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Original Issue

Back to the bad old days

Ask a baseball club owner for his recollections of the 1968 season and he will tell you how many high bridges there are in this land that are perfect for jumping off; he will know because he carefully scouted all of them that year. To a degree 1968 is remembered in baseball with the same horror as 1919, the year of the Black Sox scandal; 1926, the year Pete Rozelle was born in a manger in South Gate, Calif.; and 1942, the year the players marched off to war. The images of' 68 are of pitchers so massive they block out the light of the sun and of batting averages so minuscule that it seemed the batters truly were hitting in the dark. It all added up to so many low-run games that bored fans chose to stay home and watch summer reruns on TV instead. Now there is evidence that 1968 is having a rerun of its own, dressed up as 1972. While concern over the second coming has not yet peaked, it will very shortly.

As the chart below shows, the pitchers are suffocating the hitters again, driving batting averages down and throwing shutouts (listed below as ShO) at an even more frequent rate than in '68. August has been a particularly bewildering month for those who assumed that the lowering of the pitching mound and tightening of the strike zone back in 1969 had accomplished for all time the purpose of equalizing offense and defense. At the end of last week, with 36 games still to be played in the month, 57 shutouts had been thrown in August alone, and there had been 59 games in which pitchers gave up four or fewer hits. There were 40 more in which one team or the other had only five hits.

During the week Pittsburgh's Nelson Briles came within a short hop of becoming the 10th man since 1900 to pitch a perfect game. A ball that caromed off First Baseman Willie Stargell's glove gave the Giants their only hit and only base runner. Briles' one-hitter was one of four in August (the Cubs' Bill Hands, Kansas City's Roger Nelson and Milwaukee's Skip Lockwood threw the others) and one of 14 so far this season. Recently, White Sox Wilbur Wood went 11 innings, ending up with a two-hitter.

An even more disturbing factor in the offense-defense ratio is the degree to which pitching again dominates the game even though several of the best performers are either plagued by injuries or experiencing off seasons. The two lefthanders with the lowest earned run averages in each league in 1971, Oakland's Vida Blue and Houston's Dave Roberts, have a combined ERA of 2.96, compared to 1.95 last year. In the American League, Twins Bert Blyleven and Jim Perry, Red Sox Sonny Siebert and Ray Culp, Yankees Fritz Peterson and Mel Stottlemyre and Angel Andy Messersmith have winning percentages of .500 or worse. The same is true for National Leaguers Rick Wise of St. Louis, Bill Singer of Los Angeles, Carl Morton of Montreal, Don Gullett of Cincinnati, Jerry Koosman and Gary Gentry of New York and Juan Marichal of San Francisco.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn is well aware of the problem and his projection of the composite batting average in the majors this season adds up to the same figure (.244) as the one computed by the highly respected Elias Sports Bureau, which compiled the accompanying chart. (Even though 86 fewer games will be played this year than last because of the players' strike in April, all projections for 1972 were figured as if every team played a full 162-game schedule in order to simplify the comparison with preceding seasons.) Assuming the projections are valid, they are enough to make big-league executives go scouting bridges again. Elias says that between 1970 and 1972, run production—the most critical measure of offense—will be off a total of 2,445.

The other morning Lee MacPhail, the astute general manager of the Yankees, sat in his office at Yankee Stadium, examined several sets of figures and tried to determine how critical the slippage really is. To MacPhail the situation is clearly severe and he is already talking of ways to bring hitting back to where it was only two seasons ago.

"There is little doubt," MacPhail said, "that the pitchers may have adapted quicker to lowering the mound than we thought they would. But many people in the game are quite conservative, and making a lot of rule changes all at once will not happen.

"If you have as many scouting reports go across your desk as I do, you can't help but notice that the pitchers scouted are so much bigger than the other players. In grade school and high school the best athlete tends to be the pitcher. But you cannot keep legislating against him. I would not be for lowering the mound again as an answer."

In 1969 the mound was shaved by five inches because major league hitters had averaged only .237 the year before. The lowering made it harder for pitchers to drive off the mound, and many of their pitches came in high. The pitchers' problem was further complicated because they were throwing from an unfamiliar angle. Many of them also showed the psychological effects of having to restyle their windups to cope with the change, but now it seems that all but a few have mastered the new height. One pitcher most bothered by the change was Luis Tiant, then with the Indians. Tiant won 21 games for Cleveland in 1968 with an earned run average of 1.60. His varied delivery was one of the most unorthodox and effective ever seen. The lowered mound along with several other factors was blamed for Tiant's dismal 1969 season when he won only nine games and his ERA doubled. Now, after three struggling seasons, Tiant finally seems at home on the new mound. During the past three weeks he has become Boston's best pitcher, giving up four runs in 28 innings and twice chasing no-hitters late into games. Tiant has pitched two shutouts in his most recent starts.

"Some people," says MacPhail, "have discussed an eight-man lineup as a solution to the problem because the reduced batting order would get your three, four and five hitters—your key run producers—up twice more a game in many cases. There are also those who want to limit the number of pitchers you can have on a team. This would help the hitter in that he would not be seeing so many different pitchers. I don't know that I like the idea too much. Some of the bigger heroes in the game are relief pitchers and I don't think we should lose sight of that fact."

The idea MacPhail still likes best is the "designated hitter," a man who would usually bat in place of the pitcher. "It was tried in the International League three years ago with great success," he says. "It does not mess up strategy that much, and the starting pitcher stays in the game. It is also a way to keep well-known players in baseball just to hit without requiring them to withstand the wear and tear of playing defense. I'm talking about men like Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and maybe Henry Aaron in a couple of years.

"The one thing I am sure of is that the hitting situation is not a matter just of the National League or the American," he concluded. "It doesn't go along league lines. It's everyone's problem. I hope that we are not back to exactly where we were four years ago. But what I see of the trend I don't like."