While speculation persists, without concrete evidence, that a
juiced ball is responsible for the offensive explosion in
baseball the past three seasons, six-time National League
batting champion Tony Gwynn suggests another source for the
power surge. "Everyone talks about the balls; no one talks about
the bats," says Gwynn, the Padres' rightfielder. "I think
they're the biggest reason."
Bat manufacturers began to notice a change in the orders they
were getting from major league teams about four years ago.
"Every year now, the barrels get bigger and bigger, and the
handles get thinner and thinner," says Bill Steele, production
supervisor of the professional bat division for Rawlings, which
makes Adirondack bats. At the same time, most hitters are
requesting lighter lumber. "Guys are looking for bat speed,"
says Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell. "Bat speed creates home
runs. Who wouldn't want that?"
Back in the 1920s the average weight of a major league bat was
40 ounces. Five years ago the average weight was 33 ounces, and
now it has dropped to 31, according to major league bat
manufacturers. One of the heaviest bats currently in use is the
36-ounce model of Indians first baseman Julio Franco. "I can't
swing those little bats," says Franco. "They're too light. I
don't swing them because I'm not going for home runs."
It used to be that the biggest guys used the biggest bats. Babe
Ruth usually used a 42-ounce hickory model. "I felt Babe's bat
once," says Gwynn. "It felt like I was swinging a telephone
pole. I don't know how anyone could get that thing around on a
95-mph fastball." Dick Allen, another legendarily strong player,
used a 40-ounce bat when he was with the White Sox in the '70s.
Now some of the strongest hitters in the game use 31-ounce bats,
including Atlanta's Fred McGriff, Florida's Gary Sheffield and
Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez. Bagwell uses a
32-ounce model. "It doesn't make any sense," says Indians
shortstop Omar Vizquel. "The big guys should be using big bats.
But it's the other way around."
The switch to lighter bats is due in part to the light,
big-barreled aluminum bats that are used in college and high
school ball. "I used a 30-ounce aluminum bat in college," says
Bagwell, who went to the University of Hartford. "And I got used
to a light bat there." After players get to the pros, they want
that same feel in a wood bat. With a light bat, a hitter can
wait longer, recognize the pitch easier and still have time to
whip the bat through the hitting zone.
There is a downside, of course, to using lighter bats with
thinner handles and big barrels: If a batter doesn't hit the
ball on the good part of the barrel, not only is a base hit
highly unlikely but also the bat will snap in two. "I've never
seen so many broken bats in my life," says Phillies manager Jim
Fregosi. Yankees coach Don Zimmer says he counted nine bats that
broke in half during one game between the Yankees and the
Mariners on May 14. Phillies strongman Pete Incaviglia used a
31-ounce bat a few years ago but went through about 12 dozen of
them in one year before switching back to a 34-ounce model. In
1993, according to one former teammate, ex-Brewers outfielder
Kevin Reimer broke 11 bats in one day: three in batting
practice, four in the game and four more when he walked to the
bat rack and angrily snapped them in half.
Mariners manager Lou Piniella says, "I used to take pride in
taking two bats on a two-week road trip and coming back with
both of them. Now, kids have six bats in the bat rack every
night." Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner used bats that were nearly the
same diameter in the handle as they were in the barrel. Another
Hall of Famer, Joe Sewell, is said to have used the same bat in
games for 14 years.
Nowadays a player like Gwynn, who uses a thick-handled bat, is a
rarity. "In '94 [when he hit .394] I used the same bat all
year," says Gwynn, "except when I faced a tough lefthander like
Jeff Fassero, who could get the ball in on me. I didn't want to
break that bat."
"Nothing is more personal to a player than his bats," says Rex
Bradley, vice president of Hillerich & Bradsby, makers of the
Louisville Slugger. "They're even more personal than his glove.
Because if you don't hit in the major leagues, you don't stay in
the major leagues."
Gwynn agrees. He has actually gone to the mill where his
Louisville Sluggers are made. He has picked out the billets of
wood for his bats. "A bat is a feel thing," he says. "[Teammate]
Scott Livingstone and I use the same bats, same length and
weight. But I pick up his bats and they just don't feel like
Even in this era when a sub-3.00 ERA in the American League
makes a pitcher look like the second coming of Jim Palmer, it's
hard to believe that a pitcher could be 9-1 and have a 5.01 ERA.
Then again, there's a lot that's hard to believe about Rangers
righthander Roger Pavlik. For instance, it's hard to believe
he's still pitching, let alone winning, with that peculiar
delivery of his.
