LONELY AT THE TOP
During the off-season, Royals manager John Wathan took centerfielder Willie Wilson aside and told him that he would have to start getting more walks than the 22 he had last year or he would not be able to hit lead-off anymore. "'You're as fast as ever," Wathan said. "But if you get on base less than 30 percent of the time [Wilson's '88 on-base average was .289] and strike out more than 100 times, you do us no good." A talented leadoff batter may not be as valuable as a 100-RBI man or a 20-game winner, but he plays a major role in determining the character of a team's offense. As Yankee manager Dallas Green puts it, "Whether the guy has speed that disrupts everyone or is standing on second, everything changes for the pitcher when you've got a guy who puts an offense in motion." The Yankees always have a chance because of their No. 1 guy, leftfielder Rickey Henderson, who had 14 steals and an on-base average of .400 through Sunday. And so do the Giants, with centerfielder Brett Butler (.425 OBA), and the Brewers, with third baseman-designated hitter Paul Molitor (.412 OBA). Over the past four years, in fact, Milwaukee has played .568 ball with Molitor in the lineup and .379 without him.
Wondering why Atlanta and Baltimore have been so hot offensively this season? Just look at the stats of their leadoff hitters, Lonnie Smith and Brady Anderson, respectively. According to Stats, Inc. (using the runs-per-game formula, which takes into account all offensive categories), Smith has been the most productive leadoff hitter in the National League this season through April 27. In the American League over the same period, Anderson has been second in production only to Henderson.
Most managers prefer to use a speedster in the No. 1 slot, but the Angels' Doug Rader calls that kind of thinking "ridiculous." A case in point is Houston's Gerald Young, who stole 65 bases last year but through Sunday had only two extra-base hits and a .283 OBA. The White Sox, to cite another example, have been trying to break shortstop Ozzie Guillen into the top of the order, but his OBA has dropped from .294 last year to .277. In contrast, the Angels have been using the productive but poky Brian Downing (.359 OBA), and Boston's leadoff man is Wade Boggs, who stole only two bases last year but hit 45 doubles and led the majors with a .476 OBA.
May 7, 1989
Henderson, Boggs, Butler and Molitor clearly deserve four-star ratings as leadoff men. So will Raines as soon as he starts running again. Indeed, Expo manager Buck Rodgers chided him last week for trying to steal only twice in the first 20 games. Smith and Anderson also have four-star potential if they can keep the pressure on throughout the season.
On the next level down are the Reds' Barry Larkin (.325 OBA) and the Pirates' Barry Bonds (.318 OBA), who have both gotten off to fair starts, and the Twins' Dan Gladden (.309 OBA) and the Mets' Lenny Dykstra (.456 OBA), who often make up in aggressiveness what they lack in firepower. Philadelphia's Juan Samuel (.267 OBA) has the tools to become one of the best in the game, but first he needs to improve his walk-to-strikeout ratio, which was 39-151 last year.
Next come Young and the Cardinals' Vince Coleman. During spring training Coleman vowed to raise his OBA 50 points, from a mediocre .313 last year; St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog said, "If he does that, it'll be worth 10 to 12 extra wins." Through Sunday, Coleman's OBA was up 57 points, but it may not make that big a difference because the Cards are crippled by pitching injuries. Meanwhile, Wilson has returned to his old impatient ways at the plate after a promising spring, and the Royals have experimented with outfielder Jim Eisenreich in the leadoff spot.
According to Stats, Inc., the teams that have been getting the lowest production from the leadoff spot are, in descending order, the Rangers (using primarily Cecil Espy), Tigers (Kenny Williams and Pat Sheridan), Dodgers (Willie Randolph), Padres (Roberto Alomar), Athletics (Tony Phillips and Luis Polonia), White Sox (Guillen), Astros (Young) and Indians (Oddibe McDowell). Last year, with Julio Franco batting leadoff, Cleveland was sixth in the league in run production. But McDowell, who led the Rangers to the second-worst leadoff numbers in baseball last year, has been a poor replacement. Just think where the Indians might be now if they hadn't let Butler slip away in '87.
