As another home run flies out of another ballpark in another 10-9 ball game, another debate breaks out over what's going on in baseball. This time the argument is among the pitchers and hitters of the Colorado Rockies as they gather around a big-screen television in the visiting clubhouse of Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium. They are watching the New York Mets and the Chicago Cubs slug it out at Shea Stadium.
Pitcher Mike Harkey jumps from his chair and shouts, "Look at that. The ball's wound too tight. It's a damn Titleist."
"Guys are just pumped from lifting weights, that's what it is," counters third baseman Charlie Hayes.
"You're going to see some middle reliever with 18 wins and a 10 ERA," offers Marvin Freeman, another pitcher.
"Hey," says catcher Joe Girardi, gleefully wielding an imaginary bat, "keep throwing 0-and-2 pitches down the middle, and that's what'll happen. Boom!"
Pitcher Darren Holmes is so disgusted he walks away from the set. "It's not fair anymore," he decides. "Pitchers ought to just go on strike. That's what we've got to do. All of us just go on strike."
The astonishing number of runs, hits, walks and home runs (box, page 19) continued to be a subject of discussion not only last Thursday at the Vet but also throughout baseball last week. We haven't seen numbers inflate this fast since cattle futures. Through two full weeks of the season only one day went by, April 6, on which at least one team didn't score 10 or more runs—and an act of nature most likely was responsible for that brief interlude. An 8-8 tie that day between the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals was called because of rain after five innings. Teams cracked double digits 27 times in the first 163 games. In two of those cases the losing team scored at least 11 runs.
At a time when the NFL has tinkered with its rules to try to create more points, when the NHL is considering shoot-outs to break ties and the World Cup is faced with overcoming a pervasive distaste in the U.S. for low-scoring sports, baseball finds itself overloaded with offense. Increasingly there arc embarrassments of riches, such as the 22-11 shellacking the Boston Red Sox put on the Kansas City Royals on April 12, in which five Royal pitchers threw 230 pitches, and the 19-2 hammering the Los Angeles Dodgers laid on the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday, in which Cory Snyder, fresh off the disabled list, hit three homers and had seven RBIs.
The rash of runs has touched off more than the usual suggestions from pitchers, coaches and managers about a juiced-up baseball. The manufacturer, Rawlings, says the balls are made to the same specifications. However, the same cannot be said of big league hitters, who deserve some of the credit for what's going on. They are bigger, stronger and assisted more by instruction and technical aids than ever before. "Pitchers don't get away with mistakes the way they used to," says Oakland A's pitching coach Dave Duncan.
That said, baseball's boom time is made possible in the most part by the deteriorating state of major league pitching. The overall quality of it is, in a word, "terrible," says Toronto Blue Jay general manager Pat Gillick. "Miserable," says umpire Dave Phillips.
A slightly lengthier summation was offered by Houston Astro starter Pete Harnisch after he allowed six runs in two thirds of an inning last Thursday, against the Florida Marlins: "I want to throw up."
"From an organizational standpoint, we're just not pumping out as many arms as we used to," says Gillick. Yet he and the rest of the general managers interviewed for this story were at a loss to explain why teams suddenly are unable to develop pitchers at the same rate they are developing position players.
Gillick's team was tagged with three ugly losses in a four-day span last week. It began on Tuesday in Oakland with an 8-4 loss in which Toronto pitchers walked 12. The Blue Jays walked a dirty dozen the next night too and fell 8-7. On Friday, in Anaheim, Toronto took a 13-6 lead into the bottom of the ninth and succumbed to the California Angels 14-13 in 10 innings. And all that happened to one of the better teams in baseball, a club seeking a third straight world championship.
Major league pitching staffs, aside from that of the Atlanta Braves, are stocked with too many weak-armed nibblers, scattershot rookies and vagabond veterans who have been to more places than Charles Kuralt. Witness the three relievers that Pirate manager Jim Leyland dragged out of his bullpen in one game last week: First he summoned Ravelo Manzanillo, 30, who had been released by four organizations and, in the previous six years, had played in leagues in the U.S., Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Taiwan and—under an assumed name—Central Park; then Leyland turned to Mark Dewey, 29, who once was released by the San Francisco Giants and who last year briefly retired after the Mets sent him to the minors; and finally Leyland brought in Jeff Ballard, 30, who is pitching for his fourth organization in four years. Nevertheless the Pirates won 4-2.
"Everyone in baseball is turning over every rock they can to find pitching," says Rocky general manager Bob Gebhard. "It's tough."
"What's so tough about it," says Philadelphia Phillie general manager Lee Thomas, "is there isn't any pitching out there. This isn't going to get any better."
So desperate is the search that the Cubs recently traded an every-day shortstop, Jose Vizcaino, to the Mets for a pitcher with a 5-35 career record. Anthony Young's winning percentage promptly dropped to .122 last Friday when his first start ended in the second inning, after he yielded eight runs in what would be a 19-5 loss to the Braves.