Pavlik, 28, strides toward the third base dugout, instead of
straight toward home plate, and thus ends up throwing across his
body. It's almost painful to watch. "Watch an overhead view of
his motion," says Rangers pitching coach Dick Bosman, "and you
wonder, How in the hell does he even get the ball to the plate?"
"When I pitch and the opposing pitcher is a righthander, I see
the spot where his front foot lands," says Pavlik. "My front
foot is a foot further to the right. It's not something you want
to teach kids, but I'm comfortable with it."
The advantage to this unorthodox delivery is that hitters seldom
see anything like it. And there is an effective element of
deception, too. Not only is his arm coming in a cross-fire
motion at a righthanded hitter, but so is most of his body as
well. "Not many righthanders come at you from that angle," says
Red Sox catcher Mike Stanley. "It's tough for a hitter to keep
his shoulder in."
But if Pavlik's weird mechanics are slightly off, it can be
difficult to correct his flaws during the course of a game. That
explains why he has pitched so badly at times in his career,
including one three-start stretch early this year when he may
have been the worst pitcher in baseball. On April 19 he was
staked to a 6-1 lead after three innings against the Orioles but
lasted only 3 2/3 innings, giving up six runs on six hits and
three walks in a game the Rangers won 26-7. "I caught a lot of
grief from our guys, like, 'How can you not get the win when we
scored 26 runs?'" Pavlik says. Five days later, against Boston,
he had a 7-0 lead in the second but didn't make it through the
third, giving up five runs on seven hits and five bases on balls
in an 11-9 loss. On April 29, against Baltimore, he was given a
5-0 lead in the third but lasted just 4 1/3 innings,
surrendering six runs on six hits and three walks in an 8-7
loss. All told, his team scored 42 runs in three games and all
he had to show for it was three no-decisions and an ERA of 15.30
during that stretch.
Yet his 9-1 mark at week's end was the best any Rangers starter
has ever had after 10 decisions, and in his last 20 starts going
back to last September, he was 13-2 with a 3.92 ERA. The latter
record is all the more remarkable considering that he struggled
throughout most of last season and during one monthlong stretch,
from June to July, had a 1-5 record with a 7.02 ERA. It was
around that time that Bosman tried to get him to change his
motion and stride straight toward the plate. "He drew a line
from the mound to the plate and said, 'Try to step to the left
of this line,'" says Pavlik. "I couldn't do it without feeling
really awkward." The session lasted 15 minutes, and then Pavlik
and Bosman agreed it was a waste of time.
Despite his record Pavlik is not the best pitcher on the
Rangers, who led the American League West by four games at
week's end; that's probably Ken Hill, who was 7-5 with a 4.02
ERA. Nor does Pavlik have the best stuff in the Texas rotation;
Darren Oliver (5-2, 3.86) does. But Pavlik and teammate Kevin
Gross are two of the luckiest pitchers around: Their Ranger
teammates give them some of the best run support in baseball
(chart, next page). But talk to Pavlik about his high ERA, and
he says, "I just refer people to Jack Morris." In 1992 Morris
won 21 games for the Blue Jays despite a 4.04 ERA. "The idea,"
says Pavlik, "is to win."
He might have enough wins to get to the All-Star Game, but he's
not thinking that far ahead. The only thing Pavlik has planned
is a trip to the Amazon River this winter to fish for peacock
bass. A down-home kid from Houston going fishing in Brazil. It's
hard to believe.
Atlanta pitcher Steve Avery is a good pitcher and a nice guy, so
it was surprising and disappointing to see his shameful
overreaction after giving up a three-run homer to the Mets' Todd
Hundley on June 10. As the ball headed over the fence, the
runner on second base, Jose Vizcaino, threw his hands in the air
and leaped with excitement. Avery didn't like that. He could be
seen cursing Vizcaino as the Mets' infielder headed toward the
plate. When Vizcaino next came to bat, he was drilled in the
left knee by Avery's first pitch and sidelined for two games.
This is where baseball's macho code lacks logic--a pitcher
punishing a hitter for a mistake the pitcher made. (It's even
more ridiculous in the American League, where the pitcher
doesn't have to face retaliation because of the designated
hitter rule.) Vizcaino did nothing wrong. He just displayed his
joy for a teammate's achievement. But Avery chose to interpret
that as an effort to show him up.