THE SUNSHINE STATE
Though the Orioles have all but committed themselves to making LSU ace Ben McDonald the No. 1 pick in the June draft, the first round will probably be dominated by high school players. The Braves, who have the second pick overall, are expected to select 225-pound slugger Earl Cunningham from Lancaster, S.C. But their scouts are also looking at Las Vegas catcher Tyler Houston and Frankston, Texas, outfielder Paul Coleman.
Many of the top high school prospects come from Florida, which could produce as many as seven of the first 30 picks. Righthander Kiki Jones—of Dwight Gooden's alma mater, Hillsborough High School, in Tampa—heads the list, although his stock has recently dropped because of some poor outings, his size (5'11", 175 pounds) and the fact that the 18-year-old Jones already has a daughter to worry about. Though his 72 rating by the Major League Scouting Bureau earlier in the season puts him only one point below McDonald, Jones will probably be the third high school pitcher selected in June, behind righthander Roger Salkeld of Saugus, Calif., who at 6'5" and 205 pounds has more of a pitcher's build than Jones, and righthander Jeff Juden, a 6'7", 245-pound former hockey star from Salem, Mass. "Don't worry about Kiki," says one scout of Jones's recent poor performance. "He's simply bored with waiting for the draft."
Four other Floridians should also go in the first round. One is Cincinnati catcher Terry McGriff's cousin Charles Johnson, who calls signals in Fort Pierce. Another is Kenny Felder, an outfielder from Niceville who signed on with Florida State as a quarterback but is expected to play baseball. The two other highly rated Floridians are lefthanded-hitting outfielder Greg Blosser of Sarasota and Rollins College shortstop Clay Bellinger. Righthander John Hope of Stranahan High School in Fort Lauderdale would also be a definite if he hadn't been suspended for a week and a half in March for engaging, along with his father, in a violent altercation with another teenager. Still, the scouts love Hope's aggressiveness: Earlier this year, while he was warming up between innings, Hope knocked down an opposing hitter because the batter, trying to gauge the speed of Hope's pitches, had edged to within a few feet of the batter's box.
"This may be a better year in Florida than 1982, when the high school all-star game featured nine players who have made the big leagues," says Toronto scout Tim Wilken. "This year's all-star game may have a dozen future major leaguers."
That game in '82 included Gooden, Red Sox leftfielder Mike Greenwell, Blue Jay catcher-DH Pat Borders, Rangers first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, Yankee pitcher Lance McCullers, Angel pitcher Richard Monteleone, Mariners pitcher Terry Taylor, Rangers utilityman Mike Stanley and White Sox catcher Ron Karkovice. One important player, however, didn't make that all-star team: a kid from Miami named Jose Canseco.
THE REAL DR. K
The time has come to give Ron Perranoski much of the credit for the Dodgers' recent success. "He is one of the best pitching coaches ever," says one baseball executive. "He's basic, but he's a master psychologist and has an uncanny ability to read opposing hitters. He takes great arms who haven't won and makes them winners."
Righthander Tim Leary was 20-31 with a 4.28 ERA until last year, but since the start of the '88 season, he has gone 19-13 with a 3.03 ERA. Fireballer Tim Belcher has undergone a similar transformation: Before being acquired by the Dodgers in '87 he was 34-34 with a 4.37 ERA with four minor league clubs. But last year he was 12-6, had a 1.06 ERA during the last month of the season and won three postseason games. And this season he has picked up where he left off, going 2-2 with a 2.54 ERA in his first six starts.
Now Perranoski has another miracle in the works: Mike Morgan, the erstwhile phenom who pitched his first major league game for the A's in '78, a week after graduating from high school. Since then he has bounced from organization to organization and was 34-68 with a 4.90 ERA when the Dodgers acquired him in a trade with the Orioles in March. Under Perranoski, Morgan won two of his first three starts—the first time he has been over .500 since he was 1-0 with Seattle on April 12, 1986.
