Offense takes hit with new strike zone



April 08, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

It's a little early to judge the Sandy Alderson strike zone experiment, but the early anecdotal returns appear to indicate that the higher strike is having an impact on the balance of power between pitchers and hitters.

Obviously, the six strong performances out of the six starters who appeared in the season-opening series between the Orioles and Boston Red Sox are an indication that something is different from last year. Neither team is considered to have a particularly strong starting rotation, yet both teams looked like the Atlanta Braves.

Pitcher Hideo Nomo didn't hedge when asked if the new strike zone helped him pitch the second no-hitter of his career. Orioles starter Sidney Ponson also felt he got a hand from the new zone in his 10-strikeout performance the same night.

But is what happened at Camden Yards reflective of the entire major leagues?

Yes and no.

There was a drop in offensive production in the first three days of the regular season compared with last year. Teams combined to score an average of 10.3 runs a game over that period last year, but 9.2 over the same period this year (which includes last Sunday's game in Puerto Rico). That's more than a 10 percent decrease in a sport that measures most statistics to the tenth of a percentage point.

It's also a very small sample, and there are managers who say they haven't seen much difference in the strike zone this year.

"I haven't really noticed a significant change in the strike zone since Day One of spring training," said Arizona Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly. "There have been rare occasions where an umpire will call a belt-high strike, and there have also been rare occasions where an umpire has forced a pitcher to throw the ball over the plate rather than give him that pitch a couple of pitches off it. But for the most part, I don't really see any change.

"Maybe it's just subjective from umpire to umpire - some guys took the memo a little more to heart than others - but we haven't seen it yet."

The jury's still out, but we'll be taking a closer look at the statistical data periodically throughout the season.

Big drop-off

Ever wonder how much difference there is between a No. 2 and a No. 3 starter?

It's pretty significant. Teams combined to average just 7.8 runs a game the first two days of the regular season this year, when all the No. 1 starters and many of the No. 2 starters pitched. The average jumped to 10.1 runs a game for the Wednesday and Thursday games, which featured mostly No. 3 guys.

The difference was more pronounced last season, when the average was 8.5 runs the first two days and 12.6 runs the next two days.

No wonder Jose Mercedes thought it was bad luck to be the Orioles' No. 3 starter. The stats back him up.

Things are tough all over

The Orioles aren't the only big-attendance team in the American League that can no longer take a sellout crowd for granted. The Cleveland Indians ended their 455-game Jacobs Field sellout streak against the rival Chicago White Sox on Wednesday in their second game of the regular season.

OK, so it wasn't anything like the old days, when the Indians would draw 70,000 to Opening Day at Cleveland Stadium and 1,800 the next game, but the rows of empty seats in the upper deck stood out nonetheless.

"I thought we were playing an intrasquad game," said starting pitcher Chuck Finley. "Or maybe a bridge had collapsed. I'm not used to seeing empty seats in this park."

Finley, who is 11-3 as an Indian at The Jake, had to wonder why some fans stayed home on the night he made his 2001 debut, but he wasn't taking it too seriously.

"I had a tear in my eye when I knew it [the sellout streak] was ending," Finley said. "I figured, what do they have against me? I pitch and the streak ends? But [pitching coach] Dick Pole told me not to take it personally."

New ballpark, sort of

The Cincinnati Reds seem pleased with their reconfigured ballpark. Cinergy Field has been altered to look and feel more like a baseball-only facility until the club moves into a new stadium in 2003.

The most obvious difference is the new center-field wall, which, at its highest point (40 feet), is three feet taller than Fenway Park's 37-foot Green Monster. The park also has natural grass now, and some seating has been removed in the outfield to give it more of an open-air ambiance.

"All my life, I've only known it one way," said Ken Griffey Jr., who grew up in and around Riverfront Stadium. "It's not that way now. It's like being at a new ballpark."

The changes are not merely cosmetic. The wall figures to turn a lot of home runs into doubles and triples. The natural grass also should contribute to a more exciting style of play by reducing the number of ground-rule doubles caused by the high bounces off artificial turf.

The impact of the missing bleacher sections on the wind patterns in the ballpark remains to be seen, since fly balls don't really begin to carry at Cinergy until the weather warms up.

Emotional moment

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