Wednesday May 6th, 2009

The power is still out in major league baseball. While last year's home run decrease drew headlines, this year's has gone largely unnoticed. The rate of homers per game this season (1.03) and per at-bat (one every 33.33 ABs) is higher than each of the last two years, but still trails by a wide margin the numbers from the first part of this decade. In 2000 there were 1.17 home runs per game and a longball every 29.39 at-bats. In fact, the last three seasons rank at the bottom of the decade's standings in both categories. (Part of this, though it's unclear how much, is certainly due to MLB implementing a steroid-testing program for the 2004 season.)

Perhaps more surprising than the drop in home runs has been the names of the powerless. Now one month into the season, 275 of the 668 players (41 percent) to have gotten an at-bat this year have hit at least one home run, a list that includes such lightweights as Shawn Riggans, Jack Hannahan and Phillies pitcher Chan Ho Park, who have made their only hit this season a home run. That list does not include players with some serious slugging credentials, such as Bobby Abreu (96 at-bats), Adrian Beltre (110) and, most surprisingly, David Ortiz (102). In all, 19 players with at least 80 at-bats have yet to go deep, and readers are starting to notice.

Watching David Ortiz this year, it's obvious that he's not just in a slump. He continues to be late on 92 mph fastballs and cheats the breaking ball for contact. How devoted to Ortiz is Terry Francona? --Andrew Snyder, Ludlow, Vt.

Very, and with good reason. Before the Red Sox opened the two-game series with the Yankees in the Bronx that they swept this week, Francona had a conversation with Ortiz that was designed to boost his struggling slugger's confidence and remind him that that the manager will give Ortiz time to return to the fearsome hitter he has been over the past several years. "I know how you feel," Ortiz said his manager told him. "I hit that way my whole career."

Francona's not far off. He was a .274 hitter in parts of 10 major league seasons with 16 career home runs. Ortiz isn't quite that bad, although he has yet to hit a home run this year, the longest drought since he came to the Red Sox in 2003 as a mostly unwanted spare part from the Twins. "I've been standing there for five years patting him on the fanny as he runs by, knocking in all those runs and winning games for us," Francona said. "Now when he needs a little help, I don't want to be the one to abandon him. I'm not going to do that. I want to help him."

"You've got to take the positive thing out of [this slump] and be a man," said Ortiz. "See the pitch and don't miss it."

Francona's handling of Ortiz says a lot about both the manager and the difficulty of the job. Most managers would be vilified for not only continuing to play a .208 hitter with no home runs but also batting him third, the most important spot in the lineup because of its significance in run-scoring opportunities. Francona's talk has not led to a big blast from Big Papi, but Ortiz did respond by going 3-for-6 with four walks, two doubles and two RBIs as the Red Sox took both games of their series in New York. It's little surprise that Francona is so beloved by his players. Ortiz went so far as to tell reporters, "I don't see Terry as my coach anymore. I see Terry as my dad."

Why isn't Ortiz's name being connected to steroid use? His sudden rise from mediocrity, and his equally sudden collapse to same screams steroid abuse. --Lawrence Gulley, Pinetops, N.C.

This is another example of the true shame of the Steroid Era. Even players who have never been connected to performance-enhancing drugs are being viewed with a suspicious eye by fans and media, who sometimes forget that the overwhelming majority of players still owe slumps and breakdowns to age and injury, rather than the use, or lack thereof, of steroids. There has been no evidence of any kind that suggests Ortiz took steroids, and until there is, it's unfair to assume otherwise.

As a Dodgers fan, I am elated on their fast start. However, I am concerned about the lack of power from James Loney and Russell Martin (0 HR each). Do you think Joe Torre and his staff are equally concerned? --Christopher Murphy, Seal Beach, Calif.

Based on comments he made over the weekend, not only is Torre not concerned, but he doesn't think Loney is either. "James doesn't even know he doesn't have a home run yet," Torre told the Press-Enterprise on Saturday. "That's the best part about it. If you tell him, he'll forget about it anyway. He's ice cubes at the plate."

Torre has never put a huge premium on home runs, preferring instead that his players take good at-bats and have the ability to beat you even when they aren't hitting for power, usually by lacing line drives all over the ballpark. Loney, in particular, has not been much of a pull-hitter so far, with only five of his 27 hits going to right field. The one concern might be where he hits in the lineup. Torre has said he's reluctant to juggle the order with his team playing so well, but Loney is batting just .220 in the fifth spot, his primary position in the lineup, compared to .348 when he bats sixth or seventh.

Do you think MLB should (or could) consider shortening the season to 100-125 games and having 6-8 teams making the playoffs in each league? --Ford, Toronto

I don't think they will and I don't think they should. This discussion can pretty much begin and end with the fact that owners would lose far too much money to even consider such a proposal. As it stands right now, each team plays 81 home games. If the season were cut to 124 games -- it would have to be an even number so each team would play as many games at home as on the road -- they would be losing 19 home dates and all the extra revenue for parking, concessions, etc. that come with it.

