To say that major league pitchers had a rough April would be
charitable. In the relative eye blink of one seven-day span,
they were lit up for three of the five biggest scoring days in
this century. Shelled for 828 home runs--that's more than
American League teams hit during the entire 1954 season--and
10.58 runs per game for the month, they got their socks knocked
off as routinely as Charlie Brown does. Through Sunday there had
been only four days this season in which no big league team
scored at least 10 runs. Good grief, what's going on?
The answer is that these are boom times for baseball, and we're
not talking about turnstile counts. "Smaller strike zone,
smaller ballparks, bad pitching, bigger hitters, loaded
baseballs, corked bats and higher-altitude cities," said
Baltimore Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina last week, listing the
combustible ingredients. "Does that about cover it?"
Milwaukee Brewers pitching coach Don Rowe was even more
succinct: "We're playing with juiced balls in phone booths."
"Well, it was only one month," said New York Yankees pitcher
David Cone, perhaps emboldened by having baseball's lowest ERA
(2.03) at week's end.
The truth is, it was not just a one-month phenomenon. April's
shower of runs was not statistically out of whack with the first
month of last season, or the one before that, or the one before
that. Rather, it was the continued billowing of the mushroom
cloud from an offensive explosion that ignited in the expansion
year of 1993. If pitchers, not to mention traditionalists, have
had difficulty coming to grips with that, managers have not.
They know the game has changed so radically in recent years that
the unwritten rules of strategy often don't apply anymore. Job
retraining has come to the dugout.
"The Book?" asks Yankees manager Joe Torre about that mythical
manual. "You can throw it out the window. Years ago, if you had
a 6-1 lead in the sixth inning, you closed everybody down. Now
it's not even close to being safe. A five-run lead is what a
two-run lead used to be."
On April 19 Kenny Lofton of the Cleveland Indians stole second
base with the Tribe leading the Boston Red Sox 9-4 in the bottom
of the seventh. Nobody so much as blinked in protest. "To me,
that was not a big lead," says Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove.
"When we were in Colorado during the last week of April," says
Montreal Expos manager Felipe Alou, "we scored seven runs in the
first inning, and we knew that wasn't enough. We were winning
14-2, and I didn't feel secure. I looked at the scoreboard and
saw Cleveland winning 17-3. The Giants were up 10-3. Kansas City
came from behind to win 9-7. I thought, Wait a minute. Everybody
scores in double figures. We haven't won anything yet here."
The Expos hung on to edge the Rockies 21-9. When Montreal
catcher Darrin Fletcher was asked to recall the last team he had
played for that scored 21 points in a game, he said, "Oakwood
High School in Illinois. We ran the option. I played quarterback."
Citing the new aggressiveness of hitters, New York Mets manager
Dallas Green says, "You see more guys get the green light to hit
3 and 0 than ever before. There was a time when you wouldn't see
a guy swing 3-1, 2-0 when his team was down. Now a lot of these
guys are swinging as opposed to trying to draw a walk."
Cars left unlocked in Newark are safer than a lead these days.
Through April, 14.8% of all major league games were won by teams
that had trailed by three or more runs, the highest percentage
of comeback wins from a deficit that large in this century.
The comeback percentage has risen every year since 1993. In that
season, the major league runs-per-game average leaped 12%, to
9.2, a level that has been exceeded every season since. And bats
are likely to boom even louder in the near future: The addition
of two more expansion teams, the Arizona Diamondbacks and the
Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1998, will have the effect of gasoline
on a bonfire, fueling another surge in scoring.
Runs are so easy to come by that managers often abandon the idea
of playing for one run. The Indians, for example, laid down four
sacrifice bunts in their first 29 games, a pace that would
challenge the record for fewest in a season (18), set by the
1990 Toronto Blue Jays. Bunting, often lamented as a lost art,
is becoming an unnecessary one. If you watch an American League
game these days, you're likely to see four times as many home
runs as sacrifice bunts.
Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly says he has been surprised
this season to see opposing teams play for one run "when I
thought there would be more than that one run needed to win."
For instance, in the third inning of an April 24 game against
the Twins, with the score tied 7-7, Alan Trammell of the Detroit
Tigers moved a runner to third with a grounder to the right
side, a classic give-yourself-up play in the late innings of a
close game. How important was moving along that runner, who
later scored? Minnesota squeaked by with a 24-11 win. On April
30, Jose Offerman of the Kansas City Royals bunted a runner to
third in the second inning of a 2-1 game in which Twins starter
LaTroy Hawkins was laboring. Minnesota pulled out a 16-7 win.
