Dictionary dates the first reference of the term to
1902, and the importance of the ace in many card games would
seem a logical part of the etymology.
Ace. Stud. No. 1. The Big Guy. The Big Kahuna. The Big Unit.
Whatever you call him, his importance is approaching an alltime
high. "That's because expansion has diluted pitching in general,
so these guys really stand out and become more valuable," says
Los Angeles general manager Kevin Malone, who in the off-season
put his money where his mouth was, making the winning
seven-year, $105 million bid for free-agent Brown.
As recently as 1996 no starting pitcher ranked among the eight
highest-paid players in the game. Maddux, who was ninth, was the
only one among the top 11. Now four of them rank in the top
eight: Brown (first, at $15 million a year), Johnson (third,
$13.1 million), Martinez (sixth, $12.5 million) and Maddux
(eighth, 11.5 million).
You won't find such frenzied shopping anywhere else this side of
eBay.com. Four members of our Starting Nine have switched teams
in the past 18 months. Martinez, who was traded from the
Montreal Expos to Boston after the '97 season, and Brown, who
spent last season with San Diego after helping the Florida
Marlins win the 1997 World Series, immediately turned awful
teams into playoff clubs with no other significant changes to
their casts. This winter second-year franchise Arizona signed
Johnson, a free-agent lefthander who split last season with the
Mariners and the Houston Astros, in hopes of playing into
October. The Yankees added Clemens in a trade to a 125-50 team.
No wonder Phillies general manager Ed Wade, whose team is the
only noncontender in possession of a stud starter, is at the top
of many general managers' speed-dial lists. In particular, the
drooling over Schilling in the front offices of the Cardinals,
the Anaheim Angels, the Cleveland Indians and the Texas Rangers
is almost embarrassing to watch. "Oh, they will trade him," says
one National League general manager.
"They'd be crazy not to trade him," says another. "They're not
going to win with him, so they might as well not win without him
and get some good players back to build with."
"He is the guy we want to build around," says Wade, who has told
teams not to bother calling--although, he admits, that could
change come July. Wade has even asked Schilling, who is in the
second season of a three-year, $15.45 million contract with a
no-trade clause, for approved destinations and to spell out in
which cases he would request that his contract be renegotiated.
Schilling's list tentatively includes Atlanta, Cleveland,
Houston and St. Louis.
"If we get to July and we're not in position to add a $4 million
player to our payroll, then I expect to be traded," Schilling
says. "If we don't make a run, I'd rather go to a contender."
The Phillies say they need Schilling because they don't even
have a bona fide No. 2 starter. (The designee, by default, is
righthander Chad Ogea, who was not even a No. 5 in Cleveland
last year.) Schilling's impact on the Phillies is so great that
their chances of winning improve by 30% whenever he figures in a
decision: He is 32-25 (.561) over the past two seasons, and
Philadelphia is 111-156 (.432) in all other games in that span.
Moreover, he is a throwback to the days when pitchers didn't
punch out of games after six innings and boast, "I did my
job"--you know, way back when, in the old days of 1988.
Schilling threw the most pitches in baseball last year (4,213),
went into the eighth inning more than anyone else (30 times in
35 starts), threw the most innings (268 2/3) and completed the
most games (15).
Eleven years ago, with four fewer clubs in the majors, 10
pitchers threw at least 250 innings. Last year only four did so,
with Brown, Maddux and Baltimore's Scott Erickson joining
Schilling. Erickson led the American League with 251 1/3
innings. Also in '88, major league pitchers averaged a complete
game once every seven starts. Last year the frequency dropped to
once every 16 starts. Managers have become slaves to the
specialized bullpen, mimicking La Russa's model with the Oakland
Athletics of the late '80s, and to pitch counts, too. Virtually
every dugout now has a coach with a handheld clicker, which too
often serves the same purpose as an egg timer. Hit the arbitrary
pitch-count number, and time's up. You're cooked.
"Pitchers are like rottweilers," Schilling says. "Everyone
thinks they're mean dogs. Well, they'll be whatever you train
them to be. It's the same with pitchers. Look at [the Chicago
Cubs' phenom] Kerry Wood. They kept him on a 100-pitch leash in
the minors, and then he gets to the majors and he throws more
pitches and more innings than he ever has before, and he gets
hurt. It's crazy."
Last week Wood was declared out for the season (and maybe
beyond) after suffering damage to his right ulnar collateral
ligament during a spring training game. In the minors he
occasionally threw 110 pitches or so. He did not pitch last
September because of a sprained ligament in his right elbow
suffered after throwing 171 2/3 innings (including five in
Triple A), or 20 more than his professional high from the
previous season. Last season Wood also averaged more pitches per
inning than anyone in baseball (17.08). "By the end of the year
I was pretty well gassed," Wood says.
"The only way you get to be a Number 1 is to earn it," Cubs
general manager Ed Lynch says. "Consistency and durability are
the most important ingredients. I'd say you'd have to be
effective and stay off the disabled list at least two or three
years in a row."
The making of a No. 1 starter cannot be rushed. Martinez, 27, is
the only member of our Starting Nine younger than 30. Even
before the Cardinals' best pitcher, 24-year-old righthander Matt
Morris, suffered an elbow sprain last week, La Russa had decided
against giving him the Opening Day assignment. "It's only his
third year," La Russa says. "For someone to say, 'You're the
Number 1 guy, pitch your day and affect the other ones,' that's
While the Cardinals wait to see what becomes of Schilling, St.
