There's a run on theories to explain all the scoring

THE BALTIMORE SUN

That Texas scored 26 runs against the Orioles and Minnesota scored 24 runs against Detroit within the past 10 days is extraordinary.

What is more unbelievable is that in each game, the starting pitcher for the winning team -- the Rangers' Roger Pavlik and the Twins' Frankie Rodriguez -- weren't around long enough to earn victories. All of it speaks to the rather frightful state of pitching in the big leagues.

Through Wednesday's games, the composite American League ERA was 5.26, more than half a run higher than last year's ERA (4.71). Only four teams had an ERA under five runs. The numbers weren't nearly so grotesque in the NL, a 4.26 composite ERA this year, compared with 4.17 last year.

But the fact is, a whole lot of runs are being scored. In 14 games Wednesday, there were 193 runs, three short of the single-day record in the majors. On May 30, 1932, 196 runs were scored in 16 games (eight doubleheaders).

"I think there are a couple of reasons," said Merv Rettenmund, hitting coach for the San Diego Padres. "First off, there just isn't as much quality pitching as there was before expansion. But another reason, and nobody really talks about this, is that there are so few good defensive teams in baseball."

Rettenmund's thinking is that some balls that shouldn't be hits are falling in, and, in addition, pitchers aren't throwing with confidence. Boston pitchers, for example, backed by the worst defense in the majors, may be more likely to go for the strikeout and less apt to follow conventional wisdom -- let them hit it and let your defense do the work for you.

Another possible reason is the incredibly shrinking strike zone. Orioles manager Davey Johnson noted this week that when he played, pitches that passed over the plate gut-high were strikes. "Now you don't see anything called above the belt," he said.

Starting pitchers are forced to throw more pitches, which is why you see the likes of Roger Clemens needing 120 pitches or so to get through six innings, and are forced out of the game sooner. That means more innings are being thrown by middle relievers, who generally make up the lower end of the pitching food chain.

About 20 to 25 percent of the major-league rosters (the exact figures change daily) are made up of pitchers who have been released at one time or another. Twelve percent of the pitchers in the majors had ERAs between 5.00 and 6.00 last year, and 10 percent had ERAs over 6.00.

We're almost a month into the season and only two pitchers, Hideo Nomo of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Juan Guzman of the Toronto Blue Jays, have two complete games. Box scores are overloaded with six and seven relievers in games that end with scores like 3-2 and 4-3. Fewer innings for pitchers like Kevin Appier means more innings for pitchers like Mike Magnante.

The strike zone needs to be expanded even more than it was this year, to force hitters to swing the bat and to allow good pitchers to throw more innings. Anyone who watched Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle hit chest-high fastballs for homers against the Orioles last week knows that batters could deal with a higher strike zone.

Adjustments need to be made. Football scores don't look good in baseball.

"That wasn't very pretty," Twins manager Tom Kelly said after Minnesota beat the Tigers by a couple of touchdowns and an extra point. "All we can do is apologize to the fans who were at the ballpark and watched that exhibition of major-league baseball."

Minnesota second baseman Chuck Knoblauch said, "You have guys with no control pitching in the majors. And to think we've got expansion in two years. It's scary. Hitters are getting stronger and better and working year-round to improve, and there are pitching problems everywhere you look. It's going to be scary."

It already is.

Ribbing from Rettenmund

Rettenmund called to chide his former teammate, Orioles pitching coach Pat Dobson, after the Rangers scored 26 runs against Baltimore. "There's no professional courtesy in the game anymore," Rettenmund said, dryly. "They have Ball Night for the fans in Texas, and they make the pitchers pass out the balls from the mound."

Sixteen of the first 17 pitches thrown by Tim Wakefield in Boston's 8-3 victory over Texas on Thursday were strikes, providing a huge sense of relief for the Red Sox staff. Boston is starving for starting pitching, with Clemens essentially a six-inning pitcher now, Aaron Sele trying to come back from arm surgery and Tom Gordon banished to the bullpen. Wakefield and his knuckleball had been so bad in spring training that a month ago the Red Sox were trying to figure out when to dump him. With his knuckler restored, he could be a savior this year, as he was in 1995.