In the 88 Colorado Rockies games played at Coors Field from the
opening of that small, high-altitude park in Denver last season
through Sunday, at least one team had reached double figures in
runs 33 times. With that in mind, Rockies manager Don Baylor
always plays his infield in at Coors whether Colorado is leading
or not. "It's automatic if you're standing there [in the dugout]
thinking about it," Baylor says. "You give up enough cheap runs
when the ball's hit in the air. Some other places I wouldn't
play the infield in, but here you try and cut off as many runs
as you can."
Alou, whose Expos gave up 17 runs in three games in Denver in
that April series and still won twice, says, "It's a different
game there. There's not much you can do as a manager. I like the
quick hook. But when I managed in Denver in the minor leagues, I
learned that you had to leave your starter in until he gave up
More runs are scored per game at Coors Field than at any other
park, contributing to the popular notion that the newer, cozier
stadiums are to blame for the increase in scoring. That is a
myth. In recent years runs and home runs have increased at
virtually the same rate at the older ballparks as they have at
the five stadiums opened since 1991--Comiskey Park, Oriole Park
at Camden Yards, Jacobs Field, The Ballpark in Arlington and
Coors Field--even when you compare those new parks with the
stadiums they replaced. We're talking across-the-board inflation.
In no way has this explosion changed a manager's job more than
in how he handles his pitching staff. Most teams carry 11 or 12
pitchers, whereas a decade ago nine or 10 sufficed. The Rockies
and the Oakland Athletics briefly carried 13 pitchers last
season. Why? Today's starting pitchers melt quicker than an
ice-cream cone in July in Texas. Except for the war years from
1942 through '45, starters in this century annually pitched
between six and seven innings per start. But last season that
figure dropped to 5.93. This year it's sinking again, to 5.80
through April. Says Seattle Mariners manager Lou Piniella, "My
philosophy is to get a starter through five innings so he can
get the win and hand it over to the bullpen."
Here's how much the game has changed just in the span of St.
Louis Cardinals reliever Dennis Eckersley's career: When he was
a rookie, in 1975, managers used a combined 2.8 relief pitchers
per game; last year they used 5.0, a 79% increase. Relievers had
a better record, a better ERA and a better rate of strikeouts
than starters last season. No wonder that when Alou is asked
whether he prefers depth in his rotation or bullpen, he says,
"I'd rather have a deeper bullpen. We thought about putting Omar
Daal in the rotation. But better to have him pitch three or four
times a week rather than once a week."
Likewise, Mariano Rivera has proved immensely valuable to the
Yankees as a middle reliever. At week's end he had thrown 18
consecutive scoreless innings. In one seven-game span beginning
on April 26, he worked in four games (for a total of 10 innings)
and warmed up three times in two others, including once in the
ninth inning with the Yankees ahead 5-1 and Cone pitching. At
his current rate Rivera would finish the season with either 148
innings pitched or an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon.
"The way our game is played today, unlike before, the middle
part of your bullpen is very important," Piniella says. "When I
played, the game was a little different. You had your starting
pitchers and closer who were the dominant guys most of the time.
Your long people had to sit for periods of time before they
pitched and even had to throw batting practice just to stay
sharp. Now you have a staff of 11 men, and you're going to need
Most teams, though, don't have the luxury of having pitchers
like Rivera or the Indians' Julian Tavarez in middle relief,
which explains how a 7-0 game becomes a 21-9 game and why
baseball, as a game of strategy, is fast moving away from chess
and closer to Arena football. This shift is particularly acute
in the American League and in Denver.
But this is the game the owners wanted. They see offense as the
lowest common denominator and argue that fans like to see
hitting and scoring. Right, and children like sugar, so why not
let them eat Twinkies for dinner? Is it good for baseball when,
as happened after that 24-11 game between the Tigers and the
Twins, Kelly felt compelled to issue an apology "to the fans at
the park who had to watch that exhibition of so-called
professional baseball." And he was the winning manager.
"Twenty-four to 11 is too much; 26 to 7 is too much," he said.
