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BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Expansion Has Extended to Home Run Figures, Too

September 12, 1993|ROSS NEWHAN

This season was a tale of the tape even before the four-homer explosion by Mark Whiten.

It is not a record year for home runs, but they are up significantly from last season, and the total will be surpassed in recent years only by '87.

Despite the prolonged absence of Bash Brothers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, home runs have continued to fly as an array of young hitters contributes to a historic offensive year.

The Elias Sports Bureau, baseball's official statistician, has been swamped, the home run average increasing about 25%, runs about 12% and the combined major league batting average, as of Thursday, having soared 11 points to .267.

Only six other times, according to Elias, have both home runs and runs per game increased more than 10% from one season to another, and only five other times has the average increased 10 or more points.

It could be one of the biggest seasons for batting averages since 1939, when 17 players batted .320 or better; one of the biggest for productivity since 32 players drove in 100 or more runs in 1930, and clearly the biggest for home runs since a record 28 players hit 30 or more in '87.

Said Angel Manager Buck Rodgers: "It seems like every time I pick up a paper, some hitter has set a club record for one thing or another."

The hitters, of course, have received help. Observers cite the further dilution of pitching through expansion, introduction of Denver's mile-high missile base, a shrinking strike zone that forces pitchers to deliver more hittable pitches, the basic reluctance of pitchers to throw inside, and renewed suspicion that the ball has again been wound tighter.

"It's not as lively as it was in '87, but it's definitely livelier," Rodgers said. "It was a full twist livelier in '87. I'd call it at about a half twist this year."

In '87, American League teams averaged a whopping 2.32 home runs per game, the National 1.88.

American League teams were averaging 1.87 homers at midweek, contrasted to 1.57 last year. The National League increase was even greater--1.75 compared with 1.30.

On Thursday, four players had 40 or more home runs, another 10 had 30 or more and another six had 28 or 29. Only two players finished with 40 or more last season, and another 10 had 30 or more.

In addition, 16 teams have already exceeded their home run totals of last year, another two or three might still do it, and the Philadelphia Phillies could become the first team since 1953 to score 900 runs, as well as the first team in National League history to go an entire season without being shut out.

The juiced ball, however, is only one theory. Some others:

* EXPANSION--"It's this simple," Rodgers said. "Pitching was diluted to start with, and now it's more diluted. I mean, it used to be that everyone needed a fifth starter. Now just about everyone is looking for a third and fourth starter as well."

One result: The National League earned-run average has gone from 3.50 to 4.05, the American from 3.94 to 4.33.

"Guys like Ken Griffey (Jr.), Frank Thomas and Juan Gonzalez are going to hit their home runs even if they played at the airport," Rodgers said. "But now the guys who used to hit 10 are hitting 15, and the guys who used to hit 15 have 20 or more."

Expansion has been compounded by the introduction of some home run havens: Camden Yards, reconfigured Candlestick during day games, Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami and, of course, Mile High, where teams are averaging 12.8 runs and 2.3 home runs.

The Colorado pitching staff, through Friday, had major league highs for ERA, 5.53; home runs given up, 159, and opponent batting average, .299.

And now, of course, with realignment, expansion is inevitable again.

There will be two more teams within five years, then two more within another five.

"It's not always what's right in baseball," Rodgers said. "It's what's expedient and profitable."

* STRIKE ZONE--The league presidents notified umpires at the start of the season that they wanted enforcement of the letter-high strike, as defined in the rule book. It hasn't happened.

"Anything above the belt is a ball," Atlanta General Manager John Schuerholz said.

It is his theory that since the umpires shed their balloon-type protectors in favor of the smaller, inside model, they have sought more protection by slotting low behind the catcher and can't react to a 90-m.p.h. fastball above the belt.

"You'd think that with space-age technology, someone could come up with a comfortable and aesthetic protector that would allow them to get in the correct position to make the call," Schuerholz said.

If the height of the strike zone has shrunk, the width has narrowed as well, Rodgers said. "Pitchers don't get the corners anymore because the umpires are concerned about second-guessing from the center-field cameras. The pitcher has to throw to the middle of the plate. It's a hitter's strike zone."

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