Baseball's double-digit inflation

Scoring: Bigger hitters, smaller strike zones and tightly stitched balls have the game on an offensive like never before.

June 22, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

In a baseball world where years of double-digit inflation have pushed salaries and franchise values to amazing heights, perhaps it was only a matter of time before the game itself began to bulge at the seams.

How's this for double-digit inflation? Cincinnati Reds 24, Colorado Rockies 12.

It wasn't so long ago that a double-figure run total was considered unusual. Now, it is so common that on one night recently, the winning team in every American League game scored at least 10 runs. The Cleveland Indians alone have 14 double-digit games this season.

Scoring has been on the rise throughout the 1990s, the natural result of two expansions, diluted pitching and the trend toward smaller ballparks. The 1996 season featured so many home runs that the "juiced ball" theory came back in vogue. The 1998 season was an offensive festival that included the two highest individual home run totals in history.

And, at the rate that runs are being scored and home runs are being hit in 1999, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Major-league hitters are on pace to better the game's cumulative single-season totals in virtu ally every offensive department, especially home runs. The two leagues combined last year to hit more than 5,000 homers (5,064) for the first time, an upsurge that could be explained away at least in part because of the addition of two expansion teams that hit 270 between them.

This year, the 30 major-league clubs were on pace (through Sunday) to hit 5,648 homers, which would represent an increase of 11.5 percent over 1998. The significance of that kind of change is hard to explain away as a mere statistical anomaly.

Something definitely is going on.

The same dynamics are in effect as last year, only to an even greater degree. The hitters continue to get bigger, while stadiums, the strike zone and the pool of pitching talent seem smaller than ever. The balance of power has shifted decidedly in favor of the guys carrying the sticks, and they are exercising that power with greater and greater efficiency.

Hitters like to say that when they are swinging well, the baseball looks like a grapefruit, a basketball or even a beach ball. That has to be a great feeling at a time when a beach ball would barely fit into the diminishing strike zone.

"I think there are just a lot of variables," said New York Yankees pitcher David Cone. "Historically, every recent major change has been pro-hitter. Now, the strike zone has gone from a vertical rectangle to a horizontal rectangle and I haven't seen a whole lot of high strikes."

Juiced ball?

The conspiracy buffs say that it's all part of an evil plan by Major League Baseball and the television networks to make the game more exciting by assuring that there will be plenty of runs. The strike zone certainly seems to have gotten progressively smaller over the past few years, and pitchers insist that the ball is wound a lot tighter than it was a decade or two ago.

But that was the explanation last year, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa combined for an unheard of 136 home runs and baseball featured the highest number of 50-homer guys (four) in history. Even if all that's true, it's hard to account for the dramatic increase again this year or for that two more hitters -- Jose Canseco and Ken Griffey -- are on pace to hit more than 61 home runs.

"I think it's two things," said Orioles manager Ray Miller. "The ball is harder and the strike zone has changed."

The juiced-ball theory crops up every time there is a big offensive upsurge, but Miller and Orioles pitching coach Bruce Kison contend that it is not a mere suspicion.

"When I played, you could massage a baseball and, after a while, you could move the leather around on the ball," said Kison, whose major-league pitching career ended in 1985. "These balls, you can't budge the hide. I don't know if baseball is doing that intentionally or not. The contention is that there is no difference, but there is a difference."

Major-league officials say there has been no conscious attempt to enhance the flight of the baseball.

"I've talked to pitchers, too," said baseball commissioner Bud Selig, "but the people that make the baseballs vehemently deny that. I've talked to them and asked those same questions. They are offended by the suggestion."

Hitters blame pitchers

Predictably, the hitters don't buy into the tighter-ball theory either.

"My biggest explanation is that players are just bigger," said Yankees designated hitter Chili Davis, "and they know more about hitting. Guys who are legitimate power hitters, they go up there looking for that one pitch to hit, and you're not finding as many power pitchers in the game anymore.

"In the old days, every team had three or four guys who threw really hard. Now, even if a guy has good velocity on his fastball, he doesn't want to throw it for a strike. Some guys won't ever throw you a strike. If hitters are patient, you could walk up there with runners in scoring position almost every at-bat."

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