Going the Other Way
The dead pull hitter is dying out as batters crush the ball to
the opposite field
Not long ago you could win bets with less knowledgeable fans--or
at least pass yourself off as clairvoyant--by predicting where
certain batters, especially sluggers, would hit the ball. Almost
without fail, righthanded power hitters would bash the ball to
left, and their lefthanded counterparts would rip it to right.
"It used to be that for most guys, if you wanted to hit a home
run, you had to pull the ball," says Bill Madlock, who was a
distinguished righthanded batter for six teams from 1973 through
'87 and is the Tigers' hitting coach. "I hit 163 home runs, and
every one of them went to leftfield. Now I see righthanded guys
who are 5'8" hitting the ball out to right center."
The dead pull hitter may not be extinct, but he certainly has
become less commonplace. To be sure, a handful of
sluggers--including the White Sox' Jose Canseco, the Blue Jays'
Carlos Delgado, the Athletics' Jason Giambi, the Indians' Jim
Thome and the Devil Rays' Greg Vaughn--still inspire defenses to
shift drastically to one side of the field, but as a rule,
hitters use the whole field much more than they did a generation
ago. For example, in 1987 there were 23 batters with at least 300
plate appearances who pulled 50% or more of the balls they put in
play. By '92 that number had decreased to 14, and by '97 it had
fallen to nine. Through Sunday there were seven such hitters this
season. (Vaughn, a righthanded hitter, had the highest pull
percentage--62% of his balls had gone to the left side.) "More
guys are dangerous from left center to right center," says
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. "As far as just flat playing a
guy to pull, there aren't nearly as many."
The reasons for the decline parallel those for the general surge
in offensive production over the last decade: Hitters are more
muscular than ever, parks are smaller, and pitchers work inside
less often. Since today's bulked-up sluggers have little trouble
reaching the seats in any direction--especially when those seats
aren't as far away as they were in many older stadiums--they have
little reason to concentrate on yanking the ball to the
traditional power fields.
Batters also see far fewer pullable pitches than they did in the
past. Scarred by batters wielding aluminum bats in amateur
baseball, pitchers tend to work away, away, away. A diet of
deliveries aimed at the outside corner has conditioned batsmen to
hit the ball to the opposite field. "When I look at tape, I'd say
95 percent of pitches I see are on the outer half [of the
plate]," says Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher.
"Pitchers won't give in," says Red Sox hitting coach Rick Down.
"They're trying to get you to pull the ball from the middle of
the plate out and hit a weak ground ball. To be an effective
hitter, you have to hit the ball where it's pitched."
That was the philosophy taught by renowned hitting coaches
Charlie Lau and Walt Hriniak in 1970s and early '80s. They
stressed the importance of extending the arms to cover the entire
plate. Current hitters have turned that idea into another means
of producing home runs. "It used to be when someone hit homers to
centerfield or the opposite way, it was freakish," says Boston
third base coach Gene Lamont. "That's not the way it is anymore."
Playing Out the String
Dog Day Afternoons
Tigers outfielder Bobby Higginson remembers last August the way
minimum-security prisoners look back on furlough afternoons. It
was a glimpse of what life is like on the other side. Detroit,
which had begun the month 48-56, caught fire and reached .500
that late in the season for the first time in three years. The
Tigers weren't contenders--they never came closer than 11 1/2
games to the American League Central-champion White Sox--but at
least they caught a whiff of what being in the running for a
postseason berth might be like. "For a while we were listed in
the wild-card standings--that was exciting," says Higginson. "I
can't imagine what it would be like to be 10 or 15 games over
.500 this time of year."
Detroit, which is working on its eighth straight losing season,
was 20 games under .500 through Sunday. Six-year veteran
Higginson and his teammates were again slogging through the
season's dog days, the time of year when the weather is hot, the
body tired and, for the handful of teams that aren't close to the
wild card, the games meaningless. How does a player keep himself
motivated while playing out the string with roughly a quarter of
the schedule remaining?
