Do pitchers have WBC hangover?
Many who played are struggling or injured
By Dave Sheinin
It has been more than six weeks since the inaugural Bud Selig Invitational - also known as the World Baseball Classic - wrapped up and returned all those borrowed players to their rightful teams. But while MLB executives are still counting the proceeds from all those $24.99 T-shirts and $149.99 jerseys, pitching staffs across the majors continue to deal with an acute WBC hangover.
More than a month into the regular season, an inordinate number of pitchers who participated in the WBC are struggling, injured, or both. And when you consider that the majority of those pitchers were considered among the best in baseball - which is why they were plucked away by their national teams in the first place - the evidence suggests some link between the WBC and those problems.
Through Thursday's games, Major League starting pitchers who pitched in the WBC were a combined 45-56 with a 5.34 ERA this season - roughly two-thirds of a run above the aggregate league ERA for starters. Among the superstar pitchers who fall into this category are Dontrelle Willis (1-2, 4.38 ERA), Bartolo Colon (1-2, 7.07 before going on the disabled list) and Carlos Zambrano (0-2, 5.35).
WBC relievers have fared somewhat better, going 26-17 with a 4.08 ERA (just below the aggregate league ERA for relievers of 4.29). But their ranks include some notable flameouts, including star closers Huston Street (6.75 ERA) and Brad Lidge (5.74). Of course, those numbers also do not include Washington setup man, Luis Ayala, who was lost for the season due to an elbow injury suffered during the WBC.
Around baseball, folks are beginning to take notice of the sheer number of WBC pitchers who are struggling during the early part of the regular season.
"I'm the last person who wants to admit this," said Buck Martinez, who served as manager of Team USA during the WBC. "But when you look at all those numbers, I think there's something to it."
Nationals GM Jim Bowden said, "There's no doubt in my mind (there's a link). It's not anyone's fault, except for (the pitchers) were not on normal regimens to get them ready."
To be fair, the trend is hardly universal, and plenty of WBC pitchers have thrived so far this season. There are certainly reasonable explanations behind the individual struggles of certain pitchers that have nothing to do with the WBC.
"I don't think there's any link," said Los Angeles Angels reliever Scot Shields, who pitched for the U.S. team in the WBC and who had a 1.10 ERA for the Angels through Thursday. "Whatever has happened, I think it's a coincidence."
Perhaps no team this season has suffered from the WBC hangover, whether real or perceived, more than the Baltimore Orioles, who sent four-fifths of their starting rotation to the WBC and have seen three of those pitchers - Daniel Cabrera (2-2, 4.73, 25 walks), Bruce Chen (0-4, 8.40) and Rodrigo Lopez (1-3, 6.81) - struggle this season.
Orioles pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who barely contained his disdain of the WBC even as it was going on, said the problem was asking pitchers to dial up their effort so early in the spring. The WBC got under way on March 7, a time when most pitchers usually are slowly building arm strength.
And while WBC pitchers may have been told to go easy, and not pitch at 100 percent effort so early in the spring, in an emotional, international event like the WBC, Mazzone said, "you knew that wasn't going to happen - they were going to go full-bore."
A potential solution in future WBCs, according to Martinez, would be to gather the national teams on Feb. 1 - two weeks before the traditional opening of spring training camps - to begin workouts, then push back the start of the tournament until later in the spring, when pitchers have built up more arm strength.
But if the solution were left up to Mazzone and other pitching coaches around baseball, the inaugural WBC also will have been the last.