Ace In The Hole
Mariners righthander Freddy Garcia is quickly developing into a
No. 1 starter
Mariners general manager Pat Gillick raised some eyebrows last
month when he said that he was in the market for a
top-of-the-rotation pitcher. At the time, Seattle had the best
record in the majors, its starters' ERA (4.32) was fourth best in
the American League and its top three pitchers, righthanders
Freddy Garcia and Aaron Sele and lefthander Jamie Moyer, were a
combined 22-1. Wouldn't adding another ace be like sprinkling
sugar on a fudge sundae? "At some point Freddy Garcia might
become a Number 1 starter," Gillick said, "[but] Freddy's 24
The G.M.'s assessment sent Garcia scurrying for advice. "He came
to me two or three days later and asked what he needed to do to
become a Number 1 guy," says Seattle pitching coach Bryan Price.
"I told him he needed innings, to maintain consistency and not to
let his emotions get in his way. It's just experience."
As the Mariners continued to pile up wins at an astounding
rate--through Sunday they'd won the first three of a four-game
series with the AL Central Division-leading Twins and were 19
games in front of the equally red-hot A's in the AL
West--augmenting the rotation became less of a concern for
Gillick, who has been concentrating his efforts on acquiring
another hitter. Since July 1, Seattle starters were 9-5 with a
3.62 ERA, and the staff had already tied the franchise record for
shutouts in a month, with five. Leading the way was Garcia, who
was 5-2 with a 2.65 ERA since Gillick's remark, including
back-to-back shutouts, against the Angels and the Dodgers, this
month. "Freddy Garcia is a Cy Young Award waiting to happen,"
says one scout who has followed Seattle this season, "and it
might be this year."
Gaudy numbers--overall, he was 11-2 with a 3.46 ERA, ninth best in
the league--are nothing new for Garcia, who won 17 games as a
rookie in 1999 and went 9-5 last season despite spending 2 1/2
months on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his right
leg. What is new is the poise and confidence he has shown on the
mound. "Freddy has too much ability not to be successful, as long
as there's a thought process," says Price. "He's showing more
focus, more maturity and a greater understanding of what it takes
to be successful on a consistent basis."
For Garcia, a 6'4", 235-pound native of Caracas who says he grew
up idolizing Roger Clemens, that means keeping his emotions in
check and attacking hitters with his rare combination of power
and finesse. He throws a wicked 95-mph sinking fastball, an
above-average curve and a straight changeup. Yet Garcia struck
out only 79 batters in his first 135 1/3 innings this season.
Instead, he has learned to locate pitches and get hitters to make
contact early in counts, producing quick at bats and low pitch
Take his shutout of the Dodgers on July 6. He was nearly
untouchable, allowing four hits, striking out five and wrapping
up the effort in an economical 97 pitches. "That was as
dominating a start as it would have been if he'd had 15
strikeouts," says Price. "Nobody had a comfortable swing against
"The more I pitch, the more I learn what I can do in tough
situations," says Garcia. "I just try to keep the ball down and
to make good pitches, instead of going for strikeouts."
Leery of putting too much pressure on a young starter--and mindful
that the 31-year-old Sele is 12-1 with a 3.11 ERA--the Mariners
are hesitant to declare Garcia their ace. However, recent
progress suggests that he's on the brink of becoming the pitcher
Gillick was looking for. In addition to his regular-season
success, Garcia won both his starts in last year's American
League Championship Series, holding the Yankees to two runs in
11 1/3 innings. Even Garcia's clubhouse nickname, Chief, has
postseason connotations. The sobriquet comes from his resemblance
to Chief Bromden in the film version of One Flew over the
Cuckoo's Nest, the character who raises his hand too late in a
hospital-ward vote and costs the patients a chance to watch the
World Series on TV.
If Garcia continues to pitch the way he has, Seattle won't have
to worry about watching the World Series on TV.