"You have to trick yourself into finding something to keep you
going," says Higginson, who was hitting .284 with 12 home runs
and 57 RBIs. "Say you're playing the Mariners or the Yankees--you
have to think that's your little playoff series. When you're
playing other teams that are out of it, you have to have
professional pride. You can also try to put up some numbers, so
you can at least say you had a gratifying year individually."
The Devil Rays, the Rangers, the Reds and the Rockies are all
dragging themselves through August, but perhaps no teams feel
more dogged by the dog days than the Tigers and the Pirates, two
long-struggling franchises that started the season thinking
they'd improved enough to be contenders for postseason berths. "I
keep telling myself this builds character," says Pittsburgh first
baseman Kevin Young, who broke in with the Pirates in 1992 and
hasn't experienced a winning season. Through Sunday, Pittsburgh
had the worst record in the National League (45-71). "I must be
building the Empire State Building of character."
For obvious reasons, it's a struggle for some players to keep
from losing focus. "You can tell those guys have calendars in
their lockers with big X's on the days," says Tigers first
baseman Tony Clark. "Even with other teams, you can tell when
they take batting practice that the sense of urgency isn't
Many players use the stretch run to generate hope that the
predicament can be avoided next year. "These games in August and
September may not mean anything," says Higginson, "but we have to
learn how to win in these circumstances. Good teams have that
third or fourth wind. We have to keep trying to find it."
John Smoltz in the Bullpen
A Spell of Relief In Atlanta
When he returned to Atlanta from a six-week stint on the disabled
list (including two minor league rehab appearances) on July 22,
Braves righthander John Smoltz was wearing a menacing Fu Manchu
moustache like the one Al Hrabosky wore during his heyday as the
Mad Hungarian of relievers. "I thought that the guys would get a
laugh out of it," says Smoltz, who knew that after 12 years as a
starter he would be working out of the bullpen. "Instead, they
Better yet, the Braves have quickly come to like Smoltz's
relieving as much as he has come to like doing it. After missing
all of last season following Tommy John surgery on his right
elbow, Smoltz, 34, returned to the Atlanta rotation in May and
went 2-2 with a 5.76 ERA in five starts. His elbow still bothered
him, however, and on June 10 he went back on the DL. While Smoltz
was on his subsequent rehab stint, manager Bobby Cox and pitching
coach Leo Mazzone realized that it would be weeks--or more--before
Smoltz could work even as many as five or six innings every fifth
day as a starter for Atlanta. However, he could pitch one or two
innings a couple of times a week right away.
"We could've waited for John to build up his arm in the minors,
but who knows how long it would have taken?" says Mazzone. "Or we
could add one of baseball's toughest competitors and best clutch
performers to our staff a lot sooner."
The Braves opted for the latter and got Smoltz to agree to take
the same step that Dennis Eckersley had taken 14 years ago. Like
Eckersley, who made 361 starts over 13 seasons before becoming an
ace closer with the A's and Cardinals (390 career saves), Smoltz
has quickly adapted to his bullpen role after 361 starts without
a regular-season relief appearance. Through Sunday he'd pitched
10 1/3 innings out of the pen, building a 0.87 ERA with eight
strikeouts and one unintentional walk.
Along the way he has developed a newfound respect for the middle
reliever. "It's a much harder job than I thought," says Smoltz.
"You can't pick and choose when you come in, and you can enter a
terribly tough situation without good stuff."
For short stints Smoltz's fastball still reaches 96 mph, his
slider remains one of the best in the National League, and his
splitter is above average. Last Thursday against the Astros, he
threw his first in-game curveballs since 1999, to strike out
Orlando Merced with two outs and none on in the seventh inning.
As good as this news is for the Braves, it creates a dilemma for
them. Although Greg Maddux (15-7, 2.89 ERA) and Tom Glavine
(11-5, 3.77) remain two of the game's best pitchers, and John
Burkett (9-8, 2.57) is on track for the best ERA of his career,
will Atlanta be content to use faltering Kevin Millwood and
inexperienced Jason Marquis if it becomes locked in a stretch
duel with the Phillies for the NL East title? Or will the Braves
have to work Smoltz back into the rotation?
