O's aren't alone with mound woes Especially in the AL, it's a boom year for hitters

SIDELIGHT

April 27, 1996|By Brad Snyder | Brad Snyder,SUN STAFF

Orioles pitchers took a beating last week in Texas.

But Baltimore fans shouldn't worry, pitchers are taking a beating everywhere.

"The balls are flying out all over the place," said Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina, whose 4.66 ERA pales in comparison to those of teammates Kent Mercker (9.45), Jimmy Haynes (12.08) and Jesse Orosco (21.94) or the team ERA of the Detroit Tigers (7.46).

The Orioles' 26-7 loss to Texas last Friday was embarrassing.

But what about the night the Tigers lost to the Minnesota Twins, 24-11, when the Orioles won an 11-8 slugfest against the weak-hitting Kansas City Royals? That night eight starters, six of them in the American League, lasted three innings or less.

"Everybody's got the same problem in a way," Texas general manager Doug Melvin said. Indeed. The American League ERA is 5.20. AL hitters are batting .272.

Everybody has an opinion on why the hitters have been dominating the pitchers in the early going. The consensus is "it's a combination of things."

One thing it probably isn't -- juiced baseballs.

"I think some people think the ball's wound a little tighter," Orioles manager Davey Johnson said, "but I don't know about that."

The obvious answer is the designated hitter. AL pitchers are faring almost a run a game worse than NL pitchers (4.27). The DH just makes the American League a hitter's league.

"It's like a heavyweight fight vs. a middleweight fight," Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said.

But the DH has been around since 1973 -- so there must be other factors involved.

The strike zone is smaller.

Over the years, the strike zone has gotten smaller and slightly wider. Umpires are more likely to call pitches on the corners strikes, but anything above the waist or below the knee is usually a ball.

The small strike zone forces pitchers to be more precise and allows hitters to swing for the seats, Palmer said.

Umpires said this season they were going to call the low strike, slightly below the knee. It obviously hasn't helped the pitchers.

"I don't think the strike zone's getting any bigger," Palmer said.

At least in Palmer's day, the depth of pitching talent was better.

Everybody agrees that the talent pool of pitchers has been diluted by expansion and will get worse next season with the addition of two more teams.

The lack of depth, Melvin said, cannot be blamed solely on expansion, but also on a rash of injuries.

The former Orioles front office executive points to the handful of top-flight pitchers who have been out of action over the last two seasons because of injuries -- Jose Rijo, Jimmy Key, Bret Saberhagen, Bill Swift, Tommy Greene and Ben McDonald, to name a few.

"They're all No. 1 to 3 starters," Melvin said. "Nobody's worried about having a fifth starter this year."

L So good starting pitchers have become an endangered species.

Meanwhile, hitters, thanks to the emphasis on weight-lifting, are only getting stronger. "You see little guys hitting it out of the ballpark," Johnson said.

That's because many of the new ballparks, bandboxes such as Camden Yards, The Ballpark in Arlington and Coors Field, are getting smaller.

"Do you think there's ever going to be a new ballpark that's going to be a pitcher's park?" Melvin said. "I don't think so."

The fans love the offense. But baseball is a game of cycles, it will balance itself, the players say.

The strike zone will get bigger, the mound will be raised (it was lowered after Bob Gibson's 1.12 ERA in 1968), or someone will invent a new pitch.

The Orioles' pitching -- the team's 5.25 ERA is ninth in the league -- should get better.

Mussina guarantees it.

L "The pitchers," the Orioles ace said, "will have their day."

Pub Date: 4/27/96

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