Louis general manager Walt Jocketty says his team is sitting on
three potential No. 1's: Morris and prospects Rick Ankiel, 19,
and Chad Hutchinson, 22, to whom the Cardinals gave a combined
$5.8 million in signing bonuses. "To me it makes more sense to
spend money like that on young guys with a big upside than a
middling veteran like a Mark Clark, who is going to cost you $8
million, and you only have him for two years," says Jocketty,
referring to the veteran righthander who was 9-14 with a 4.84
ERA for the Cubs last year and then signed with the Rangers in
the off-season for $9.3 million over two years. "Sometimes you
have to take the risk."
Ankiel, a lefthander, is considered the best pitching prospect
in baseball. He was not selected out of high school until the
72nd pick of the 1997 draft because clubs feared the asking
price of his agent, Scott Boras. Ankiel received a $2.5 million
signing bonus. "I expect to see Ankiel and [Jose] Jimenez by
August," says Reds general manager Jim Bowden, referring to
another St. Louis prospect. "And that could have a big impact on
our division. Ankiel is that good."
If he is, Ankiel could make the other Cardinals pitchers good,
too. Martinez, for instance, helped the Red Sox improve by 14
games last year not only by winning 19 games but also by
lightening the load on the rest of the rotation. Bret
Saberhagen, for example, won 15 games while averaging only 88
pitches a start, the lowest output of any American League
pitcher who made at least 30 starts. "My nine innings are seven
now," says the 34-year-old righthander, who has come back from
major rotator-cuff surgery. His job was made easier because
Martinez usually matched up with the best starting pitchers from
other teams and because the bullpen was sharper thanks to
Martinez's throwing at least seven innings in 23 of his 33
starts. "It's simple," Martinez says. "You take a bat up there,
you're my enemy. I will try to beat you."
That kind of attitude is infectious. Similarly, the Dodgers are
hoping the hardworking Brown lifts the rest of their
rotation--Chan Ho Park, Ismael Valdes, Carlos Perez and Darren
Dreifort--a group with extraordinary stuff that hasn't lived up
to expectations. New manager Davey Johnson assigned those
pitchers to the same spring workout groups as Brown just to
learn from his work habits. In past Dodgers camps the starting
pitchers completed drills in different groups on different fields.
Yankees pitchers are getting the same drafting effect from being
slotted behind Clemens. Manager Joe Torre says Cone will be the
most obvious beneficiary. "Now if he needs to take an extra day
or two because he's not feeling right, he can do it," Torre
explains. Moreover, New York hopes Clemens's portly
next-door-locker mate, righthander Hideki Irabu, whose
effectiveness waned in the second half last season, will emulate
his new teammate. In spring training Clemens often was the first
Yankee to arrive and had completed a long running session before
Irabu rolled in rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Clemens always
kept watch on Irabu when pitchers ran during workouts, doubling
back "just like a dog herding sheep" to get Irabu to pick up his
pace, Cone says.
Whither the 23 teams without such a stud at the top of the
rotation? Is it worth it to sell the farm to get Schilling from
Philadelphia? (No other member of the Starting Nine will be on
the free-agent market after this season.) "I'd say it's a lot
harder without one, especially in the postseason," Davey Johnson
says. "When you've got that one guy who can dominate two or
three games in a short series, you have a huge advantage."
The data on studs in October, though, are inconclusive. On one
hand, only one of the past 15 world champions lacked a true No.
1: the 1993 Blue Jays, a tremendous offensive club with no
pitcher among the top 10 in the American League in innings or
ERA. More recently Cleveland has underscored the value of an ace
by trying to get by without one. The Indians have lost Game 1 of
eight straight postseason series while giving the ball to five
starters in those openers (Orel Hershiser, Dennis Martinez,
Charles Nagy, Chad Ogea and Jaret Wright). As a group
Cleveland's starters are 15-14 in the past four postseasons,
none of which have ended with a world championship. The
franchise hasn't had an ace in his prime since Gaylord Perry in
Then again, the impact of No. 1's often is less in October than
it is during the regular season. Our nine current No. 1's are a
modest 40-35 in 104 combined postseason games, including a 9-10
mark in 26 World Series starts. Randy Johnson has lost five
straight postseason games, contributing to his team's defeat in
its past three postseason series. Brown hasn't won any of his
four World Series starts, the most recent being the pivotal Game
1 last year when he left with two runners on in the seventh and
San Diego leading the Yankees 5-2.
Still, most managers would gladly take the security blanket of
giving the ball to that special breed of starter who can exert
more influence on a game than anyone else on the field. No
better example exists of such an impact than what righthander
Jack Morris did for the Minnesota Twins in Game 7 of the 1991
World Series. Morris threw 10 shutout innings in the 1-0 win,
all the while giving the impression that he would still be out
there chucking today if the game were still tied. Morris's
singular performance actually began with his appearance at a
postgame news conference the previous night, following Game 6.
Asked if he was ready for his start, Morris leaned into a
microphone and announced with the strongest possible timbre, "In
the words of James Brown, let's get it on." In those two nights
Morris came as close to a definition of a No. 1 starter as
you'll ever see.
"Every fifth day, it doesn't matter who we play or who
Schilling's matched up against," Francona says. "We feel like
we're going to win."
Thirteen players hit at least 40 homers last year, two more than
won at least 18 games. Six of the hitters made the playoffs; all
but one of the pitchers did.
"The Number 1 knows his day to pitch affects the other four
days," says La Russa. "He allows the other starters to fit in
The impact of No. 1's often is less in October than it is in the
regular season. Our nine No. 1's are a modest 40-35 in 104
combined postseason starts.