Classic theory has pitchers in a funk

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CHICAGO – Until Johan Santana decided to pitch like Johan Santana on Friday night, this chunk of space was going to try and figure out his problems. Talk with his pitching coach, his manager, his teammates, his opponents, a scout or two and, voila, mystery solved.

Of course, then Santana threw seven strong innings in the Minnesota Twins' 7-1 loss to the Chicago White Sox, giving up his only two runs on a home run by Jim Thome. While the idea of chronicling Santana's struggles dissipated rather quickly, his performances had dovetailed with a theory posed by a friend earlier in the night.

The World Baseball Classic affected starting pitching. Dramatically.

Frankly, it sounded absurd. The pitching in the WBC was, by and large, tremendous. Of the 24 major-league starting pitchers who participated, 16 finished with earned-run averages below 3.50. Most of the pitchers conditioned themselves at least a month earlier than usual to prepare for the rigor of high-stakes games during spring-training time that generally consists of working more on their tan than their curveball.

Still, the theory was worth checking out. Baltimore Orioles starter Daniel Cabrera was historically bad in his first two starts. Bartolo Colon just went on the DL. Jae Seo, the best big-league pitcher throughout the tournament, has gotten knocked around. More and more cases came up until circumstantial evidence piled up into fact-based proof that vetted the theory.

The 24 WBC starters, by and large, have stunk. After Santana's start Friday, their aggregate ERA is 5.53, more than a half-run higher than the league average of 4.90. Even with Baltimore's Erik Bedard at 4-0 and Toronto's Gustavo Chacin at 3-0, their combined record is 25-31.

Remember, these were supposed to be the world's best.

They've shown signs of recovering recently, making for an interesting addendum to the theory: It takes three or four starts – ones they missed during spring training? – to straighten themselves out. In their last outings, 17 of the 24 went at least six innings.

That includes Santana, the 2004 American League Cy Young winner, last year's runner-up and a near-consensus as the game's best left-hander. His ERA is still above 5.00 after Friday, and while he's generally a slow starter, he has company among his WBC brethren this season.

"Maybe the numbers, the scoreboards, the box scores looked different (than usual)," Santana said. "I've felt pretty good. And as long as I feel that way, I'm fine. My legs are good, my arm. Everything is good.

"The WBC is over with. We have to move on and think about this season."

OK. Though forgive us if we harp for a short while.

Santana wins awards and plaudits and national-hero status in Venezuela because of his changeup. It might be the most devastating off-speed pitch in baseball. He has made the fiercest hitters trod to the dugout cursing themselves. And in his start against the New York Yankees last week, he wasn't throwing it.

It's three weeks into the season, and Santana still doesn't have the touch on his change. He got by Friday with a 94-mph fastball and an above-average slider, but the pitch on which he relies – the one that takes touch, something cultivated during those lazy spring days – remains AWOL.

"The one thing we know for a fact is, we have our regimen in spring training," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "It works out pretty good, and if we see something is not there, you're able to (fix it). When you're facing competition, some of that stuff goes out the window, because it becomes getting people out. We're working on pitches and getting your pitches and arm strength up. Maybe he's behind. I don't know. …

"It was a very nice event, and it was a success. But going into it, everyone in baseball was worried about the same things. We had a lot of pitchers in it. And we're doing the best we can. If the pitchers say they're doing well, that's good enough for us. But we always know where we're at around here, and we know we've been a little bit behind."

Gardenhire has seen Carlos Silva, his pinpoint starter who walked nine batters in 188 1/3 innings last year, issue three in 21 1/3 innings.

Oakland Athletics manager Ken Macha has seen Esteban Loaiza, his big free-agent signing this offseason, give up 31 baserunners in 14 2/3 innings.

And while Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo has seen Bedard look great, he's also seen Cabrera (17 walks in 13 1/3 innings), Rodrigo Lopez (20 earned runs in 25 innings) and Bruce Chen (8.10 ERA) look the antithesis of it.

"There's something there," said White Sox starter Freddy Garcia, who, after sparkling in the WBC, has a 7.80 ERA after three starts and has allowed 28 baserunners in 15 innings. "I don't know for sure if the World Baseball Classic (messed) me up. But it was different. You've got to turn it on like that and pitch, and then you go back to spring training and have to turn it off."

The hot-cold nature of the tournament drew criticism. So did its propensity to limit some pitchers' innings. The timing didn't help, either, and with all of the issues, teams could be loath to let their starting pitchers play in 2009.

Perhaps next time they will look to Japan, the inaugural WBC champion. The Japanese played with tremendous fundamentals and bridled passion and, most important, gathered the team a month before the tournament and practiced.

Take a look at the statistics in Nippon Professional Baseball this season. Scan to the top of the pitching numbers, and it's no surprise who's there: Daisuke Matsuzaka, the WBC MVP, with an ERA of 1.13, the best in Japan. He has thrown two complete games (more than anyone in MLB) and struck out 24 (more than anyone in MLB with three starts).

Which, of course, means the friend's theory wasn't exactly right.

The World Baseball Classic didn't affect starting pitching.

It affected starting pitching in Major League Baseball.

No matter what Johan Santana or anyone else thinks.