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Offense in 1996: history


DETROIT -- Seattle Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez is probably too young to remember the axiom that nothing in sports is harder than hitting a baseball.

But he's not too young to help lead an offensive explosion in major league baseball, the likes of which the sport has never seen.

At 21, Rodriguez is one of 19 players this season on a pace to hit .300 with 30 homers and 100 RBIs -- a numerical achievement that author and statistical trailblazer Bill James once referred to as a "Hall of Fame season."

And another seven players could do it by raising their batting averages a few percentage points.

To put what's happening in perspective, consider: Never have more than 10 players achieved .300-30-100 in the same season -- and that happened back in the hitting-happy days of 1929 and 1930, when such legendary players as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were terrorizing pitching staffs.

Houston-based baseball analyst Bill Gilbert searched the record books and found that in no season since 1930 have more than eight players reached .300-30-100.

That happened twice -- in 1953, when Stan Musial, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Eddie Mathews, Gil Hodges, Ted Kluszewski, Al Rosen and Gus Bell did it, and again in 1961, when it was achieved by Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, Orlando Cepeda, Norm Cash, Jim Gentile and Dick Stuart.

This season, one team -- the Colorado Rockies -- might have four players finish with .300-30-100: Dante Bichette, Ellis Burks, Vinny Castilla and Andres Galarraga. The Mariners and Cleveland Indians have three each: Rodriguez, Ken Griffey and Edgar Martinez at Seattle; Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and Albert Belle at Cleveland.

The group is so large, former league most valuable players Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas and Mo Vaughn go almost unnoticed -- even though they belong, too.

Rodriguez is perhaps the most intriguing of the new wave of sluggers who are dominating the game as never before.

In 1994, Rodriguez was playing for Appleton of the Midwest League; last season, he joined Seattle for 48 games and batted .232 with five homers and 19 RBIs.

After a so-so start this season, Rodriguez has caught fire and looks like the runaway winner for the American League batting title with a .372 average through Monday. He's putting up power numbers (35 homers, 116 RBIs) previously reserved for an elite group of cleanup hitters.

"He's good, but he ain't that good," former Tigers manager Sparky Anderson said when asked about the Mariners infielder.

The same might be said of a lot of hitters working on career years. The major league record for most home runs in a season (4,458) already has fallen, as has the record for hitters with 40 or more homers. In 1961, eight hitters topped 40; this season, nine have done it.

What's behind this dramatic increase in offense?

Anderson, now a California Angels broadcaster, said the most obvious reasons are the woeful lack of pitching, smaller ballparks and a livelier ball.

"I asked a guy the other day to name me a great pitcher in the American League," Anderson said. "He came up with Randy Johnson, and I said. 'Pick someone else. Johnson's injured and isn't pitching anymore this season.'

"He couldn't come up with any others, which is my point."

Beyond the Braves and Dodgers, no pitching staffs seem able to stand up to today's offensive weapons. And the more baseball grows (expansion is coming again in 1998), the less quality pitching there will be.

In 1960 -- the last year before the first expansion -- the 16 teams needed a total of 150 to 160 pitchers. This year, the 28 teams are carrying almost twice that many.

Despite the greater number of pitchers, former Tigers left-hander Mickey Lolich said, the sport no longer produces hard throwers.

"To be a hard thrower, you have to become a power pitcher in the early days of your development," Lolich said. "But a young pitcher finds out that with aluminum bats, the harder he throws it, the farther the ball goes.

"So you have young pitchers going to breaking stuff and not developing a fastball."

Anderson said the weak pitching is exposed even more by the easily reachable outfield fences in today's new stadiums.

"You add in the small ballparks, and you've got a real recipe for trouble," Anderson said. "I mean, look at Baltimore's stadium. I don't know how far they say it is to left-center there, but all it takes is a chip shot to get the ball into the seats."

The ball is obviously livelier, Anderson said, noting the type of player hitting the ball out of the park with regularity this season.

"We're not supposed to believe the ball is alive when little guys are going the opposite way and hitting the ball out?" Anderson said. "Please. Don't insult our intelligence.

"I'm telling you, that's not a baseball they're using, it's a jumping bean."

Tigers GM Randy Smith is a baseball purist who prefers a 4-3 game to a 13-11 slugfest. But he isn't expecting the current state of affairs to change anytime soon.

"The pitching has thinned out, the hitters are stronger and the ballparks are smaller," Smith said.

Unlike earlier times, hitters are swinging a bat and lifting weights year-round.

"They're always thinking about hitting," Smith said. "I remember once finding Melvin Nieves working out at a batting cage on Christmas Eve."

Baseball could help slow the offensive onslaught by raising the mound to pre-1969 levels, Smith said. The higher the mound, the more effective angle a pitcher can achieve when releasing the ball toward the plate, which would help increase velocity.

"They're not going to make the ballparks any bigger, and you can't change the physical strength of the hitters," Smith said. "But you could help even things out a little" by raising the mound.

After the dead-ball era of 1901-1917, power hitters and power pitchers have dominated the game in cycles. In the modern era, the last time pitchers ruled was in 1968 -- when six pitchers achieved a triple of 20 victories, 200 strikeouts and an ERA under 3.00.

Pub Date: 9/11/96

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