Last winter major league baseball owners and general managers, almost none of whom ever had to pitch a baseball for a living, studied the 1968 batting averages and attendance figures and decided unanimously (how else?) that baseball needed more hitting in 1969. So as a start they lowered the pitcher's mound five inches. They also moved some fences closer to home plate—and one home plate closer to the fences. They installed fast synthetic infields and powerful new lights. They experimented with a livelier baseball. They reduced the strike zone. If all these gimmicks did not help, they felt sure expansion would. The last time the American League expanded—1961—one man hit 61 home runs, and five others hit more than 40. This year the four new teams meant that 40 pitchers from the minors would have to throw to the likes of Henry Aaron and Frank Robinson.
As April ended, the changes seemed to have worked. Dal Maxvill, Hector Torres, Mike Ryan and Felix Millan, each of whom hit only one home run in 1968, all had hit grand-slam homers. Eddie Brinkman, who had only three extra-base hits—all doubles—in 1968, hit a home run in the fourth game of 1969. Don Kessinger, a switch hitter with only two lifetime home runs—both right-handed—hit a home run left-handed.
Batting averages were startling. Cleon Jones of the Mets was hitting well over .400, almost twice what he was hitting last year. John Roseboro of the Twins raised his average by .210. Mack Jones of the Expos (plus .170), Frank Robinson of the Orioles (plus .158), Rico Petrocelli of the Red Sox (plus .144), Larry Brown of the Indians (plus .116), Mark Belanger of the Orioles (plus .122) and Matty Alou of the Pirates (plus .108) were among the most improved hitters, when judged against their early performances in 1968.
Two home-run records were established. Frank Robinson, who is looking like the Robinson of 1966, hit 10 home runs during the month of April, and the Boston Red Sox hit 27 home runs in 11 games. Frank Howard did not set a record, but his eight home runs had the surprising Senators in second place.
The doctored baseball diamonds also contributed to more hitting. In. Chicago the once-anemic White Sox found that their slick synthetic infield now turned ground-ball outs into ground-ball base hits. Chicago's batting average was up 11 points. The White Sox also discovered that their shortened fences were the perfect thing for such new young hitters as Buddy Bradford, Carlos May and Bill Melton, who together rattled off 11 home runs in April. In Los Angeles the Dodgers, who moved home plate 10 feet closer to the walls, found the smaller field just right. Their team batting average was up a whopping 46 points, and they had hit 10 more home runs than they had in 1968.
Now the owners were happy, the general managers were happy, the hitters were happy and the spectators were happy. And where one might expect the pitchers to be far from happy, they seemed to be rather amused by it all. Ray Sadecki of the Giants said, "Wait until those hitters come in to the owners at the end of the season and ask for big salaries based on their fat averages. Then the owners will be sorry they lowered the mounds, shortened the fences and narrowed the strike zone. They'll change everything back, and then the pitchers can ask for the money they rightfully deserve."
Jim Maloney of the Reds said, "I think the hitting's good for baseball and the fans, except when they do it against me. I'm all for a lot of hits and runs—within reason."
However, all this early hitting and early talking did not impress Pete Rose of the Reds, who was the best hitter in baseball last year. Rose attributed the hitting upswing to the fact that most of the established major league pitchers reported late to training camp because of the players' strike in early March. "That did it," Rose said. "Pitchers always need more time to get ready for the season. Their late start is showing up now. Along about late May the hitters will find that the pitchers are as good as ever."
Rose's timing was a bit off. Last week, at the beginning of May, the pitchers began to pitch as they did in 1968, and the hitters, sadly, began to hit as they did in 1968.
Maloney, obviously having second thoughts about his appreciation for batsmen, pitched a no-hitter against the Astros on Wednesday, then Don Wilson of the Astros pitched a no-hitter against Rose and the Reds the next night. Don Sutton of the Dodgers and Dick Bosman of the Senators pitched one-hitters, and Marty Pattin of the Seattle Pilots and Juan Marichal of the Giants came up with two-hitters. Over the week there were 12 shutouts. It began to look as if the pitchers were back, better than ever.
Still, the hitting statistics for the first month of the season (see box) were impressive, mostly because of the cushion provided by the splurge during the first three weeks. The increases in American League statistics were particularly noteworthy.
For instance, eight teams in the American League had four-week batting averages higher than the averages posted for the first month of 1968. New York was up 47 points, Boston was up 50. In the National League six teams were hitting better than they did last year, and five teams had improved their home-run record. Los Angeles (plus 46) and New York (plus 30) were the most improved hitting teams, while Cincinnati (plus 11) and Los Angeles (plus 10) were the most improved home-run clubs.
The fact that the American League has shown more improvement than the National League so far is not surprising. The American League played only 55 night games during the first four weeks, while the National League played 77. Comparative averages for the first month prove that players hit better under the sun than they do under the stars, which is hardly news in baseball. For example, in 79 day games the American League hit .255 while in 55 night games it hit only .218. The National League hit .248 in 66 day games and .236 in 71 night games.
Now almost all teams begin to play night games exclusively, so the batting statistics are almost certain to drop off. There are other reasons, too, for wondering just how long the hitting explosion will last.
For one, the pitchers have learned to adjust to the smaller mound. Early in the season they had a difficult time throwing their curves for strikes. Gaylord Perry of the Giants found that he had to make a bigger kick with his left foot to get his curve down across the plate, and other pitchers have found they need more slope to the mound. In some parks last week the grounds crews were busy making those custom-tailored slopes.
For another, the same pitchers will soon learn the weaknesses of the young rookie hitters, who then go to the bench. "The pitchers catch up with the rookies in the second or third month," says Walter Alston, the Dodger manager, whose lineup includes four young rookies. "It's the same way every year."
Also the pitchers discover the umpires' new ideas of the strike zone and then they will pitch as much as possible for the umpires. Don McMahon, a Detroit relief pitcher, said, "I was talking with an umpire the other day, and he told me he gives the corner to the pitcher on the first and second strikes but favors the hitters on the third strikes." Presumably McMahon will throw strikes on the corner the first two pitches when that umpire is behind the plate.
Johnny Sain, the Detroit pitching coach, thinks there "ought to be a machine to call balls and strikes. There are 50 or 60 umpires in the game, and they're all going to have different ideas about what is a strike."
Although the hitting eventually will drop off, it probably will not sink to last season's level. The 40 pitchers employed because of expansion will reveal their inadequacies often enough during the season. And the smaller mound will continue to have some effect.
As Ted Williams explained last week: "Take a 6'4" pitcher. He's 76 inches. The old mound was 15 inches. That makes him 91 inches. Take five inches off that. That's about 5½% There could be a 5½% difference in the hitting."
For baseball, even a silly millimeter would be enough this year.
BATS THAT GO BOOM IN THE SPRING, TRA-LA
These per-game figures, based on the same number of games last year and excluding expansion teams, indicate gains in almost every offensive department.