As for expanding the playoffs, I'm in the group that thinks they are fine just the way they are. Baseball allows a smaller percentage of its teams into the postseason than any of the four major sports: 37.5 percent in the NFL (12 of 32), 53.3 percent in the NHL and NBA (16 of 30; what is this, youth soccer?) and only 8 of 30 in Major League Baseball or 26.7 percent. This ensures that only the most deserving teams reach the postseason and that the regular season maintains its level of importance. Baseball has enough trouble drawing and maintaining fan interest over the course of 162 games without devaluing the product any further. Commissioner Bud Selig has no plans to expand the postseason, saying last year, "I happen to think the system is good this way. I don't think it should be changed. But I think it's fair."

If you had to trade from the Cardinals' surplus of non-pitchers, which two would you give up to get some pitching help if need be within the next month? --Jim Hoffman, St. Louis

For now there's not a whole lot of non-pitchers available, at least not on the big league roster. The Cardinals, like a lot of teams these days, are carrying 13 pitchers and only 12 position players (two catchers, six infielders and four outfielders). Nor is there really a great need for pitching help, at least not as long as the Cards continue to lead the NL Central. Even the one player whose name has probably popped up in trade rumors more than any other -- outfielder Colby Rasmus -- isn't likely to go anywhere. For one thing, he's already got 79 at-bats and has played in 22 of the team's 27 games, so he's more than just a bench-warmer. For another, Rick Ankiel's propensity to crash into walls, as he did this week, only heightens the need for another quality outfielder, especially one of Rasmus' potential. Just this year, Baseball America called him the third best prospect in all of baseball, which would increase the value he could bring in a trade, but also means he's a player worth hanging onto.

It happened again on Monday. Another triple play -- by the team that ends up losing. Am I right in believing that the team making a triple play loses the game far more often than it wins? --Evan Jones, Roanoke, Va.

That's certainly held true in this decade. Of the 31 triple plays turned in the big leagues since the start of the 2000 season, the team that pulled it off has gone 12-19. Here's the record by season for teams pulling off a triple play:

2000: 2-3 2001: 0-2 2002: 2-3 2003: 1-1 2004: 1-2 2005: 0-1 2006: 2-3 2007: 3-1 2008: 1-1 2009: 0-2

This has been bugging me for a long time now. What is on the front of Manny Ramirez's helmet? --Dearborn, Mich.

It's pine tar. Several hitters, including Vladimir Guerrero of the Angels, have helmets covered in pine tar. But while you could make the case that Guerrero needs the sticky stuff because he doesn't use batting gloves, Ramirez doesn't. It just seems to be more of a fashion choice for Manny, as evidenced by the fact that it took him barely a week to get his Dodgers helmet looking every bit as nasty as the Red Sox helmet he left behind when he was traded from Boston last summer. For the most part, pine tar is no longer that popular, and some players even use pine tar sticks that give them the same grip without the mess.

How long do you think it will be before the Reds win another World Series, based on how young their lineup is? --Jason German, Three Oaks, Mich.

I think the Reds should focus first on having a winning record, which they haven't done since 2000, and then on reaching the playoffs, which they haven't done since 1995 (or in a non-strike-shortened year since 1990) before they worry about winning the World Series. Having spent a few days around this team during spring training, I can tell you this is a confident group but one that is not at all ready to win a World Series this year, or perhaps next. They do have a tremendous nucleus, both in the lineup and in the rotation, but need more depth top-to-bottom in both areas to be a legitimate Series contender.

Would Craig Biggio go in the Hall of Fame as a second basemen or as a catcher? --David Grimes, Houston

Last week I wrote about the breakdown of Hall of Famers by position and mentioned that Biggio would go into the Hall as a second baseman, where he played 1,989 of his 2,850 games. He did start his career as a catcher, playing 428 games at that position and making two All-Star teams, but aside from a one-game, two-inning return engagement in his farewell season of 2007, Biggio never caught again after 1991.

What percentage of players have won the home run contest at the All-Star Game and then gone on to win the World Series? (If Albert Pujols enters he will win; I am a Cardinals fan born and raised in St Louis.) --Donnie Smith, Albuquerque

Since the Home Run Derby was added to the All-Star Game in 1985, only one player has won the event outright and then gone on to win the World Series that fall: Luis Gonzalez of the Diamondbacks in 2001 (Darryl Strawberry of the champion Mets tied for the Derby crown in 1986). Pujols would certainly be the favorite in the event, and could become just the second player ever -- and first since Ryne Sandberg of the Cubs in 1990 -- to win the event in his home ballpark.

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