Talk about taxing. Eleven pitchers who appeared in games on April 15 finished the day with ERAs that were worse than 10.40. By week's end the league averages were 5.06 in the American and 4.29 in the National. "It's O.K. to have a four-plus ERA these days," says Colorado manager Don Baylor. "It's like it's accepted."
This season is not an anomaly but rather part of a continuum of an era that increasingly is being dominated by hitters, as showcased last year when two clubs with ordinary pitching, the Blue Jays and the Phils, not only reached the World Series but played a 15-14 game that took more than four hours. "That was the most difficult series to work as an umpire," Phillips says. "There wasn't any pitching."
Moreover virtually every significant change in the game over the past three decades has helped the offense: the lowering of the pitching mound by five inches in 1969, the arrival of the designated hitter in 73, the proliferation of artificial turf and an ever-shrinking strike zone. Even the new wave of ballparks are hitter-friendly: Moving fans closer to the action reduces the number of foul balls in play, and retro styling revisits an era of smaller ballparks and shorter fences. "The evolution of the game," Minnesota Twin DH Dave Win-field calls it. "People like action. This generation is addicted to action."
Pitching has not been able to hold up under all the offense-inducing changes—especially when so many pitchers are needed. In 1960, the last year of the eight-team leagues, 233 pitchers were used during the course of the season. In '93, 533 pitchers made appearances in the major leagues, with the effects of expansion compounded by an increased frequency of injuries and by the popularity of specialized relief pitching. "I don't know if this age of specialization is good for baseball," Winfield says. "I mean, you're bringing in all these guys for certain situations, but are they all quality guys?"
Says Gillick, "Middle relief is like tag-team wrestling. A guy's knocked out, he goes to the corner, and the next guy comes in and gets the hell beat out of him."
Broadcaster Tim McCarver chuckles at the euphemisms applied to relief pitchers. "The setup guy. What is that?" McCarver says. "It's a guy who's not competent enough to close, and he's not good enough to start."
The San Diego Padres' Tony Gwynn, a four-time National League batting champion, says it's a lot easier hitting now than when he broke in 12 years ago because of pitchers' general lack of experience and confidence. Except for the Atlanta staff, Gwynn sees a predictable pattern of pitching. "Now you've got guys learning on the fly," he says. "The Braves' guys don't follow the book. Other guys go strictly by the book, and sooner or later they'll throw you the pitch you're looking for."
On the whole, pitching has evolved from a power-based craft to one based on finesse and trickery, with few of its practitioners having the command it takes to master such a tack. "What's changed is that even the guys with good arms throw like they don't have a good fastball," says Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer.
"Everybody wants to throw the split-fingered fastball," umpire Rocky Roe says. "And I can tell you it's almost never thrown in the strike zone. Just about the only time it's a strike is when it's a swinging strike." Says Terry Tata, a major league ump since 1973, "The biggest change I've seen since I broke in is pitchers don't challenge hitters anymore."
Amateur players, influenced by the increased television exposure of the pros, are imitating that finesse style, thereby never allowing themselves to develop the arm strength needed to throw a top-notch fastball. When it comes to the fastball, a familiar saying among player development people is "use it or lose it."
"I coached high school for three years and I saw four-pitch pitchers. That's dumb," says former major league ace Tommy John. "At that age all they need is 1½ pitches: a fastball and a little bit of a curve. No one throws hard anymore."
"Of all the college and high school pitchers in the country right now," Gebhard says, "maybe 10 throw in the 90's. That's it."
The short-range forecast for pitchers already in the majors calls for more trouble ahead. "Wait'll the weather warms up," says McCarver, noting that the ball travels better in the heat. "It could be a very disturbing trend." What's more, another round of expansion is likely to occur before the end of the decade.
After umpiring three poorly pitched games in Oakland last week, Phillips trudged off the field and asked John, now a broadcaster with the Twins, "Do you think it's time to build the mound back up?" Indeed, some of what has been taken away from the pitchers needs to be restored. There even seems to be a ground-swell among general managers who think the mound and/or the strike zone, like the new ballparks, need retrofitting. "Call a strike a strike the way it's written," Thomas says. "That would help."
As defined, the strike zone extends from the top of the knees to about letter-high. In reality it is six to eight inches lower at the top. Lenny Dykstra of the Phillies, for instance, says his strike zone is "from the top of the knees to just above the belt."
Phillips says umpires are willing to adjust as long as baseball officials issue a clear mandate and provide them with vigorous support. It may be a start toward addressing this growing mound of trouble.
"It's not easy these days," says 33-year-old A's reliever Steve Ontiveros, who, despite his 10.57 ERA, last week won his first major league game in five years. "When you're out there, you can't be thinking about a juiced-up ball, pumped-up hitters, a strike zone the size of a shoe box and playing in a bandbox. The object is still the same: Hold them to one less run. Only now it's usually 10-9."