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BASEBALL

Once Again, Expansion Leads Right to Dilution

April 19, 1998|ROSS NEWHAN

Not to make light of a dangerous incident, but that falling beam in the House that Ruth Built might simply have been the Babe's ghost shaking down some thunder.

A reminder, perhaps, that despite another year of expansion-diluted pitching, all those Ruth imitators still have a long way to go.

A reminder, as well, that despite the offensive onslaughts in previous expansion years, the already high-octane production of the '90s might mitigate the increase many expect this year.

It's difficult to draw a conclusion after only three weeks.

On the one hand, 29 of the 30 teams have already scored 10 or more runs in a game (the Toronto Blue Jays are the exception) and more than a dozen players are on a pace to hit 60 or more home runs.

On the other hand, the homer-per-game average of 1.96 through Thursday was down from the two-plus figures of the last four years. The runs-per-game average of 10, while up slightly from the 9.5 of last year, was down from the 10.2 of 1996 and considerably shy of the record 11.1 of 1930.

"It's still tremendously early, but the figures are about right where they've been over the last four or five years," said Steve Hirdt of the Elias News Bureau, baseball's official statistics house.

"It's true that the offensive production has almost always increased in expansion years, but the past expansions weren't coming off the high plateau of these recent years.

"I mean, it's too early to draw any conclusion, but it might not have been realistic for people to predict a great leap from that very high plateau."

It's too early, indeed.

If the figures are already at recent levels, what happens when the weather warms and the pitchers tire and the damage accumulates from a full season in Tropicana Field and Bank One Ballpark, the hitter-friendly homes of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks?

What happens when the damage accumulates from a full season of those hitter-friendly Arizona and Tampa pitching staffs? Or a full season of those rookie-dominated Florida Marlin and Montreal Expo staffs?

The Devil Rays have been more than respectable out of the gate, but the Diamondbacks gave up 26 home runs in 16 games through Thursday while yielding an average of almost 6.5 runs per game.

The 1998 season opened with 324 pitchers on the 30 rosters, but that's only the start. The 28 teams used a total of 566 pitchers last year--an incredible average of 20.2 per team. At that same rate, the 30 will use 606 this year.

It might be unrealistic to expect a great jump up from a high plateau, but it seems unrealistic to think there won't be any jump.

Except for the National League's first expansion in 1962, the scoring and home run totals have always increased in expansion years.

In the American League's first expansion year of 1961, Roger Maris hit 61 homers to break Ruth's record.

In 1969, when each league added two teams, scoring increased by 1.25 runs in the NL and by 1.37 in the AL. In 1993, when the Marlins and Colorado Rockies joined the National League, the NL teams scored an average of 100 more runs than the year before and hit a third more home runs.

The toll, as baseball has expanded from the 16 teams of 1960 to the current 30, is evident. Few teams can send out quality starters in the fourth and fifth rotation spots, and few have enough middle relievers to pick up the slack for the rotation shortage.

Force-feeding is rampant. The turnover endless.

"Every club has a closer and every club attempts to have a setup guy," Texas Ranger General Manager Doug Melvin said. "The key to winning is getting into the other club's middle relief. That's where the mediocrity is.

"I mean, you have guys who aren't good enough to be starters and aren't good enough to be closers.

"In a lot of cases you've got guys who aren't ready to be pitching in the majors or simply aren't good enough to be."

Said Minnesota Twin Manager Tom Kelly: "It's a vicious cycle. If you're forced to use a minor leaguer at the major league level and that minor leaguer can't pull his weight, the score is going to be 20 to something. You're going to leave him out there because you don't want to use up another pitcher. Or if you do use a major leaguer to get you off the field, that means taxing another pitcher. Do that often enough and you're probably going to break someone down, and that means bringing up another minor leaguer."

Baseball, of course, has catered to offense. There is more to it than the pitching shortage.

From the lowering of the mound in 1969 to the addition of the designated hitter to the shrinking strike zone to the discovery of bar bells and, well, juice bars by bigger and stronger athletes, all of it has been chronicled, and none of it is to take away from the accomplishment of legitimate power hitters like Mark McGwire or Ken Griffey Jr.

Both are off to sizzling starts, and both have romanced 60 in non-expansion years. McGwire hit 58 homers last year, Griffey 56.

"The home run record is the sexiest in sports," statistician Hirdt said. "It would be tremendously exciting to see it broken, but it's tremendously hard to do, and if anyone were to ask me, I don't think it will be broken this year."

Hirdt spoke from the historical perspective of all those years when it hasn't happened and, in the case of the injury-riddled McGwire in particular, from the viewpoint that he didn't do it last year when his 540 at-bats were his most since 1988. Of course, McGwire also faced the adjustment that comes with switching teams and leagues last year, losing games and at-bats in the travel process, but Hirdt said he expects McGwire to be walked more often this year, with teams taking a chance on the dangerous Ray Lankford behind him.

The St. Louis Cardinals signed Lankford to a multiyear extension the other day, insuring McGwire he will have adequate protection through the turn of the century as he takes aim on that often inadequate pitching.

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