Pop goes the homer

Baseball: Once reserved for the game's elite hitters, big home run numbers now have become commonplace.

Baseball

May 15, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Former Orioles outfielder Brady Anderson didn't know it at the time, but he was on the cutting edge of a home run revolution when he hit 50 of them back in 1996.

Anderson more than doubled his single-season career high and became only the 16th player in major-league history to hit at least 50 in one year. He became a symbol of the "live ball" era that is now threatening to make the home run, well, ho-hum.

Want some proof? There have been 12 more 50-plus-homer performances in the five seasons since Anderson made the abrupt - and somewhat short-lived - transition from 20-homer guy to premier power hitter.

"It used to be that you marveled at guys who hit 35 home runs," Anderson said. "There was only a handful of them."

It used to be that the unreachable standard was 61 homers in a season, a record held by Roger Maris for 37 years. Mark McGwire shattered it with his amazing 70-homer effort in 1998, and Barry Bonds made short work of that record with 73 last year.

When Bonds opened the 2002 season with five home runs in his first four games, there was room to wonder if it had become just too easy to hit the ball out of the ballpark.

Ya think?

Maris and a fairly accomplished power hitter named Babe Ruth were the only hitters to reach 60 home runs in the first 126 years of major-league baseball. Chicago Cubs star Sammy Sosa has done it three of the past four years and, with 15 in the first six weeks of this season, he's well on pace to do it again.

Cubs fans aren't complaining. They wouldn't have much reason to show up at Wrigley Field right now if it weren't for their charismatic slugger. But the ease with which Sosa has repeatedly overcome baseball's once-magical 60-homer plateau has some wondering if this homer-studded era might puncture the aura that has long surrounded baseball's most exciting play.

When McGwire hooked up with Sosa in 1998 to produce perhaps the most exciting home run race in history, fans turned out in droves just to watch Big Mac take batting practice. There clearly was an atmosphere of amazement at the Bunyanesque quality of McGwire's performance.

St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa wonders now if what has happened since then has changed the perception of McGwire's achievement and of the recent home run heroics of baseball's other top power hitters.

"I think if you just look at the three main guys - Mark, Barry and Sammy - I think they all are going to suffer as far as not getting all the credit they deserve," La Russa said. "There's going to be a tendency to underestimate how difficult it was for them.

"It was unbelievable what Mark went through in 1998. He got pitched tough. Sammy got pitched tough. Barry is getting pitched tough. Yes, home runs are coming in bunches, but these guys are generating these numbers seeing the best of everybody."

Indeed, Bonds set the record last year while also setting a major-league record for walks in a season. His ratio of home runs to at-bats - one for every 6.5 at-bats - further illustrates the statistical sea change that has taken place in baseball over a relatively brief span of the game's history.

Ruth averaged a home run every nine at-bats during his 60-homer season in 1927, and he had the luxury of hitting in the middle of a lineup known as "Murderer's Row." Maris averaged a home run every 9.7 at-bats during his record-setting season in 1961, and he had Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle batting behind him in another potent Yankees lineup.

Those ratios came during single seasons that went unequaled for most of a century. Since the start of the 1998 season, Sosa has averaged a home run about every 10 at-bats, and he isn't considered a particularly selective hitter.

A variety of factors

The overall home run numbers also demonstrate a clear shift in favor of the long ball, though the baseball-wide homer rate has declined subtly over the past year. The ratio of at-bats to home runs has dropped considerably during the past decade, even factoring in a rumored "juiced ball" period in the late 1980s.

There are plenty of contributing factors, most notably a demonstrable downturn in the overall quality of pitching and a surge in the construction of hitter-friendly ballparks such as Camden Yards.

If the home run is facing a credibility crisis, it may not be because there are so many being hit by a handful of elite power hitters, but because there are so many being hit by the kind of guys who did not hit very many in the past.

"When you see opposite-field home runs, not from a guy extending his arms like a Jim Edmonds, who can hit the ball 500 feet to the opposite field, but from a guy on his front foot just pushing it out there, then you know there are some things making the home run too available," La Russa said.

Orioles shortstop Mike Bordick hit a total of 28 home runs in his first seven major-league seasons, but with an added emphasis on weight training and the switch from the spacious Oakland Coliseum to cozy Camden Yards, he hit 20 in 2000.

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