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CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE Today's long men only bring relief to teams' budgets

The "juiced ball" controversy is losing steam, but the hits just keep on coming. Could it be that the offensive explosion of 1994 is more the product of lifeless arms than lively baseballs?

Let's get even more specific. Is it possible that a recent decline in the depth and quality of middle relief pitching is at the root of baseball's run-production frenzy?

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Some insiders think so. Toronto Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick recently compared the state of middle relief to the World Wrestling Federation, where -- he said -- you can just take someone into the corner and beat the heck out of him. He was half-joking, but there is nothing funny about the way dozens of pitchers have been mugged in the early weeks of the new season.

Twenty-one major-league relief pitchers entered last week with double-digit ERAs. In the American League alone, 30 middle and setup men -- more than two a team -- had ERAs higher than 6.00.

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It's early, of course. The number of innings pitched still is low enough that one three-run homer can turn a good ERA bad, but there is something amiss. On that, almost everyone agrees.

"There are a lot of good, young power hitters out there right now," said Orioles pitching coach Dick Bosman. "I think that is working in concert with the pool of relievers being diluted by expansion."

The expansion argument is popular. The addition of two teams last year put more strain on a baseball talent pool that already was being eroded by the rising popularity of other pro sports. Each of the new teams must fill five or six major-league relief jobs and stock its minor-league system with reinforcements.

Case closed? Not exactly. If that were the most significant factor, then it would be fair to expect a similar downturn in the quality of talent at the plate. No such offensive recession has taken place either this year or last.

It seems more logical to conclude that the emphasis on middle relief -- which increased as bullpens became more specialized in the 1980s -- has fallen victim to baseball's financial crunch.

"That's one thing a lot of people don't think about," said Seattle Mariners manager Lou Piniella. "A lot of teams have cut back financially. It's a budgetary thing. One of the easiest places to cut is in middle relief."

Right-hander Todd Frohwirth found that out in December, when the Orioles looked at his $900,000 salary and chose not to tender him a contract. (He agreed to a minor-league deal, but was released again in March.) The club still has an experienced bullpen with clearly defined roles, but other teams appear to be going even farther in cost-cutting measures.

Some are even going back in time . . . back to a time when the bullpen used to be a place where young pitchers gained experience and old pitchers went to play out their careers. The Oakland Athletics, whose middle relief corps was the envy of baseball just a few years ago, came to Baltimore last week with a group of middlemen that included three rookies, journeyman Edwin Nunez and since-released Dave Righetti.

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"I noticed that," Orioles closer Lee Smith said. "I was seeing a lot of guys with Oakland that I had never seen before. I think salary has a lot to do with that. They don't want guys making $700,000 or $800,000 when you can get a kid for the minimum [$109,000]."

Remember when Oakland manager Tony La Russa could line up three veteran setup men to bridge the gap between his starting rotation and supercloser Dennis Eckersley? Now, the A's are one of the league's most vulnerable teams in the middle

and late innings. They blew leads of three runs or more seven times in their first 19 games of 1994.

Eckersley, who once was almost impossible to hit, even has found himself under fire, and he says that the widening middle relief gap is part of the problem.

"My success has been because of the middle relief," Eckersley said. "The save is really made in the sixth or seventh inning. If clubs are getting away from that [an emphasis on good middle relief], you've got to pay for it somewhere. But I can't blame the owners. I wouldn't want to pay $1 million for somebody to set up somebody either."

Is the concept quantifiable? Is there compelling evidence that teams have turned middle relief back into an apprenticeship and retirement program? There is some.

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The number of inexperienced pitchers working in middle relief has increased during the past year in the American League, where 41 of the 79 pitchers who have worked in middle relief this year do not have enough service time to be eligible for salary arbitration. Add the 13 pitchers who are in their 10th year of service time or later, and that leaves only 32 percent of this year's middlemen in their prime earning years.

Salary may not equal on-field success, but it is a good indicator of the

emphasis that a club may be putting on a certain area. A survey of the top five middlemen on each AL team in 1993 showed that 43 percent were in the three- to nine-year experience range and that a much lower percentage were in their first and second years of service.

"There are a lot more younger guys -- just look at the rosters," said Orioles long man Mark Williamson, "but there are also a lot of veteran guys who aren't doing well right now."

In the National League, there may be a less complicated explanation. Injuries to several of the game's top closers have caused a chain reaction that has forced each of their clubs to move a top setup man (or a committee of them) into the closer role. That forces other relievers into unfamiliar roles and could explain a general downturn in the efficiency of middle relief.

Nunez, a nine-year veteran who has an 11.57 ERA, says that bad relief pitching -- like good hitting -- can be contagious.

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"I think everyone starts looking at the whole picture," he said. "The idea of a good bullpen is, everybody pulls for each other. You feel it when everybody else is struggling, so you put more pressure on yourself. It goes around. You see other guys not doing the job, and you put pressure on

yourself to do it."

The dramatic impact all this might have on individual statistics would be buffered later in the season, but most pitchers have thrown only a handful of innings at this point. A couple of big swings can send an ERA through the roof.

"Early in the season, all it takes is one bad game," Williamson said. "That ERA goes up a lot quicker than a batting average, and it goes up a lot quicker than it comes down. I think you have to look and see if every time out a pitcher is giving up runs. ERA can be very deceptive.

"Look at Alan Mills, the day he struck out those three guys [Juan Gonzalez, Jose Canseco and Dean Palmer] against Texas, he gave up a home run later in the game. Realistically, it was a great outing, but statistically, it was a bad outing."

Mills is a great example. He has a 17.55 ERA, thanks to the five home runs he had given up in his first 6 2/3 innings, but manager Johnny Oates still considers him one of the club's top setup men.

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"It's so glaring," Eckersley said, "because there's nothing to even it out. This game has turned into a statistical parade. There's no getting around it. Everybody wants to get inside the numbers, but it's a long season. If you've been around, you realize that."


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