THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Baseball Notes

In a renaissance of pitching, artists paint the corners

By Nick Cafardo
June 19, 2011

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In Detroit, they will argue that Justin Verlander is the best pitcher in baseball. In Los Angeles, they would stump for Jered Weaver. In Philadelphia, the answer would be Roy Halladay or Cole Hamels. Tampa Bay has James Shields to offer. Atlanta has Jair Jurrjens or Tommy Hanson to nominate. And Seattle has Felix Hernandez.

But could the best of the best right now be Josh Beckett?

“It would be hard to dispute that right now,’’ said Tampa Bay’s Johnny Damon, who was a teammate of Verlander’s last season in Detroit. “Beckett looks like he did when he was the best. He’s as good as anyone right now.

“He’s still very overpowering, even though his radar readings don’t register at 97 m.p.h. anymore. But that’s not necessarily what great pitching is. He’s unhittable.’’

Beckett’s 3-0 one-hitter against the Rays last week in which he needed just 97 pitches left quite an impression. Only Reid Brignac’s infield single prevented a perfect game.

“That was pretty special,’’ said a scout on hand that night. “He was a master out there, mixing speeds and showing different locations, and when he needed to pump it past you, he did it.

“He’s got that extra kick late on that fastball again, and that’s what he always had. He uses that cutter really effectively again. I know he was using it too much last year because he didn’t have that explosive fastball. Now he’s got both, with that curveball.

“Forget it. This guy is as good as he’s ever been.’’

Beckett, who has held opponents to a major league-low .174 batting average and has a major league-best 1.86 ERA, doesn’t like to talk at length about his successful outings. He’s far more honest when he loses or when he feels he hasn’t pitched as well as he’s capable of. That’s the perfectionist in him showing through.

His win total could become a factor when the Cy Young voting comes around; he has only six right now, though he should have plenty of opportunities to get that total up.

Anyway, in this day and age, wins aren’t as important as overall domination, as was the case with Hernandez last year.

Beckett is leading the pack, but overall the pitching in the majors — particularly the American League — has been pretty impressive this year. Through June 15, the collective ERA in the majors was 3.85, which would be the lowest since 1992.

Verlander, who starts today vs. Colorado, authored a two-hit 4-0 win over Cleveland in his last outing, his only “mistake’’ a 99-m.p.h. fastball to Orlando Cabrera with one out in the eighth. Otherwise, Verlander might have become the sixth pitcher to throw three or more no-hitters.

“I probably could have thrown a better pitch right there,’’ said Verlander. “There’s probably a little inkling of disappointment in the back of my mind.’’

But not in anyone else’s.

As with Beckett, Verlander’s experience has brought him around to the art of pitching, though he can still throw 100 whenever he wants, including late in games. Scouts and players say the same thing: Verlander has gone from thrower to pitcher.

“He definitely mixes it up well, and he’s locating his heater a lot more effectively,’’ said Grady Sizemore after the two-hitter, in which he struck out four times. “He’s not leaving fastballs out over the plate to hit. He’s mixing it up. He did a great job of throwing the changeup tonight. He threw some good curves, too. He’s not giving you anything that’s easy to hit.’’

And as with Beckett, that type of pitching has allowed Verlander to go deeper into games; he has gone into the eighth inning in his last three starts. And Verlander, who has 105 strikeouts and has held opponents to a .185 average, has led the Tigers to first place in the American League Central.

In Anaheim, the Angels’ offense has been so bad — they’ve been shut out nine times and scored two or fewer runs 25 times — manager Mike Scioscia has relied heavily on his starting rotation, particularly Weaver and Dan Haren.

In Weaver’s five-hit shutout Tuesday, Scioscia allowed him to throw 128 pitches for the second time in four starts. It was the eighth time in 15 starts he’d thrown 115 or more and the fourth time he was over 120.

Weaver is third in the majors in innings pitched (109 1/3) and has thrown the most pitches (1,735). Haren is seventh in innings (99 1/3) and pitches (1,565).

Weaver (8-4, 2.06) is a workhorse, but Scioscia is well aware of the workload.

“Absolutely there are concerns with that,’’ said the manager. “But we monitor every pitcher very closely. If he’s not bouncing back, if he’s not staying in his mechanics and you can see him grinding out there, that would be a sign you’re overextending him. That hasn’t been the case.’’

Shields, with a 2.60 ERA, has come into his own. With Matt Garza gone, it’s up to him and David Price in Tampa, and Shields has been the ace.

“The fact he’s throwing 91 and 92 with great location, that he’s commanding all of his offspeed pitches, especially his changeup, are all the things that we believe he can do on a regular basis,’’ said Rays manager Joe Maddon.