If Vizcaino had hit the home run and then danced around at home
plate, that would have been showing up the pitcher. While Avery
said he didn't hit Vizcaino on purpose, it was obvious that he
did--and it led to a bench-clearing brawl. It makes you wonder
whether his senseless act was any different from Albert Belle's
decking of the Brewers' Fernando Vina, which led to a brawl and
a five-game suspension for Belle.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
This is Mike Stanley's first year with the Red Sox and his first
sustained look at Mo Vaughn. "He's better than I thought,"
Stanley says. "He's never satisfied, never complacent. He
doesn't give away a single at bat. In that way he reminds me of
Wade Boggs, one of the greatest hitters ever. With Mo, we knew
he was an RBI machine and had great power, but a .350 batting
Last year Vaughn was the American League MVP with a .300
average, 39 homers and 126 RBIs. Some guys might rest on their
laurels after such a season; few would make major adjustments in
their game. But Vaughn thought pitchers were tying him up with
inside fastballs last year, so he moved even closer to the plate
and opened his stance a little more to get a better look at the
ball. And when he sets up in the batter's box, he's holding his
bat more parallel to the ground in an effort to make his swing
more level. Now he has no holes in his plate coverage. He hits
every type of pitcher: lefties, righties, hard throwers,
junkballers. He's a much better hitter than he was in '95.
Through Sunday, Vaughn was a Triple Crown candidate with a .364
average (second in the league), 23 homers (tied for third) and
67 RBIs (second).
"Adjustments, that's the name of this game," says Vaughn. "You
can't stand still. I had a great year last year, but it wasn't
my best year."
Stanley says he thinks, though he doesn't know for certain, that
Vaughn may be motivated by the controversy over his MVP award
last year. Some people thought Cleveland's Albert Belle, who hit
50 home runs and 52 doubles, was denied the award because many
of the voters--members of the media--dislike Belle. "Maybe Mo
wanted to prove that his MVP was no fluke," says Stanley.
That's what Vaughn is doing. He has emerged as one of the new
breed of sluggers who also hit for high average. Since
divisional play began in 1969, 10 players have had seasons in
which they hit .335 or higher with at least 25 home runs and 100
RBIs. Six of those 10--Belle, Jeff Bagwell, Dante Bichette,
Barry Bonds, Edgar Martinez and Frank Thomas--have done it in
the last three years. Soon Vaughn will add his name to that list.
Angels reliever Chuck McElroy, who came from the Reds in the May
27 trade for closer Lee Smith, was credited with the victory in
all three games of California's sweep of Kansas City last week.
He's the first pitcher to accomplish that since the Dodgers'
Mike Marshall did it against the Giants in 1974. The three wins
ran McElroy's record to 5-0 through Sunday. In those five wins
combined, he pitched 4 1/3 innings and threw 61 pitches....Red
Sox manager Kevin Kennedy is notorious for overworking his
bullpen (a reputation he picked up as manager of the Rangers),
and now he's running his starters into the ground. On June 10 he
allowed knuckleballer Tim Wakefield to throw 162 pitches against
Chicago on two days' rest. Wakefield gave up 16 hits in an 8-2
loss to the White Sox, the most hits allowed by a pitcher in
this decade. And last Thursday, Kennedy left Roger Clemens in
for 157 pitches....Blue Jays reliever Tim Crabtree, 26,
innocently asked Toronto coach Gene Tenace, "So, Geno, did you
ever play ball?" Tenace's jaw almost hit the floor. He played in
four World Series with the A's and the Cardinals, and he was the
MVP of the '72 Series when Oakland beat Cincinnati.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Mike Piazza shows that good lumber isn't what it used to be in the days when the likes of Home Run Baker (above) and Lou Gehrig (left, with Ruth) wielded thick-handled bats. [Mike Piazza breaking bat]
B/W PHOTO: BETTMANN [See caption above--Frank "Home Run" Baker holding bat]
B/W PHOTO: NATIONAL BASEBALL LIBRARY/COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. [See caption above--Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth holding bats]
PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Striding toward the third base dugout, Pavlik has an awkward--but effective--pitching motion. [Roger Pavlik pitching]
Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. At week's end these
starting pitchers had been the beneficiaries of the best run
support in the majors this season. (Run-support average is
computed by a formula much like earned run average; it's the
number of runs scored for a pitcher while he is in the game,
multiplied by nine and divided by innings pitched.)
Pitcher, Team Record ERA Run-Support Avg.
Kevin Gross, Rangers 7-4 5.38 9.00
Tom Gordon, Red Sox 5-2 6.04 8.89
Mark Gardner, Giants 7-1 3.53 8.77
Roger Pavlik, Rangers 9-1 5.01 8.28
Andy Pettitte, Yankees 11-3 4.30 8.13
Source: Stats Inc.