Grand totals are clearing the record books A SEASON LOADED WITH SLAMS

September 11, 1995|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

The struggling Milwaukee Brewers are tied for 10th in the American League in home runs this year, but they are one size-4 swing away from setting the major-league record for grand slams in a season. How do you explain that?

Not very easily, except that this is the year of the Big Slam. There have been 115 bases-loaded home runs -- already 13 more than any other season -- even though this season started three weeks late and still has three more weeks to go.

The Brewers, who are as far removed as the club could get from the days when Harvey's Wallbangers brought a pennant to Milwaukee in 1982, have hit 10 grand slams this year, equaling the record shared by the 1938 Detroit Tigers and 1987 New York Yankees. The San Diego Padres, tied for 11th in the National League in home runs, have tied the NL record with nine grand slams. Doesn't seem to make a lot of sense.

"There is no explanation for it," Brewers manager Phil Garner told reporters last week. "It is amazing. It's just like it has been all year for us, feast or famine."

There is, however, some explanation for the baseball-wide proliferation of grand slams, because they coincide with an increase in home run frequency, which coincides with an increase in walks and hits, which coincides with the dilution of pitching caused by 1993's expansion and last winter's cost-cutting kick.

In the three years since expansion, home run frequency (the average number of home runs per game) is nearly 21 percent higher than the average during the previous seven years, even factoring the numbers from the aberrational "juiced ball" season of 1987. During the same period, the average number of hits per game has risen 5 percent and the average number of walks per game has risen 6 percent.

"Obviously, pitching is down in general," said California Angels manager Marcel Lachemann, whose surprising team leads the major leagues in runs scored and ranks third in home runs. "You're seeing a lot more hitting, and you're seeing a lot more situations with the bases loaded. Pitching just isn't as deep as it has been."

That, along with a trend toward bigger and stronger hitters throughout the lineup, can make for an explosive combination.

"The game has changed so much," said Orioles pitcher Ben McDonald. "Way back when, the three, four and five hitters were the guys who hit the ball out of the park. Now, you see the seven, eight and nine guys hitting home runs. Everybody hits home runs. Look at our club. Chris Hoiles is hitting seventh. What does that tell you? Players are getting stronger, and ballparks are getting smaller."

The expansion-era upturn in offensive production is an obvious contributor to the dramatic increase in grand slams, but that doesn't explain why that upturn has taken place this year instead of two years ago. The grand slam total for 1993 was well below the average for the previous 10 years, but a disharmonic convergence of factors may provide the answer.

The addition of two expansion teams and the opening of several hitter-friendly stadiums has driven the increase in home runs, but the relationship between homers and grand slams may not be as direct as it appears. The drastic upturn in extra-base hits since expansion actually may have depressed the number of slams, until there was a concurrent increase in the number of walks.

How often does a team load the bases with three hits . . . even three singles? The vast majority of bases-loaded situations result from a combination of hits and walks, and -- for whatever reason -- walks were not dramatically up in 1993. But in '94, they rose by 6 percent over the average for the previous five years and are up 8 percent over that same five-year average this year.

There were 74 grand slams hit during the strike-shortened 1994 season, but the per-game average was the highest since the allegedly juiced ball sent home run totals into the stratosphere in 1987.

"If there's more hitting and more walks, there's more opportunity for that [a grand slam] to happen," said Orioles pitcher Jamie Moyer. "I think you have to look at errors, walks, hits and hit batsmen -- anything that allows a runner to get one base."

That might explain why teams such as the Brewers and Padres lead their leagues in grand slams while they are near the bottom in home runs. Teams that scrap for runs find more ways to get on base; teams that hit for power tend to strike out more and get most of their walks when their big hitters are at the plate.

The situation is compounded by an experience gap in many major-league bullpens. The economic backlash from baseball's long-running labor dispute cut budgets and encouraged teams to cut corners -- especially in the supposedly non-critical middle- and long-relief roles. The Orioles, for example, have spent the entire season experimenting with different middle-relief combinations, with sometimes frightening results, and they are not alone.

"There are a lot of pitchers making mistakes, and hitters are taking advantage of them," said Angels hitting coach Rod Carew. "Pitchers are leaving pitches up in the zone in bases-loaded situations. I've seen too many pitches left out over the plate in situations where you need a double play, up in the zone rather than down in the zone."

That kind of thing could get worse before it gets better, because this particular post-expansion period will be short. The Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays will take the field soon, further diluting the depth of pitching talent.

"If you think this is bad," said Orioles scouting director Gary Nickels, "wait until 1998."

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