"Nobody likes to see that. Maybe some fans like it, but I don't
Is it good for baseball that one of the game's most elegant
stadiums, Camden Yards, was nearly empty last week for the
conclusion of two competitive games between two of the best big
league teams, the Yankees and the Orioles, because the games
dragged on for a total of nearly 10 hours? Baseball is the only
major sport in which people walk out of close games simply
because they take too darn long. "Maybe the owners like it,
because they can sell more at the concessions," says Yankees
catcher Joe Girardi, who played for Colorado last season. "But
how many people make it past the seventh inning? All I know is,
I can't believe the time of games in the American League [2:56
on average for a nine-inning game this season]. Every game in
this league is like playing in Coors Field."
The DH rule was instituted in the American League in 1973 to
provide more offense, and, indeed, American League teams have
scored more runs per game than National League teams in all but
one season since. But there's some question whether fans really
like all that offense: The National League has outdrawn the
American League on a per-club basis in 18 of the 23 years the DH
has been used.
The start of interleague play next season might seem an
opportune time to dump the DH, but the players' association is
hell-bent on keeping it. The union wants continued employment
for aging "star" players who don't have the skills and/or
initiative to play the defensive half of the game. It does the
union well to preserve such a financial opportunity for its
members. On average, only first basemen are paid more than
Proposals to rein in offense by expanding the strike zone are
also routinely ignored. Baseball, however, should consider a
simple question that arose when the Yankees' Tino Martinez hit a
dinger at 1 a.m. last Thursday in Baltimore: If a home run falls
into the seats and there is no one to hear it, does it make a
"I think baseball is mistaken, in a way, that fans enjoy 10-9
games," Piniella says. "I think attendance and TV ratings will
determine how good this is for baseball. Fans like to see balls
hit out of the ballpark. Home runs are exciting. But I think if
it's overdone, it will become less exciting, and people will
begin wondering if there is some way to help the pitchers out a
"The legitimate home run hitters are going to hit their home
runs," Piniella continues, "but a lot of smaller people you
would more associate with gap hitting are hitting balls out of
the park with consistency. To me, that is a little worrisome."
The unlikely poster boy for the game's power surge would be a
32-year-old leadoff hitter who only once in his career has
clubbed more than 16 home runs in a season. With 15 homers in
116 at bats at week's end, Baltimore's Brady Anderson (page 84)
was on pace to hit 81 this season.
Anderson was suddenly looking like another Maryland-born
lefthanded hitter once traded by the Boston Red Sox. But before
we cast him in the remake of The Babe Ruth Story, let's keep in
mind that the way baseball is played these days, even William
Bendix, the actor who starred in the original, would be good for
COLOR PHOTO: JULIAN H. GONZALEZ/DETROIT FREE PRESS [Scoreboard showing "MINNESOTA 24 DETROIT 11"]
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Even the Mets' John Franco can't mask the fact that there's no relief from today's ugly pitching. [John Franco wearing mask]
COLOR PHOTO: DOUG PENSINGER/ALLSPORT Stats show that skippers like Davey Johnson of Baltimore are pulling pitchers faster than ever.
COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO There's safety only in big numbers at Coors Field, where Fletcher's Expos beat Colorado 21-9 in April. [Darrin Fletcher sliding into home plate]
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Philly's Jim Eisenreich and other outfielders have seen homers hit at a record pace in '96.
THE MORE THE MERRIER
In the 1990s managers have increasingly relied on relievers.
Here are the average number of relief pitchers in a game in the
'70s and '80s, and the year-by-year averages this decade.
YEAR RELIEVERS PER GAME
THE QUICK HOOK
From 1934 to '94 starting pitchers averaged between six and
seven innings per outing (except in the war years of '42 through
'45, when they went more than seven innings per game). In '95,
however, that average fell to less than six innings, and in the
first month this season there was another drop-off. Here are the
averages for the last five seasons.
YEAR AVERAGE INNINGS PER START
ROUND AND ROUND THEY GO
Of the five times since 1900 in which the average number of runs
scored in a day's games* was 13.58 or more, three occurred in a
seven-day period last month.
DATE GAMES AVERAGE RUNS
July 25, 1937 13 14.07
April 24, 1996 14 13.93
April 30, 1996 13 13.92
April 28, 1996 12 13.58
July 10, 1932 12 13.58
*Minimum 12 games played.
In April a higher percentage of games were won by teams that
had trailed by three or more runs than any time this century.
Here are the years with the five highest percentages of those
YEAR PCT. OF COMEBACKS