Why has April been unlucky for so many aces?

R.A. Dickey (Chris Young/AP)

R.A. Dickey (Chris Young/AP)

 

On Thursday, R.A. Dickey, a Cy Young award winner last season, had his second straight strong outing for his new team, Toronto. But in the sixth inning, his back and neck began tightening up. Blue Jays Manager John Gibbons visited the mound. Dickey recorded one more out, and then was done for the night.

On that same night, David Price, the other Cy Young award winner in 2012, was staked to a lead three times against Baltimore. Three times, the Tampa Bay lefty allowed the Orioles to pull even or ahead. When his night was over, his ERA stood at 6.26, and he didn’t yet have a win.

The early part of the baseball season is filled with head-to-head matchups of marquee pitchers, two clubs’ opening day starters so frequently facing each other because off days and rainouts have not yet messed up their every-five-days routine. But for so many aces in so many cities, April has been a disaster.

Matt Cain, a key cog in San Francisco’s unexpected run to the World Series title last fall, is 0-2 with a 7.15 ERA. Johnny Cueto, an anchor for Cincinnati, is on the disabled list with a strained muscle in his rib cage, and officials don’t know when he’ll throw again. Cole Hamels finally got an opening day start for Philadelphia – in part because would-be ace Roy Halladay is such a disaster right now – but Hamels is still looking for his first win and boasts an ERA of 6.46, even after allowing just four runs over 13 innings in his last two starts.

Matt Cain (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Matt Cain (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Is this trend or coincidence? Early-season pitching numbers, obviously, can be skewed, because one bad outing can inflate ERAs or opponents’ batting averages. For most, those numbers will come down over the course of 33 or 34 starts – the number a front-of-the-rotation starter will typically get, if healthy all season.

But baseball has long tried to find the link between workload and performance, and how they’re related over time. Injury, as Washington ace Stephen Strasburg and Nationals fans know, is also of particular concern to teams – and Strasburg’s production in his September outings, outings he wasn’t permitted to make in 2012 as he came back from Tommy John surgery, will be scrutinized throughout baseball.

Consider, then, the workloads of some of those struggling aces. Dickey is a knuckleballer, and therefore by nature a difficult comparison, but he led the National League with 233 2/3 innings pitched in 2012, 25 more innings than he’d ever thrown before. Since 2006, only five pitchers have thrown more innings than Cain – and two of those, Halladay (7.63 ERA) and Washington’s Dan Haren (8.10 ERA) are off to horrific starts as well. Cueto exceeded his previous high in innings pitched by 33-1/3 innings last year. Only eight pitchers threw more innings than Price in 2011-12.

There are, of course, exceptions to all this (see Justin Verlander, C.C. Sabathia, Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez). But thus far, April has been unkind to so many aces – a situation that bears watching over the course of the summer.

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