The First Pitch Is a Ball
The flare-up over the use of pitch-count averages by the
commissioner's office in rating plate umpires' performances was
extinguished last week when Major League Baseball executive vice
president Sandy Alderson said those counts would not be used to
evaluate umps, and the umpires' union dropped its labor grievance
over it. The upshot was clear: Baseball needs a fair system to
rate its umpires. Before this season the commissioner's office
gave the umps detailed instruction on calling the strike zone
according to the rule book and on disciplining head-hunting
pitchers. However, there was less explanation of how the arbiters
would be monitored.
Alderson insists the pitch-count initiative was intended as a
teaching tool rather than a rating system, and he says efforts by
the commissioner's office to improve the quality and consistency
of umpiring will continue. The next step will be the publication
of an umpiring manual that a committee of three umps and three
representatives from the commissioner's office is putting
together. The first three sections of the manual--one outlining
umpires' conduct and responsibilities, one offering detailed
interpretation and analysis of the rule book, and one explaining
on-field mechanics of a four-man crew--are complete. The committee
is preparing to hash out the fourth section, which will detail a
system under which arbiters will be evaluated and ranked.
"What we're trying to do with the committee is get some form of
evaluation that's equitable for everybody," says umpire Joe
Brinkman, a 28-year major league veteran and vice president of
the umpires' union. "We planned to dig in right after the season
and figure it out, but there's a little more pressure now."
"This is something baseball has never had," says MLB vice
president of umpiring Ralph Nelson. "It used to be that umpires
learned their jobs from their crew chiefs as they went along. If
you were a Doug Harvey guy, you might umpire differently than a
Bruce Froemming guy. This manual will lay out consistent methods
Figuring out how umpires will be fairly evaluated is particularly
important, because most of them aren't sold on the reliability of
the gadgetry the commissioner's office is now using to monitor
ball-and-strike calls. Fenway Park and Shea Stadium are already
equipped with QuesTec, Inc.'s Umpire Information System, a
refinement of the company's pitch-tracking graphics seen on Fox
television broadcasts. (The system will be installed in four more
ballparks sometime this season.) Using two cameras mounted in the
stands and two at ground level off the first and third base
lines, QuesTec's measurement technology creates computer models
of pitches as they cross the plate. Within 30 minutes after the
game has ended, plate umps are given CDs with cataloged computer
and video images of every ball and strike they called.
"It tells umpires if their call agreed with what the computer
measured," says Nelson. "It's a way to find areas an umpire might
need to work on."
When an evaluation system is eventually adopted, it will more
likely include videotape and in-person observation by umpiring
supervisors. Earlier this month the commissioner's office began
giving umps edited videotapes from television broadcasts of games
they worked behind the plate, 10-minute highlights of their
ball-and-strike calls. Umpires will review the tapes with
supervisors individually, searching for patterns of calls that
might need to be addressed. "There have been no criteria [for
rating umps]," says Brinkman. "It's been just word of mouth and
popularity. Now we're going to agree on something fair."
Pursuing Pedro Astacio
Only 6-12, but a Hot Commodity
Whenever the Rockies' Pedro Astacio has pitched in recent weeks,
the seats behind home plate have been filled with more radar guns
than an interstate on Labor Day. With Colorado determined to cut
payroll and stock up on major-league-ready young players as the
July 31 trade deadline approaches, virtually every team in
playoff contention--including the Astros, Cardinals, Dodgers, Red
Sox and Twins--views the 31-year-old righthander as the best
available pitcher. Why the fuss over a righthander who was 6-12
with a 5.53 ERA through Sunday, one with a career ERA of 4.53 and
a $6.85 million salary this year plus a $9 million option for
"He's a veteran who knows how to pitch, and he'll eat up
innings--everybody wants a guy like that," says one American
League advance scout. "Also, getting out of Coors Field is good
for any pitcher."