San Diego reliever Mark Davis had 11 saves in his first 11 opportunities, but it took him 17‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings to do it, because the Padres don't have any good setup men. By contrast, Oakland's Dennis Eckersley collected his first eight saves and a win in only 11‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings.... What has helped make Rangers pitcher Nolan Ryan so effective in the America League this season is the circle changeup he learned last year in Houston. Says Blue Jay slugger Fred McGriff, "You can't tell the difference between his fastball and change coming out of his hand." During his one-hitter against the Blue Jays on April 23, Ryan's fastball was clocked at 97 mph and his change at 87 mph.... After the aforementioned one-hitter, Toronto pitcher Mike Flanagan overheard his teammates discussing Ryan's trademark grunt and quipped, "I tore a vocal cord as a kid and haven't thrown as well since."
BETWEEN THE LINES
UP ON THE FARM
Through April 21, Expo righthander Pascual Perez had allowed two runs in odd-numbered innings and 10 in even-numbered ones. So Montreal's whimsical media relations director Richard Griffin wrote in the team's press notes, "In the quartet of games he has started this season the man some have called Mister Odd ...has racked up an impressive Odd Inning ERA (OIERA) of 0.69. His Even Inning ERA (EIERA) is 6.00. Unlike last season when he wagered a cow (EIEIO) with brother Melido [the White Sox pitcher] there are no odds involved with this true but unlikely story." The wager, of course, was over who would win the most games in '88, but neither collected, because they each won 12 games.
COACH KNOWS BEST
When the Pirates optioned rookie outfielder Steve Carter to Buffalo April 26, pitching coach Ray Miller told Carter, "Go down and work hard, and you'll be back soon." How prophetic. Carter arrived at Pilot Field in Buffalo at around 5:30 p.m. to find the Bisons' game already over. And when he returned to the stadium the following morning for an 11:05 game, Buffalo manager Terry Collins told him the Pirates wanted him back in Pittsburgh because centerfielder Andy Van Slyke had reinjured a rib-cage muscle. As he walked into the Pirates' clubhouse that afternoon. Miller greeted him with a smile and said, "Nice job."
What do Dick Allen, Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt and Nelson Liriano have in common? Each broke up a Nolan Ryan no-hitter with one out in the ninth inning. Five days after spoiling Ryan's near gem on April 23 in Toronto with a triple to right, Liriano ruined California righthander Kirk McCaskill's bid for a no-hitter, in Anaheim, by hitting a double on the first pitch of the ninth inning.
On April 26, Boston catcher Rich Gedman called for a pitchout because he thought White Sox outfielder Daryl Boston was going to break for second. Oil Can Boyd misread the sign and threw a pitch down the middle as Gedman stepped out of the catcher's box. But then the batter, Ron Kittle, grounded to third and started a 5-4-3 double play. Later that night, in Seattle, Toronto catcher Ernie Whitt called for a pitchout, hoping to nail Mariner base-thief Harold Reynolds as he took off with the pitch. But Blue Jay righthander Dave Stieb failed to throw the ball far enough outside, and Darnell Coles hit a line drive to right-field. Rightfielder Rob Ducey pulled down the ball and threw it to first for—what else?—a 9-3 double play.
•Trade of the year: Montreal outfielder Tracy Jones to San Francisco for outfielder Mike Aldrete. At week's end they were a combined 3 for 43.
•Since he became a Dodger last season, shortstop Alfredo Griffin has gone 7 for 11 and picked up 21 RBIs hitting with the bases loaded. In his other 387 at bats, through Sunday, he has only 11 RBIs.
•No wonder Tiger ace Jack Morris was 0-5 at week's end: He didn't have a lead in any of his first five starts.
•The Tigers were playing .364 ball on Sunday. In his 19 years as a manager, Sparky Anderson has finished under .500 only once: His '71 Reds were 79-83, for a .488 average.
The Green Monster in Fenway Park has turned many fly balls that would have been outs elsewhere into hits. And which batters would benefit most by a move to the Back Bay? Based on the distance of the fly-outs they hit in '88, Chris Sabo and Kevin McReynolds would each have picked up an additional 11 hits had they played all of their games in Fenway.
FLY-OUTS ELSEWHERE THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN HITS IN FENWAY
Kevin McReynolds, Mets
Chris Sabo, Reds
Kal Daniels, Reds
Steve Balboni, Mariners
Rafael Ramirez, Astros
Mike Schmidt, Phillies
Jose Canseco, Athletics
Ken Oberkfell, Braves/Pirates
SOURCE: STATS, INC.