If the home run is the punch line that hitters, fans and owners
never tire of, pitchers and pitching coaches are the straight
men. Giving up dingers is part of the job description these days,
and every pitcher is a stooge.
Ten years ago just one pitcher in the big leagues, the Orioles'
David Johnson, gave up 30 home runs; last year 20 pitchers served
up at least 30 gopher balls. The Astros' Jose Lima leads the
majors this season with 29 home runs allowed, putting him on
track to beat Bert Blyleven's record of 50, set in 1986. Lima has
suffered from his club's move this year from the spacious
Astrodome, formerly one of the best pitchers' parks in the
majors, to Enron Field, the prototypical New Age bandbox that has
come to be dubbed Ten-Run Field. Vern Ruhle, however, has
suffered even more from the change of address than Lima has.
Ruhle was the Houston pitching coach. He was fired June 23.
"We're like Vietnam veterans, not to demean Vietnam vets, with
the bombs going off," says Royals pitching coach Brent Strom,
whose club has served up a major league-high 146 gopher balls
this year. "Home runs don't shake up the pitchers that much
anymore. You get used to them."
Ruhle, who spent 13 years in the majors, pitched 68 innings in
1978 and didn't give up a home run. Greg Minton, a former
reliever with the Giants, went three years (1979 to '81) without
serving up one. As recently as 1992 more than one of every four
big league games was homerless (26.2%). The home run was a rare,
game-changing event. But pitchers who have entered the majors
since the apocalyptic expansion of 1993 have no such
sensibility. Now, fewer than one game in 10 does not include a
home run (9.3%). "If I were a young pitcher today watching the
highlight shows, I might be afraid to throw the ball over the
plate," says Phillies pitcher Curt Schilling. "Every night you
see nothing but balls getting hit out of the park."
Says Tim Hudson, the second-year starter for the A's who has
given up 16 home runs in 18 starts this year after only eight in
21 last year, "I don't like to give up home runs, but in this day
and age it's not a big deal. I don't know if pitching's gotten
much better in recent years. Everybody knows hitting has, with
guys getting bigger and such, so something's got to give. I guess
it's your ERA."
Rangers pitching coach Dick Bosman says he constantly reminds his
pitchers not to let the barrage of home runs detract from their
aggressiveness. "We never want to get to the point where they
accept them," Bosman says. "It's a constant mental battle. Get
ahead, stay ahead, use your head--that's our motto. The other
thing we stress is keeping the ball down. Leave yourself room to
miss. That area from mid-thigh to above the belt, as Frank Howard
used to say, gives the hitter built-in elevation. You have to
stay out of there."
Schilling, who broke into the big leagues in 1988, has
surrendered 1.32 home runs per nine innings this year, nearly two
thirds higher than his previous career rate. The increase, he
says, is due more to changes in hitting philosophy than to his
pitching. "The game has changed," Schilling says. "Everybody's
hitting home runs. There is no such thing as a two-strike swing
anymore. Guys take their rips no matter what. I used to face a
bunch of guys like Brett Butler, who'd just put the bat on the
ball, especially with two strikes. Those guys don't exist
"The biggest difference in the past 10 years," Bosman says, "is
that when you make a mistake now, guys kill it. Just about every
one of them will hit it out. It used to be when you made a
mistake, maybe it'd be a hit in the gap or they'd pop it up."
Another American League pitching coach, who asked not to be
named, says power hitters have benefited from widespread steroid
use, an edge for which pitchers have no counter. Though some
pitchers do use steroids, the coach says, they do so more for the
recovery from injuries than as a performance enhancer, as hitters
do. "Everything's in the hitters' favor now," says the coach.
"This is the game [the owners] want. They love it. If I were
pitching today, you know what I'd do? I'd cheat. Load it up,
scuff it--not all the time, but if I needed a big strikeout. Guys
don't do that anymore. They're afraid of getting caught."
