With experience short, winning odds long at start

Inside the Orioles

New strike zone adds to adjustment problems


April 15, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Rick Dempsey looks around batting practice at Camden Yards and sees Chris Richard, Melvin Mora, Jay Gibbons and Mike Kinkade, players who've never received 300 at-bats in a major-league season. He cannot see Albert Belle.

"They're naked in the garden," Dempsey said - metaphorically, of course.

The former Orioles catcher and current Comcast SportsNet analyst witnessed much over a 24-year career. Now, he sees a team relatively short on experience dealing with a new strike zone, new responsibilities and a new level of competition.

Orioles manager Mike Hargrove and hitting coach Terry Crowley say it is unfair to form opinions on a lineup hitting .195 on just 11 games.

And, of course, they're correct.

But the larger question remains: Is it any less unfair to expect production remotely similar to last season from a lineup frequently featuring four players who have never played an entire major-league schedule and five who have never enjoyed 350 at-bats in a season?

"It's not like you have a [Eddie] Murray or a [Frank] Robinson around these guys," Dempsey said. "It's not like the Yankees, where you can feed a kid into the No. 8 or 9 spot and whatever he does is a bonus. It's all happening now. And they're it."

Richard, 26, has batted third or fifth in four of the Orioles' 11 games. Kinkade and Gibbons are among the six different No. 5 hitters seen thus far. Having begun the season as starting center fielder, Mora had 10 strikeouts and three hits in his first 29 at-bats before going 2-for-4 (with a strikeout) yesterday.

All have had to adjust to a taller strike zone that has failed to narrow as promised this spring. They are frequently facing veteran pitchers for the first or second time, pitchers more comfortable making adjustments from inning to inning than an inexperienced hitter.

The Orioles have outscored opponents 14-12 through the third inning but have been hammered 28-14 afterward. They have not scored in the seventh or eighth inning this season.

Dominant pitchers such as Roger Clemens will attack a hitter the same way throughout a game, regardless of result. They are that confident and that talented. Others, such as Boston Red Sox fifth starter Toma Ohka, see their fastball hammered for two innings, then resort to an off-speed diet.

In his third major-league start Thursday, Gibbons rifled an opposite-field double on an Ohka first-inning fastball down and away. The rest of the night, Gibbons was tied up by inside pitches and suffered three strikeouts.

That the Orioles are off to their most sluggish offensive start since 1988 says much about the composition of a team that counts only one 100-RBI season since 1996.

Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer cites the American League demographic at each spot in the batting order and wonders in how many places the Orioles can compete.

"You have to make the adjustments," Palmer said. "This ballclub has people in roles they've never played. Not only do they have to adjust to the adjustments other teams make, they have to adjust to their roles.

"Everything stems from the injury to Albert. You're asking [Pat] Hentgen to assume the role of a No. 1. Well, he's done that. He has a chance to do that. But when you're hitting No. 3, 4 or 5 and you've never done that before, there's an adjustment there, too."

The Orioles have hit only one home run in 348 at-bats this season, an absurd pace that would leave them with only 16 for the season. Spring injuries to Cal Ripken and cleanup hitter David Segui also have complicated matters.

Ripken has only 55 at-bats between spring training and the regular season. Segui lost more than two weeks and much of his comfort zone to a right hamstring pull. Delino DeShields went 1-for-3 yesterday yet still is hitting only .091.

For better or worse, Belle provided a presence. Without veteran protection, the younger hitters have been exposed even more.

Crowley gives talk of adjustments and inexperience less weight than ability. And what he sees from this year's newcomers impresses him.

"Talent will eventually overcome everything," Crowley said. "If you make better adjustments, it will shortcut your struggles. But the whole thing is the swing. A short, quick swing allows you time to recognize a pitch for a split-second longer.

"All good hitters have a waiting time. ... You very seldom see veteran players swing at balls out of the strike zone, at least in midseason."

A fluctuating strike zone has hurt all hitters, according to Hargrove. But the younger ones, who often receive less forgiveness from umpires, have been most harmed.

"Good hitters know the strike zone," Hargrove said. "It's been difficult for hitters to raise the strike zone. I've seen a lot of guys called out on hanging breaking balls up."

Few teams in the league face a convergence similar to the Orioles - younger, inexperienced hitters placed in run-producing spots while also confronting an expanded strike zone.

Slow starts by the veteran production pillars have increased the scrutiny. And the need for making adjustments not only day to day but frequently at-bat to at-bat completes the multi-level challenge.

"The second time around the league, teams make adjustments. Then you counter-adjust," Crowley said. "I'm not worried about these guys. The young guys will hit, their confidence will grow.

"Everything is magnified at the start of a season. If you take an 0-for-10 in the middle of the season, nobody really notices. But if you start the season 0-for-10, everybody thinks you can't hit; everybody outside of uniform - let's put it that way."

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