"If it comes down to it, I think John can start later in the
year," says Mazzone. "It's an option." Smoltz disagrees. "Unless
crazy things happen, it's not an option," he says. "My arm won't
last seven or eight innings."
Although he would prefer to be a starter again, Smoltz says he's
intrigued by the idea of becoming a closer. (In Game 2 of the
Championship Series against the Mets two years ago, Smoltz earned
his only save with a one-two-three ninth.) "I would definitely
entertain it," he says. "It could be fun."
Heck, he's already got the facial hair. --Jeff Pearlman
A Striking Match
Aug. 20-23, Brewers at Cubs
If the Bleacher Bums appear bleary-eyed during this series, it
might be because they'll have stayed up all night making K signs
to hang at Wrigley. Through Sunday, Chicago pitchers had struck
out 993 batters, putting them on pace to surpass the major league
mark of 1,245, set by the Braves in 1996, by more than 100
whiffs. The Cubs' record K rate isn't likely to slow against the
Milwaukee hitters, who make all too many pitchers look like Randy
Johnson. The Brewers had been rung up 993 times and are almost
certain to surpass the strikeout standard of 1,268 set by the
Tigers in '96.
For scores, stats and the latest news, plus more from Tom
Verducci and Stephen Cannella, go to cnnsi.com/baseball.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: CHUCK SOLOMON Die-hard sluggers like Giambi (16), Vaughn (23) and Delgado still pull almost every long ball.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES (VAUGHN) [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: STEVE SCHAEFER/AFP Newly 'stached, and stashed in the pen, Smoltz had an 0.87 ERA in 10 1/3 innings of relief work.
Two advance scouts, one from each league, reflect on what they
saw and heard last week:
I'll be shocked if the Astros don't reach the playoffs. They
have super young pitching, but what impresses me most is their
outstanding lineup. Houston is the one National League team that
could beat most American League clubs at their own game....
The Yankees' MVP is first baseman Tino Martinez, who was given
up for dead after last year. It's another example of a guy in
his contract year finding new motivation....
Braves righthander Jason Marquis is an up-and-comer. He's got a
96-mph fastball, a sharp slider and an overhand curve. His
changeup is a little hard, but it has good action. It won't be
long before Marquis [the No. 5 starter] passes righthander Kevin
Millwood in the rotation....
By the time it's all over, the A's will have run away with the
American League wild card. Their pitching is terrific. Nobody in
his right mind wants to face Oakland in the playoffs. Tim
Hudson--Mark Mulder--Barry Zito is like Dwight Gooden--Ron
Darling--Sid Fernandez of the old Mets. Scary with potential....
Even though he has struggled, I think Diamondbacks
righthander Albie Lopez could be the answer as a No. 3 starter
for Arizona. He just needs to stop trying to throw the ball
through the catcher's head and start pitching to spots....
Angels infielder Benji Gil is hitting .324. That means someone
stupid will give him a loaded three-year contract and watch him
hit .240 again. It happens all the time.
in the Box
GIANTS 9, CUBS 4 Aug. 11
Chasing a home run record takes strength, endurance and, as Barry
Bonds can now attest, a little luck. The 37-year-old Bonds became
the oldest player to hit 50 home runs in a season and reached
that number faster than any other player--this was the Giants'
117th game--but he needed an at bat prolonged by borrowed time to
With two outs and two on in the second inning, Chicago
righthander Joe Borowski fired a 2-and-2 fastball high in the
strike zone. Bonds swung and barely nicked the pitch, changing
its direction so little that it flew right into catcher Todd
Hundley's mitt. Had Hundley squeezed the foul tip, Borowski
would have had an inning-ending strikeout. Instead the ball
bounced out of Hundley's glove, giving new life to Bonds, who
sent Borowski's next pitch into the basket atop the centerfield
wall. San Francisco had a 6-0 lead, and Bonds had added two more
lines to his resume.