There's a run on theories to explain all the scoring

On Baseball

April 28, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

That Texas scored 26 runs against the Orioles and Minnesota scored 24 runs against Detroit within the past 10 days is extraordinary.

What is more unbelievable is that in each game, the starting pitcher for the winning team -- the Rangers' Roger Pavlik and the Twins' Frankie Rodriguez -- weren't around long enough to earn victories. All of it speaks to the rather frightful state of pitching in the big leagues.

Through Wednesday's games, the composite American League ERA was 5.26, more than half a run higher than last year's ERA (4.71). Only four teams had an ERA under five runs. The numbers weren't nearly so grotesque in the NL, a 4.26 composite ERA this year, compared with 4.17 last year.

But the fact is, a whole lot of runs are being scored. In 14 games Wednesday, there were 193 runs, three short of the single-day record in the majors. On May 30, 1932, 196 runs were scored in 16 games (eight doubleheaders).

"I think there are a couple of reasons," said Merv Rettenmund, hitting coach for the San Diego Padres. "First off, there just isn't as much quality pitching as there was before expansion. But another reason, and nobody really talks about this, is that there are so few good defensive teams in baseball."

Rettenmund's thinking is that some balls that shouldn't be hits are falling in, and, in addition, pitchers aren't throwing with confidence. Boston pitchers, for example, backed by the worst defense in the majors, may be more likely to go for the strikeout and less apt to follow conventional wisdom -- let them hit it and let your defense do the work for you.

Another possible reason is the incredibly shrinking strike zone. Orioles manager Davey Johnson noted this week that when he played, pitches that passed over the plate gut-high were strikes. "Now you don't see anything called above the belt," he said.

Starting pitchers are forced to throw more pitches, which is why you see the likes of Roger Clemens needing 120 pitches or so to get through six innings, and are forced out of the game sooner. That means more innings are being thrown by middle relievers, who generally make up the lower end of the pitching food chain.

About 20 to 25 percent of the major-league rosters (the exact figures change daily) are made up of pitchers who have been released at one time or another. Twelve percent of the pitchers in the majors had ERAs between 5.00 and 6.00 last year, and 10 percent had ERAs over 6.00.

We're almost a month into the season and only two pitchers, Hideo Nomo of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Juan Guzman of the Toronto Blue Jays, have two complete games. Box scores are overloaded with six and seven relievers in games that end with scores like 3-2 and 4-3. Fewer innings for pitchers like Kevin Appier means more innings for pitchers like Mike Magnante.

The strike zone needs to be expanded even more than it was this year, to force hitters to swing the bat and to allow good pitchers to throw more innings. Anyone who watched Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle hit chest-high fastballs for homers against the Orioles last week knows that batters could deal with a higher strike zone.

Adjustments need to be made. Football scores don't look good in baseball.

"That wasn't very pretty," Twins manager Tom Kelly said after Minnesota beat the Tigers by a couple of touchdowns and an extra point. "All we can do is apologize to the fans who were at the ballpark and watched that exhibition of major-league baseball."

Minnesota second baseman Chuck Knoblauch said, "You have guys with no control pitching in the majors. And to think we've got expansion in two years. It's scary. Hitters are getting stronger and better and working year-round to improve, and there are pitching problems everywhere you look. It's going to be scary."

It already is.

Ribbing from Rettenmund

Rettenmund called to chide his former teammate, Orioles pitching coach Pat Dobson, after the Rangers scored 26 runs against Baltimore. "There's no professional courtesy in the game anymore," Rettenmund said, dryly. "They have Ball Night for the fans in Texas, and they make the pitchers pass out the balls from the mound."

Sixteen of the first 17 pitches thrown by Tim Wakefield in Boston's 8-3 victory over Texas on Thursday were strikes, providing a huge sense of relief for the Red Sox staff. Boston is starving for starting pitching, with Clemens essentially a six-inning pitcher now, Aaron Sele trying to come back from arm surgery and Tom Gordon banished to the bullpen. Wakefield and his knuckleball had been so bad in spring training that a month ago the Red Sox were trying to figure out when to dump him. With his knuckler restored, he could be a savior this year, as he was in 1995.

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