Montreal manager Felipe Alou was called by a half-dozen or so managers around baseball with verbal pats on the back after Alou came out of his dugout last Tuesday to scream at St. Louis manager Tony La Russa in the midst of a beanball war. La Russa always has been in the thick of this kind of intimidation stuff, and the other managers were glad to see Alou stand up to him.

Imagine you are Angels manager Marcel Lachemann. Your team is winning, and your closer of the future and present, Troy Percival, has helped you win seven straight one-run games. Then Lee Smith, injured in an off-season hunting accident, comes back and disrupts everything by saying that he would rather retire than be a setup man, and that he's upset the closer's job isn't immediately his. You would be pretty upset, too.

Albert Belle update

The timing of all the Albert Belle news is interesting. The Indians pulled their five-year, $43 million contract offer off the table immediately after Belle hit a Sports Illustrated photographer with a baseball, and after two other, less-publicized, incidents. The first week of the season, the Indians held a luncheon, attendance mandatory, at which Belle was to receive a team MVP award for '95 (along with Jose Mesa), voted on by the other Indians. Belle didn't bother to show.

Later, Belle agreed to do a commercial with McDonald's for a $25,000 fee. The production crew arrived, set up equipment and waited . . . and waited . . . and waited. Belle never showed. Manager Mike Hargrove had to stand in for him. One wonders whether word of Belle's alleged incident involving the photographer may have been leaked by the team, preparing to bid adieu to the talented but troublesome hitter.

Because of the Rockies' pitching problems, they are tempted to call up Jamey Wright, their No. 1 pick from 1993 who was 3-0 with no runs allowed in his first 18 innings at Double-A New Haven. But Wright is 21, and the organization's development people hope the Rockies leave him in the minors to build confidence before exposing him to Colorado's thin air.

Cuban defector Livan Hernandez dominated in spring training, leading to speculation he would begin the year in the Marlins' rotation. However, he faded and is getting thumped in Triple-A -- 17 earned runs in 12 innings for Charlotte. "We could have started him off at Double-A, and he probably would have had a success pattern similar to what he enjoyed in spring training," said Marlins GM Dave Dombrowski. "This is the first time he's had to face quality hitters on a regular basis. He thought it would be pretty easy, but it hasn't been."

Dodgers shake-up

First baseman Eric Karros and second baseman Delino DeShields have been slumping, so Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda shook up his lineup last week, moving DeShields to the No. 2 spot and reinserting Brett Butler as his leadoff hitter.

Houston closer John Hudek, on the disabled list since March 22 with a fractured rib, wants to return ahead of schedule. The Astros' timetable is early June; his is May 15.

The trials and tribulations of former Orioles third baseman Jeff Manto continue. Signed to play in Japan, Manto reportedly was released and agreed to a Triple-A contract with the Boston Red Sox.

The Cardinals were packed up and ready to roll out of Montreal's Olympic Stadium this week, but their bus was locked in a tunnel underneath the stands for an hour until they could find someone to open the exit gates.

Headline from the Boston Globe this week, over a story on the Red Sox: "Dead Men Walking."

Smoltz on a roll

Atlanta's John Smoltz is putting it all together. He leads the NL in strikeouts and is tied for the league lead in victories. "My confidence is at an all-time high, and I really believe I can get people out," he said. "Hits don't bother me. I'm going after guys."

Florida right fielder Gary Sheffield drove in only 14 runs with his first 10 homers, numbers that can be directly traced to his lack of clutch hitting. Through Wednesday's games, he had two hits in 13 at-bats with runners in scoring position, and was 4-for-30 (.133) with runners on base.

Radar clocked Pete Harnisch's fastball in the low-80s this week; it appears shoulder problems may have finished the Mets' right-hander as a power pitcher.

Mike Butcher retired Tuesday night after failing to record an out from any of the nine batters he faced in a Triple-A game. As one writer said, Butcher wanted to retire at least one man that night.

Pub Date: 4/28/96

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