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Original Issue

The averages aren't average

Barry Bonnell of Toronto is leading a ferocious assault against pitchers

Outfielder Barry Bonnell of the Toronto Blue Jays has a batting stroke that isn't recommended for everyone. He stands straight and holds his hands high and away from the body. He doesn't pull back the bat until the pitcher is into his motion. But when Bonnell uncoils toward the ball, hoo boy, look out.

One can imagine the complaints of batting coaches who have worked with Bonnell over the years: "Get those hands down, son. Bat back. Ain't no way you're gonna become a major league hitter like that." At times Bonnell has taken their advice, but for the most part he has clung to the unorthodox style taught him by his father, Bob. A good thing, too, because at week's end Bonnell, a .220 hitter in 1981, was leading both the American and National Leagues with a .389 average.

That Bonnell is the majors' top batter is fitting, because so far this season every manner of stroke—right, wrong, weak, strong—seems to be working. According to official statistics released by the league offices early last week, the American League average of .263 and the National League's .260 were both 10 points higher than the averages through a comparable number of games last season. Sixty-four players were batting more than .300, as compared with 42 in 1981, and the number of teams hitting better than .250 had risen from 19 to 22.

Nor is Bonnell the only individual showing unexpected prowess at the plate. At the end of last week Pittsburgh First Baseman Jason Thompson, a .262 career hitter, was batting .344 and Baltimore Leftfielder John Lowenstein was at .333, up from .245.

Traditionally, hitting doesn't take off until after the Memorial Day weekend, when doubleheaders pile up, weather and batters get hot and pitchers wilt. But not this year. And the difference between 1981 and 1982 can't be laughed off as a product of prestrike tension vs. poststrike relief: The National League average was that league's highest and the American League's its second highest at this point in the season since 1977.

Explanations are as diverse as batting styles. Some baseball men claim the trend is merely part of a cycle. "It's just a matter of time before the pitchers catch up," says Phil Garner of the Astros. California's Bob Boone reasons that "After 120 years, maybe people finally figured out how to hit."

Also being heard is the old refrain that the bats and balls are livelier than ever. The Haitian-made balls have from one to five dots on them next to the trademark, and the players swear the two-and three-dotters, which comprise most of the balls this season, have more bounce to the ounce. "It wouldn't surprise me if they've jacked up the balls," says Texas Pitcher Doc Medich. "So why are they being so devious about it? If I was in charge, I'd run a big advertising campaign. Maybe they think they're slipping something by the Players Association." Other pitchers think the hitters are slipping in more corked bats. Then there's the hitters-are-stronger-and-better-trained routine; we've heard that before, too.

National League pitchers have been pounded so often that scoring has taken a quantum leap—from 7.81 runs a game to 10.01. Pitchers in both leagues have been put at a disadvantage by the umpires' closer attention to brushbacks. "They've taken the high hard one away," says Cleveland Manager Dave Garcia. "I believe it's a factor in the higher averages." Minnesota batting coach Jim Lemon agrees. Warnings against the high hard one have made it safer for a batter to dig in. As a result, Lemon says, "We instruct our batters to keep looking for the pitch low and away."

Perhaps the most important factor, says Mets Coach Frank Howard, is that "Clubs are placing more emphasis on run production. I think people realize that run production is attractive. With increased production come all the good things: defensive plays involving the outfield, headfirst slides, base running." Not to mention higher gate receipts. No wonder six teams—Milwaukee, Oakland, Texas, San Diego, San Francisco and the Chicago White Sox—made their parks more attractive to hitters after last season, while only two, Seattle and Detroit, raised or moved back their fences.

Then there's the new Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, the garden spot of the hitting universe. Through Sunday 65 homers and 235 runs had been produced there in 23 games—a 2.83-homer, 10.22-run-per-game pace that was well above the American League averages of 1.55 and 8.81. Playing at old Metropolitan Stadium last season, the Twins and their opponents averaged only 1.18 homers and 8.28 runs. Talk about change: As the Yankees beat the Twins 10-5 in the dome last Friday night, the teams clubbed a major league season-high eight homers, one an inside-the-parker that came when New York Leftfielder Lou Piniella lost a fly ball in the lights, or the roof, or something.

Of course, the six National League parks with artificial turf have always been conducive to high-paced offenses. Lately, teams have structured themselves more than ever to take advantage of these surfaces. "You have more speed involved," says Cub Manager Lee Elia, "and more switch hitters like Tim Raines, Garry Templeton and Ozzie Smith. You get more base hits and you have a lot of movement on the bases that creates opportunities for hits, especially on AstroTurf."

Finally, there's the influence of White Sox Batting Coach Charley Lau. With three different teams—the Royals and Yankees before the Sox—Lau has preached a disciplined rather than a wild-swinging hitting approach. In his system, the batter stands deep in the box and away from the plate, with his weight on the back foot; he swings down on the ball, getting full extension of his arms and hitting the ball up the middle more and pulling it less. Though the injury-riddled Yankees were batting only .261 at week's end, the Royals were leading the majors with a .290 average and the White Sox were fourth in the American League at .275. Moreover, St. Louis, whose manager, Whitey Herzog, worked with Lau in K.C., led the National League at .276.

Says Bonnell, baseball's hottest hitter of the moment, "I haven't changed anything mechanically, but I have changed my attitude. I'm going up there trying to be superaggressive." Bonnell's roommate, Infielder Garth Iorg, has noticed the difference. "In the past he'd worry about getting walks and wouldn't swing until he got the perfect pitch," says Iorg. "This year he's going right after the ball, hitting it to right and left, swinging the bat."

Bonnell, 28, could always swing the bat. After hitting .300 as an Atlanta rookie in 1977, he was hailed as a coming star. But when he was forced to switch from the outfield to third base in 1978, he slipped to .240. "That was the worst year of my life," he says, "and it was my own fault. I had a hard time adjusting. I rebelled and pouted. Later I had a talk with myself, and I think I became a better person for it. I was able to go with the flow."

Or more accurately, the turbulence. In 1979 (.259) Bonnell was back in the outfield, platooning at center with Rowland Office. During the off-season the Braves traded him to Toronto, whereupon Milwaukee Pitcher Lary Sorensen disrupted Bonnell's 1980 campaign (.268) by breaking a bone in his face with a pitch. And last Aug. 24 Bonnell was lost for the season with strained knee tendons.

He began the 1982 season platooning in left against lefthanded pitching. In his first start Bonnell went 5 for 5 to begin a 12-game hitting streak. Nonetheless, Manager Bobby Cox didn't make him a full-time regular until last week. "Bobby has been platooning from the word go," says Bonnell, "and that makes us all more aggressive." Indeed, Bonnell is one of four Blue Jays batting better than .300. It's a hitter's year.