Indeed, Astacio's ERA in 11 starts on the road this year (4.24)
is nearly three runs below his mark at Coors (7.12), one reason
his suitors can envision him helping their teams to the
postseason. He still throws a low-90s fastball with good
movement, and he features a changeup and a curve that are above
average. Astacio has also been a pitcher who stays strong down
the stretch: He's a career 38-18 in August and September, with a
3.52 ERA in the latter month.
There's more to Astacio's market value than his performance,
however. The same major-league-wide pitching shortage that drives
up free-agent salaries in the off-season creates a feeding frenzy
in the days leading up to the trade deadline, especially since
the addition of postseason wild cards in 1995 increased the
number of teams that consider themselves contenders at this time
of year. Teams in the playoff hunt are under pressure to make
moves to prove to fans that they are serious about winning.
Astacio may not be Roger Clemens or Pedro Martinez, but he is the
biggest fish in a shallow pool of available pitching talent.
Righthanders Woody Williams of the Padres and Albie Lopez of the
Devil Rays, both sub-.500 pitchers, and Padres lefty Sterling
Hitchcock, who recently returned from Tommy John surgery on his
pitching elbow, are the best of the rest.
With so many teams lining up to acquire Astacio, Colorado general
manager Dan O'Dowd is under pressure to make a savvy deal, one
that could shape his team for several seasons. "It's not [that we
want] to trade Pedro," O'Dowd says. "It's [that we want] to make
the sum of our club better than each of the individual parts, and
[trading him] is the only way to do that."
July 27-29 Royals at A's
At week's end Kansas City had the second-lowest road winning
percentage (.354) in the American League, was a
major-league-worst 7-23 in games against lefthanded starters and
was hitting .249 off southpaws, second worst in the AL. So who
will be waiting for the Royals when they arrive in Oakland? Two
tough lefthanded pitchers: Mark Mulder, who was set to start on
Friday, and Barry Zito on Sunday. What's more, K.C. will face a
team that has gone 14-4 since July 2 and is making a big run at
the wild card.
For scores, stats and the latest news, plus more from Tom
Verducci and Stephen Cannella, go to cnnsi.com/baseball.
Two advance scouts, one from each league, reflect on what they
saw and heard last week:
The high strikes we've seen called most often this year are
hanging curves and sliders. For some reason fastballs in that
spot don't seem to be called as much. It's thrown some hitters
for a loop, especially the A's: Their whole offense is based on
patience at the plate and working the count, and it took them
awhile to figure out what was going to be called a strike and
Marlins leftfielder Cliff Floyd is finally coming into his own.
We always wondered what he could do if he stayed healthy for a
year. Now he's showing us (.355, 28 homers, 87 RBIs through
Sunday). He can hit as well as anybody from the left side of the
It appears that Mariners rightfielder Ichiro Suzuki is getting
tired, because he has looked very ordinary for about a month.
It's not just that the U.S. major leagues play a longer season
than the Japanese leagues, but also that there's a lot more
travel across time zones here. Don't forget: Ichiro was hurt
last year and didn't play a full season....
Pirates third baseman Aramis Ramirez is quietly having a good
year for a bad team. He still needs work defensively, but he's
being more selective at the plate and he's showing some power....
It will be interesting to see how pitchers who switch leagues in
trades this week perform for the rest of the season. National
League pitchers still throw a lot more fastballs than American
Leaguers and get away with it. If an NL guy goes to an AL team
and tries that, he'll get killed.
in the Box
ANGELS 6, ORIOLES 5
In a strange event that added insult to injury, Anaheim closer
Troy Percival, who coughed up a three-run lead in the bottom of
the ninth (only his second blown save in 27 opportunities this
season), wasn't credited with the victory after the Angels
rallied to win in 10 innings. Percival eventually retired the
side in the ninth, and then Bengie Molina put Anaheim ahead with
an RBI single in the top of the 10th. When righthander Shigetoshi
Hasegawa came on to pitch a one-two-three inning, Percival
appeared to be the pitcher of record. According to the official
scorer, he wasn't. Say hello to rarely invoked Rule 10.19(4),
which says that a victory in such a situation can be withheld
from the pitcher of record if he has been "ineffective" and
instead be awarded to a succeeding reliever who helps preserve
the win. The scorer gave the win to Hasegawa.