Shields has thrown three shutouts, and 12 of his starts have gone seven innings or more. Very impressive.

If nothing else, the American League is going to have one dominant All-Star pitching staff, and we haven’t even mentioned Jon Lester, CC Sabathia, Max Scherzer, Jake Arrieta, Michael Pineda, and Gio Gonzalez.

WHERE DOES IT HURT?

It seems as if teams are doctoring rosters

Is roster manipulation rampant in baseball, or is it just a figment of our imagination? There seem to be a lot of injuries that make you go, “Huh?’’

When the Red Sox said Darnell McDonald had pulled a quad muscle, his reaction — “no comment’’ — spoke volumes. It was an indication that the injury hardly warranted placing him on the 15-day disabled list with a 20-day rehab assignment.

McDonald wasn’t limping, and it just seemed as if the Sox wanted him to get some playing time because Mike Cameron was eating up all the extra outfield reps off the bench.

This is not to pick on the Sox, because things such as this are happening all around baseball.

Peter Woodfork, who has served under Theo Epstein as an assistant and was assistant general manager in Arizona, oversees medical situations for Major League Baseball, and he believes the system that is in place — with each team and doctor accountable for their recommendations — reduces phantom injuries.

For a player to go on the DL, the team doctor has to give reasons why the player cannot perform up to normal capabilities and complete a form provided by the league. The GM has to sign off on it.

Woodfork said MLB now has its own medical director and staff, and if anything looks suspicious, more information is requested. There have been four or five extra investigations into a DL assignment. Most of the leads come from news reports or a competing team.

Woodfork believes teams are hesitant to place players on the DL because of the cost; a substitute player recalled from Triple A has to be paid the major league minimum, a prorated $414,000. But this usually isn’t a concern for big-market teams.

This season, questions arose about the shoulder problem of Yankees pitcher Phil Hughes. No structural damage was found, but Hughes wasn’t able to perform at his usual level because a tired arm had reduced his velocity, so the DL was considered a viable option.

Roster manipulation or legitimate injury? That is the question.

COLLECTOR’S ADDITION

Ramirez out of work but not out of money

Before we begin this story of Manny Ramirez’s great wealth, we ask you, what do you think Manny is doing these days?

We do know that he’s probably laughing all the way to the bank.

The Dodgers have made news recently because they owe Ramirez more than $8 million in deferred payments. Well, he is collecting a lot more than that.

The Red Sox owe him some money as well: about $32 million over 16 years. In fact, his first deferred payment is due July 1, to the tune of $1.968 million and change.

The Sox will pay Ramirez through 2026, when he’ll be 54. Here is the schedule:

2011 — $1,968,677 2019 — $2,008,397

2012 — $1,973,599 2020 — $2,013,418

2013 — $1,978,533 2021 — $2,018,452

2014 — $1,983,479 2022 — $2,023,498

2015 — $1,988,438 2023 — $2,028,557

2016 — $1,993,409 2024 — $2,033,628

2017 — $1,998,393 2025 — $2,038,712

2018 — $2,003,389 2026 — $2,043,809

Pretty good gig. The original contract that Jeff Moorad negotiated with Dan Duquette was for $160 million over eight years, with options of $20 million for the 2009 and 2010 seasons, which the Dodgers picked up when they traded for Ramirez on July 31, 2008.

The Sox paid the remainder of Ramirez’s salary that year. There was $4 million a year deferred on those options, meaning the money that came due was $8 million plus interest. The interest was $330,000.

The Dodgers passed off Ramirez on the White Sox last August but were responsible for his salary.

Ramirez, of course, retired as a Tampa Bay Ray five games into the season, when a second failed drug test was about to result in a 100-game suspension.

Ramirez had to forgo about $2 million in salary from the Rays, but all things considered, that doesn’t seem like a big deal.

Etc.
Apropos of nothing 1. I personally prefer the five-team, three-division format for realignment over two 15-team leagues with no divisions, but there were some thoughtful proposals sent this way by readers; 2. The progress on Jet Blue Stadium in Fort Myers, Fla., is astonishing. You can see a frame and concrete stands already. Looks like a February opening is probable; 3. Last year, the Nationals committed 61 errors in their first 67 games. This year, they had 33 in 67 games; 4. WBZ’s Jon Miller wonders why the initials “LG’’ (for Lou Gorman) aren’t on the sleeves of Red Sox jerseys; 5) Saw Lou Piniella, special assistant to Giants general manager Brian Sabean at The Trop. Looks 10 years younger.

