Matt Castello and I lead off the show discussing the eight athletic teams cut by the University of Maryland before talking about the Week 11 in the NFL and baseball’s new realignment and postseason ventures. The due also debate whether Justin Verlander should have won the American League MVP Award and if Curt Schilling is a Hall of Famer in addition to ranking the top five starters of the last 20 years.
It has been a mostly forgettable 2011 season for the Los Angeles Dodgers. In addition to team owner Frank McCourt declaring bankruptcy, the Dodgers have not been over .500 since they were 14-13 on April 29. They have been as many as 14 games below .500 and as far back as 14.5 games in the National League West. A recent stretch in which Los Angeles has gone 30-19 since July 23, which, at the very least, has moved the Dodgers back into respectability with the possibility of a winning record. They are currently 73-75, a full 13 games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks in the West.
Only looking at the outside of the Dodgers’ season does not paint the full picture of how exactly this year has gone in Chavez Ravine. Sure, there are a lot of depressing scenes that come from this season. One of baseball’s most storied franchises is bankrupt. The Dodgers have mostly put a poor product out onto the field. But they also have a young pitcher who is on the verge of making history.
Clayton Kershaw had shown signs of filling his potential the past two seasons. Over 62 starts and one relief appearance, Kershaw was 21-18 with a 2.85 ERA and 1.202 WHIP in 375.1 innings of work. He struck out 9.5 batters, allowed only 6.7 hits but also walked 4.1 hitters per nine innings.
He has combined those signs of fulfilling his potential in 2009 and 2010, the electric stuff, high strikeout rate, low hit rate and ERA, with much more command and control of his pitches on the mound to become one of the game’s most dominant pitchers, an unfortunate reality for opposing hitters. Kershaw has lowered his walk rate this season to just 2.1 batters per nine innings to go along with his NL-leading 6.8 hits allowed per nine for a miniscule 0.983 WHIP, which is the third best in the majors. As a result, Kershaw is contending for the pitching Triple Crown. He has won 19 games, which is tied with Arizona’s Ian Kennedy for the most in the NL. Kershaw also leads the league in ERA (2.30) and strikeouts (236).
There have been seven different pitchers who have won the Triple Crown since 1966. The pitchers who have won this award since then- Steve Carlton, Dwight Gooden, Roger Clemens (twice), Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Johan Santana and Jake Peavy – have combined for 1,641 wins and 22,561 strikeouts over 23,387.2 innings. They have won 23 Cy Young Awards and been named to 49 All-Star teams collectively. However, there is something to the Dodgers organization about the year 1966 that links Kershaw to part of a special piece of the team’s history.
Sandy Koufax won the pitching Triple Crown in 1966 by going 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA and 317 strikeouts in 323 innings. It was his third Triple Crown award in four years. No pitcher has ever had a more dominant stretch. Unfortunately for the Dodgers and the game of baseball, Koufax was forced to retire after the 1966 season because of an arthritis condition in his left arm. It is a shame baseball was never able to see the staggering career numbers Koufax would have undoubtedly put up. With Koufax also went the historic Dodger teams that won four World Series titles and were anchored by Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Don Drysdale and Don Sutton. Los Angeles did not win another World Series championship until 1981.
Clayton Kershaw has given Dodgers fans something to celebrate in what has been a mostly dreary 2011 season. He has a chance to become a part of the Dodgers’ rich pitching history by having a legitimate shot to win the Triple Crown. He has a comfortable lead in strikeouts (24 more than second-place Tim Lincecum) but must break a tie with Kennedy for wins while fending off Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay in both that category (Halladay has 18 wins) and ERA (Halladay has a 2.34 ERA). If he can do so, his achievement will instantly connect him with a Dodgers pitching legend- Sandy Koufax.
Eleven years ago, a 5’11”, 170-pound pitcher from Manoguayabo, Distrito Nacional, Dominican Republic named Pedro Martinez was completing the finishing touches on one of the greatest seasons ever by a pitcher. By mixing a high-90s fastball with a knee-buckling curveball, back-breaking slider and the game’s best changeup, Martinez was almost unhittable, finishing the season 18-6 with a 1.74 ERA and 0.737 WHIP while allowing only 128 hits (5.3 H/9), striking out 284 (11.8 K/9) and walking only 32 batters (8.88 K/BB) in 217 innings. He threw seven complete games, including four shutouts.
The 2011 season has seen another diminutive righthander from the Dominican Republic enjoy a terrific year. Johnny Cueto, who hails from San Pedro de Macoris, has made 18 starts for the Cincinnati Reds this season. The 25 year-old owns a record of 8-5 with a 1.94 ERA and 1.022 WHIP while punching out 78 (5.8 K/9), walking 37 (2.11 K/BB) and allowing 86 hits (6.4 H/9) in 120.1 innings pitched. While he has not nearly been as dominant as Martinez was in 2001, Cueto leads the National League in ERA, hits per nine innings and ERA+ (205).
The 5’10”, 220-pounder’s size is not the only parallel between himself and Martinez. Cueto also possesses an arsenal similar to that of Martinez. He throws a fastball that can touch the high-90s (average speed: 93.2 mph) in addition to an identical-looking changeup (average speed: 83.4 mph), plate-sweeping slider, late-moving cutter and a new curveball that he has just learned to throw this season. Cueto uses his size, birth country and pitch selection as motivation to be like Martinez.
“Pedro has been my inspiration, the person for whom I decided to stop playing outfield to become a pitcher,” Cueto once said. “One of my biggest dreams is to be able to meet Pedro in person, shake his hand and tell him that he has been my hero and role model.”
Cueto’s 2011 season has been helped a bit by luck, as opponents are batting .227 on balls hit in play, well below the league average of .300. However, he has been able to keep batters off-balance by relying on a fifth pitch, his curveball, which he is throwing nine percent of the time this year. To compensate, Cueto is throwing his slider 19.1 percent of the time in 2011, compared to a career average of 27.7 percent. Those secondary pitches, along with his changeup (thrown 10 percent of the time in 2011) and cutter (thrown 8.1 percent in 2011) to rely on his fastball less, throwing it 53.9 percent of the time this season, compared to 2009 season in which he threw it 62.2 percent of the time.
Trusting his secondary pitches is a sign that Cueto is maturing as a pitcher. The results from mixing things up on the mound have been extraordinary. He is keeping things on the ground much more, with a 1.63 groundball-to-flyball ratio, well above his career average of 1.11. Batters are hitting less line drives (19.4 percent in 2010 compared to 15.1 percent this year) and flyballs (32.3 percent this season compared to 38.9 percent last year). As a result, Cueto is inducing much weaker contact, as his groundball (41.7 percent in 2010 compared to 52.6 percent in 2011) and infield pop-up (8.6 percent last year compared to 11.5 percent this year) rates have increased while his home run rate (8.6 percent in 2010, 5.3 percent in 2011) has dropped.
Pedro Martinez’s 2000 season ended up being among one of the most dominant and unhittable ever for a pitcher. Eleven years later, another diminutive pitcher who also hails from the Dominican Republic is using a similar pitch arsenal to mow through hitters. Johnny Cueto uses Martinez as inspiration and is throwing all of his pitches to induce more groundballs and less-dangerous flyballs to keep hitters off-balance. Johnny Cueto may never be as dominant as Pedro Martinez, but his size, birth country, pitch arsenal and breakout 2011 season invoke memories of one of the greatest pitchers ever.