Chicks don't dig the hit-and-run. Neither do the corporate suits
dropping 55 bucks a night to park their butts in the padded club
seats that put them closer to the catcher than the pitcher is.
Neither does the editor cutting the nightly TV highlights or the
comic-cum-sportscaster who must plumb the lexicon of family board
games to keep coming up with chuckle-worthy, Thesaurus-stretching
interjections that pass for home run calls. Neither does the
andro-popping middle infielder or his agent skimming 5% or the
owner gladly writing them checks as long as those 10-year leases
for taxpayer-financed luxury boxes sell even faster than $5 cups
of microbrewed beer.
Baseball never has been more popular, nor has it ever been more
one-dimensional. Baseball in 2000 is mostly about the idolatry of
the home run, the game's lowest common denominator. For those of
you who blinked, in eight quick seasons--scientific evidence
irrefutably dates the Big Bang to the 1993 expansion--baseball has
dumbed down into a power trip in which strikeouts, walks and
stout ballplayers anchored to bases like the kegs they resemble
occupy the tedium between home runs that land in swimming pools,
porches, antique steamers, maritime craft and anything else short
of the clown's mouth, in tricked-up ballparks.
The home run is our instant gratification, as guilty a pleasure
as a gallon of Double Fudge Rocky Road. Is it good for us? Who
cares when it tastes this great? Who cares that this season
stolen bases are down 22% per game and sacrifice bunts are off
16% per game compared to the same figures in 1992? You don't need
a Ph.D. from La Russa U. to understand the Big Fly.
Home runs are flying out once every 27.0 at bats, an 11% bump
from what was a record rate last year. Homers account for 41.0%
of all runs scored, up from 28.8% in '92, the last time anybody
played your father's baseball. Says Mets catcher Mike Piazza, "I
don't know how many times over the past couple years I've seen
rallies with runners on first and second and guys strike out or
pop up [because they're overswinging]. Moving up the runners?
Forget it. But I'll say this, too: Just as many times I've seen
the sixth, seventh or eighth hitter pop one out of the park. So
what are you going to do?"
Here is what you are going to do: Go deep, young man. Owners
encourage it. The Yankees, for instance, tried to beat Derek
Jeter in arbitration two winters ago by arguing that he didn't
hit enough home runs. Jeter hit 19 dingers in 1998, more than all
but three shortstops in the majors. Three solid postseason
contenders this season, Oakland, St. Louis and Toronto, have
chucked the traditional pitching-and-defense championship
blueprint in favor of simply carpet-bombing opponents.
When home runs come this easy, however, do they begin to lose
their attraction? Will you still respect them in the morning?
Number 7 hitters in American League lineups in 1998 put up power
and on-base numbers that were nearly identical to cleanup hitters
from '68. Corey Koskie is the new Harmon Killebrew.
Go back to a more recent year, our baseline season of 1992, and
you'll find that 37 players hit 20 home runs. Thirty-seven
players had hit that many by the All-Star break this year. If you
play every day and don't hit 20 dingers, you'd better get
yourself to a GNC store or find another line of work. Of the 112
players who batted 500 times last year, 73, or 65%, hit at least
Here's why we keep going back to '92: It was the last season
before baseball expanded into Miami and Denver. Major league
teams needed 74 more pitchers in 1993 than they did in '92.
Offensive numbers spiked. Five years later another 55 pitchers
were pressed into service when two more teams, in Phoenix and
Tampa-St. Petersburg, were added. The slow-moving pitching
pipeline couldn't reasonably support the demand for 129 more
pitchers in a five-year window, especially not in a culture in
which new ballparks (hitter-friendly), umpires (small strike
zones) and the baseballs (wound tighter) conspire against them.
The result has been a warp-speed change in the game. Comparing
the 1992 season to the first half of this one, the rate of home
runs per game has shot up 78%. The echo from the home run boom
over the past eight years includes increases in runs (up 28% on a
per-game basis), grand slams (82%), walks (18%) and strikeouts,
the homer's evil twin (17%).
The game has changed so much that its traditional unwritten rules
need to be reexamined. The Giants, for instance, threw at the
Rockies' Tom Goodwin last month because they didn't like him
stealing a base with a seven-run lead. Such frontier justice
might have been fitting in '92, when only once did a team come
from seven runs down to win. Halfway through this season, though,
10 such comebacks have occurred.
The record book too, is in constant revision, with Mark McGwire
and Ken Griffey Jr. doing much of the rewriting. But they began
their careers in the dark ages of the 1980s. The sluggers who
have known nothing but post-'92 boom times will surpass them.
Alex Rodriguez, 24, is ahead of Griffey's home run curve. Carlos
Delgado, 28, is on pace to continue a frighteningly impressive
career home run trajectory, beginning with '96, his first full
year: 25, 30, 38, 44, 51 (projected).
There is no sign of abatement for Delgado or the almighty dinger.
Everyone but the pitchers believes in a game in which homers, or
just 3.7% of the at bats, produce 41.0% of the runs. The
congregation grows. Worship services held daily.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY V.J. LOVERO COVER The New Face of Baseball How the Home Run Has Changed The Game Oakland Slugger Jason Giambi
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS POWER TRIP Cardinals pitcher Garrett Stephenson and catcher Mike Matheny watched J.T. Snow's homer for the Giants take flight last Saturday in St.Louis.
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO OVER-40 CROWD Mo Vaughn (center) on a 42-homer pace is no surprise, but fellow Angels Garret Anderson (left) and Troy Glaus on track for 48 and 46, respectively, is stunning.
Burst of Power
Pitchers know they're in trouble when Cubs shortstop Ricky
Gutierrez goes yard on them. His career high was five clouts (in
438 at bats), with the Padres in 1993--until this year. Now he
leads the list of players who are hitting home runs with greater
frequency than they did over the rest of their careers (minimum
200 at bats).
Player, Team Career 2000 Decrease
ABs HRs ABs ABs HR ABs ABs
per HR per HR per HR
Ricky Gutierrez, Cubs 2,149 13 165.3 216 7 30.9 134.4
Luis Polonia, Tigers 4,496 29 155.0 219 6 36.5 118.5
Mike Bordick, Orioles 4,248 51 83.3 333 14 23.8 59.5
Royce Clayton, Rangers 3,863 56 69.0 280 13 21.5 47.5
Garret Anderson, Angels 2,860 72 39.7 354 26 13.6 26.1
Steve Finley, Diamondbacks 5,788 153 37.8 313 25 12.5 25.3
Derrek Lee, Marlins 726 23 31.6 220 18 12.2 19.4
Ivan Rodriguez, Rangers 4,443 144 30.9 325 26 12.5 18.4
Carl Everett, Red Sox 1,925 69 27.9 289 24 12.0 15.9
Charles Johnson, Orioles 2,013 79 25.5 240 20 12.0 13.5
SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU
On the Upswing
Nearly one more home run per game is being hit in 2000 than a
decade ago. If the rate of 2.56 homers per game continues, 6,220
will be hit this season, shattering the records for most home
runs in a season (5,528) and most home runs per game (2.28), both
set in '99.
Year Games HRs HRs per Game
1990 2,105 3,317 1.58
1991 2,104 3,383 1.61
1992 2,106 3,038 1.44
1993 2,269 4,030 1.78
1994 1,600 3,306 2.07
1995 2,017 4,081 2.02
1996 2,267 4,962 2.19
1997 2,266 4,640 2.05
1998 2,432 5,064 2.08
1999 2,429 5,528 2.28
2000* 2,430 6,220 2.56