Updates on nine 1. Scott Kazmir, LHP, free agent — He was released by the Angels, who ate $14 million. While Kazmir was on his rehab assignment, it became evident to the Angels that he was not going to make it back, pushing their frustration meter to new heights. It goes to show the Rays know when to get rid of guys. As poorly as Kazmir has pitched the last two seasons, there are at least five teams looking at him — Colorado, Florida, San Diego, Texas, and Arizona. And nobody would be surprised if the Yankees are another, considering the breakdown in their pitching.

2. Edwin Rodriguez, manager, Marlins — Owner Jeffrey Loria, to his credit, has given Rodriguez time, and maybe Rodriguez still will be the manager in the long term. But the Fish lost 18 of 21, raising doubts about Rodriguez’s future. It’s no secret the Marlins have had their eyes on Ozzie Guillen, who has a year remaining on his White Sox contract.

3. Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, Rockies — There was such a buzz about Jimenez a year ago because he was so dominant, but now there’s a buzz for entirely the wrong reasons. Where has the talent gone? And why can’t he pitch at Coors Field? Jimenez, who entered last night’s start with a 1-7 record and 4.63 ERA, was 9-2 with a 3.19 ERA at Coors a year ago. This year, he is 0-5 with a 7.05 ERA and has allowed a .333 batting average. According to a scout who has watched a few of his starts, “There’s a problem with him repeating his delivery, and when he doesn’t, he tends to keep his offspeed pitches up, and he’s getting hit as a result. It seems correctable, but the pitcher himself has to recognize it.’’

4. Gavin Floyd, RHP, White Sox — Opponents have stolen successfully on all 15 attempts when Floyd is on the mound, including five straight Wednesday by the Twins. Opponents have stolen 61 bases in 75 attempts overall against White Sox pitching and catcher A.J. Pierzynski. The Twins stole despite Floyd’s slide-step. The White Sox have held workouts to practice pickoffs and holding runners, but so far, it’s not working.

5. Chris Carpenter, RHP, Cardinals — Nobody, least of all Carpenter, can figure out his lack of wins this season. He had one in his last 14 starts and two in his last 19, which is strange for a guy who entered the season with a .718 winning percentage with the Cardinals. Carpenter also lost four of his last five starts in 2010, which got him down to 84-33 in his Cardinals career. “I feel as good as I’ve ever felt, and my stuff’s as good as it’s ever been,’’ he said. “The question is, ‘Why am I continuing to get beat?’ And, ‘Why am I not executing the way I should at times?’ I’ve got to figure out what’s going on. At some point in time, something’s going to work for me, I would assume.’’

6. Carlos Silva, RHP, Yankees — Neither Silva, with Scranton, or Kevin Millwood, with Pawtucket, has shown enough to get the big teams excited about calling them up. The Yankees opted for 32-year-old Brian Gordon, whom they signed after he opted out of his Phillies deal. The Sox are promoting Andrew Miller over Millwood.

7. B.J. Upton, CF, Rays — There’s always the should-we-or-shouldn’t-we-trade-him dilemma for the Rays. The Nationals, for one, want a young center fielder they can grow with. Many believe Upton will smooth out and be that guy. So is he available? All signs point to yes.

8. Jonathan Broxton, closer, Dodgers — He has been out since May with an elbow injury but slowly but surely is on his way back. When he does return, and if he shows he is healthy, the Dodgers may dish him if they’re still far behind in the standings. Said a scout, “He’d be a big piece for someone if he’s healthy and throwing OK. Those are big ifs, but it’s a name to keep in mind if you need a late-game guy.’’

9. Prince Fielder, 1B, Brewers — One man’s opinion: The Nationals will emerge as a major suitor for Fielder. There’s an amiable relationship between them and Scott Boras, they need a big-name power hitter, and they are an emerging team with Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, and Stephen Strasburg. The Nationals are the “team of the future’’ and at age 27, Fielder is still a young man who can put people in the seats.

Short hops From the Bill Chuck files: “Through the 2008 season, Jimmy Rollins was a lifetime .277 hitter, but since turning 30 before the start of the 2009 season, Rollins has hit only .250.’’ Also, “Happy Father’s Day Stats of the Day: Ruben Amaro was a career .234 hitter, and his son Ruben Amaro Jr. hit .235. Tito Francona hit .272 lifetime, and son Terry Francona hit .274.’’ And, “Playing for Reno, Arizona’s Triple A franchise, Wily Mo Pena is hitting .356 with 21 homers and 62 RBIs in 59 games.’’ . . . Happy birthday to Dusty Brown (29), Bruce Chen (34), and Doug Mientkiewicz (37).

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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