In an age when even middle infielders are swinging from the
heels, pitchers are the sad-sack foils. Dodgers shortstop Kevin
Elster, out of baseball for more than a year, returns and hits
three home runs in his fifth game back. Tigers second baseman
Damion Easley hits the roof of a restaurant 440 feet from home
plate at Tropicana Field.
Bosman remembers one game in 1992, when Camden Yards in Baltimore
opened. Yankees slugger Danny Tartabull walloped a home run into
the visitors' bullpen in deep left centerfield. "Jaws dropped,"
Bosman says. This year Bosman was warming up one of his pitchers
in the same bullpen during batting practice when Mike Bordick,
the 175-pound Orioles shortstop, hit three balls into the pen. No
one batted an eye.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES BITTER PILL Schilling says the change in hitting philosophy is the reason he's giving up more homers.
It's All or Nothing
Batters either club the ball over the fence or strike out trying
Get a whiff this. If Marlins centerfielder Preston Wilson keeps
striking out at the rate he did over the first half of the
season, he will fan nearly as many times in one year than Hall of
Famer Nellie Fox did in his 19-year career. On track for 215
punchouts (Fox K'd 216 times), Wilson finally seems to have found
something he can't miss: Bobby Bonds's record of 189 strikeouts
in 1970. Wilson was hitting .260 and whiffing .350. The
likelihood of setting such a notorious record, however, troubles
Wilson, 25, and the Marlins not at all. "Oh, I fully expect him
to break it," Florida manager John Boles says.
"I don't worry about that," Wilson says. "I'd rather set the
strikeout record and help the team win by driving in runs than
just go up there and try to cut down on strikeouts. That would be
Ho, hum. A hundred strikeouts, one of the last great taboos of
hitting, has gone mainstream. No one blanches at a 100-whiff
season, a mark of dishonor only a decade ago. With the boom in
home runs has come the acceptance of the strikeout as their
tariff. "It's the price you pay," says Wilson, who is on pace to
hit 35 homers and drive in 116 runs--career highs.
Last season 26 of the 45 players who hit 30 or more homers also
struck out at least 100 times; overall 71 batters hit the century
mark in K's. Despite all the advances in video analysis and
instruction, hitters whiff more now than ever before--there have
been 13.07 strikouts per game this year, or one out of every four
outs. Wilson is the extreme example of today's grip-it-and-rip-it
batting culture. Baseball is producing better sluggers, not
necessarily better hitters, who've made the strikeout shameless.
Boles, for instance, has no plans to curtail Wilson's playing
time in September if the record is within reach.
"He can hit the ball as far as anybody and he'll be an impact
player," Boles says. "I'd rather accentuate those positives than
worry about a negative." --T.V.
Bobby Bonds's single-season strikeout record of 189, set in 1970
with the Giants, is in jeopardy. Here are the players on pace to
fan at least 175 times this year.
Player, Team Projected Strikeouts
Preston Wilson, Marlins 215
Sammy Sosa, Cubs 183
Jim Thome, Indians 181
Jim Edmonds, Cardinals 175
Mo Vaughn, Angels 175
Count big-name pitchers among those getting hammered a lot more
than usual this year. Kevin Brown, David Cone and Darryl Kile
are all giving up home runs at about twice the rate that they
had entering the season. Here are the 10 pitchers who have
experienced the biggest drops in innings per home runs allowed
(minimum 40 innings pitched).
(through '99) 2000
Pitcher, Team Inn per HR Inn per HR Decrease
Heathcliff Slocumb, Cards 19.4 5.2 14.2
Ken Hill, Angels 13.3 4.6 8.7
Kevin Brown, Dodgers 17.4 8.9 8.5
Miguel Batista, Expos-Royals 11.8 3.4 8.4
Darren Dreifort, Dodgers 12.8 5.4 7.4
David Cone, Yankees 12.2 5.3 6.9
Charles Nagy, Indians 9.7 3.6 6.1
Ismael Valdes, Cubs 9.9 3.9 6.0
Darryl Kile, Cardinals 10.8 5.5 5.3
Sean Bergman, Twins 8.4 3.8 4.6
SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU