The Big Whiff
In this season of unbelievable hitting and unspeakable pitching, how is it that major leaguers are on pace to make 1994 the biggest strikeout year of all time? According to the Elias Sports Bureau, there has never been a season in which there was an average of 12 strikeouts per game, yet the average this year was 12.4 at week's end—and you can't blame Rob Deer, because he's now playing in Japan.
Mariner manager Lou Piniella offered the easy explanation: "You get a lot of money for hitting homers." Indeed, hitters are swinging from their heels instead of trying to put the ball in play because they don't win $4 million arbitration awards by hitting a lot of singles. But that's not the only explanation.
"I just don't think hitters are as disciplined today," says Blue Jay coach Gene Tenace. "They swing at pitches that are way out of the strike zone, especially with men in scoring position."
It used to be embarrassing to reach the century mark in strikeouts. Hall of Fame slugger Frank Robinson, now an assistant general manager with the Orioles, says the worst year of his career was 1965—the only season in his 21 as a major leaguer in which he struck out 100 times. The Reds traded him to the Orioles after that season, claiming he was an "old 30."
In 1960 the Phillies' Pancho Herrera set a National League record by striking out 136 times, but, according to Elias, 33 seasons later that total isn't even among the top 140 strikeout seasons of all time. The '60 season also produced a then-record seven 100-strikeout men. The record now is 43, set in 1987, another huge offensive season. At week's end 62 players were on pace to strike out 100 times this season.
The increase over the years in strikeout rates is clearly defined. There were five strikeouts per game in the 1920s, six in the '31 is, seven in the '40s and eight in the '50s. The average jumped to 11 per game in 1963, when the strike zone was enlarged, but the figure dropped to between nine and 10 after the mound was lowered and the strike zone was returned to its previous dimensions in '69. Strikeouts per game reached 11 to stay in '86, the year Deer, Jose Canseco, Pete Incaviglia, Cory Snyder and Danny Tartabull—among the greatest strikeout men in history—began playing regularly.
Reggie Jackson was the first player to fan 150 or more times in three different seasons (1968, '71 and '82). Since then, Deer, Incaviglia, Cecil Fielder and Andres Galarraga all have had at least three straight 150-strikeout years. Babe Ruth never fanned 100 times in a season.
Thing is, strikeouts are an accepted part of the game today. No one on the Tigers tells Fielder to choke up, shorten his stroke and hit singles to rightfield. He's paid $4.2 million a year to swing as hard as he can. So it was no big deal last Friday when he struck out four times in five at bats against the Rangers. It was the 35th time this year that a batter struck out four times in one game, a feat Deer achieved a record 17 times in his career.
Even good hitters have been striking out a lot. Tim Salmon of the Angels, the 1993 American League Rookie of the Year, was tied with the Yankees' Tartabull and the Tigers' Travis Fryman for the major league lead with 85 whiffs through Sunday. The Rockies' Galarraga, the '93 National League batting champion and a .320 hitter this year, had struck out 78 times at week's end, tying him for first in the NL with the Reds' Reggie Sanders and the Cards' Ray Lankford.
There are notable exceptions to this trend, players who hit for power and average while holding down their strikeouts. White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas is perhaps the most disciplined all-around hitter in the game today. Last year he hit 41 homers and batted .317 but struck out only 54 times in 549 at bats. This season Thomas had, as of Sunday, 29 homers, a .377 average and 40 strikeouts.
As impressive as Thomas's numbers are, they pale in comparison with those of Joe DiMaggio, who in 1941—the year of his 56-game hitting streak—hit .357 with 30 home runs and just 13 strikeouts. Lifetime, DiMaggio hit 361 homers and struck out 369 times. Defenders of today's hitters point out that DiMaggio never saw the slider consistently or the big strikeout pitch of the last 10 years, the split-fingered fastball.
Brewer manager Phil Garner is no apologist for today's hitters, but he says the biggest difference between now and 20 years ago is relief pitching. "Guys aren't getting that fourth at bat per game against the starter," he says. "That's over 100 at bats a year against a relief specialist."
Even the Mariners' Ken Griffey Jr., who averaged 81 strikeouts a year in his first five years as a major leaguer, has fallen victim to the strikeout bug this season. While continuing his run at Roger Maris's record 61 home runs, Griffey had 50 strikeouts at week's end to go with his 32 homers, putting him on pace for 101 strikeouts and 65 homers for the year.
How About That Adam?
The following exchange was heard recently on a sports radio talk show in Dallas.
Caller: "Is that guy Alan Ashby for the Padres the same guy who used to play for Houston?"
Host: "No, it's a different Alan Ashby."
Alan Ashby, who turns 43 on July 8, was a catcher for the Astros from 1979 to '89. But the Padre in question is Andy Ashby, who turns 27 on July 11 and suddenly has become a very good pitcher. "I still get his [Alan's] fan mail," Andy Ashby says. "I think I'll change my name to Alan. Then everyone would call me Andy."
Ashby entered this season with a career record of 5-18 and a 6.77 ERA, little control and no off-speed pitch. At week's end he was 4-6 with a 2.81 ERA (third best in the National League), and last month he didn't walk a batter in one 29‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬®-inning stretch. Last Saturday, Ashby pitched a four-hitter in beating the Mets 4-1. That was his fourth complete game in his last seven starts after he had failed to go the distance in his first 47 major league starts.
Ashby has always thrown hard and has always had a sharp, biting slider, but now he has developed a cut fastball that runs away from righthanded hitters. What's more, he's learning to throw a changeup.
The Phillies, who signed Ashby as an 18-year-old free agent in 1986, regret leaving him unprotected in the November 1992 expansion draft—the Rockies selected him, then traded him to the Padres last July—while protecting pitcher Kyle Abbott, who now plays in Japan, and in-fielder Juan Bell, who has since been released by both the Phillies and the Brewers. "Maybe after this year," Ashby says, "people will know my name."
Two young National League shortstops, Wil Cordero of the Expos and Jose Offerman of the Dodgers, had defining moments in their careers last week, which was good news for only one of them.
On June 28, in a matchup of National League East front-runners Atlanta and Montreal, Cordero, 22, hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning to cut the Braves" lead to 6-5, then singled home the game-winner in the ninth for an 8-7 Expo victory. An erratic performer his first two years in the majors, Cordero has been the best shortstop in the league this season, hitting .304 with 11 homers, 41 RBIs and a .505 slugging average through Sunday. He hit .355 in June, and he has made marked improvement on defense this year.
For Offerman, 25, the news was not so good. On June 27 the Dodgers demoted him to Triple A Albuquerque, hoping a return to the minors would shock him into working harder on his overall game and concentrating more in the field. In the last 2½ years Offerman has made 90 errors, including many on routine ground balls. He didn't help his situation by throwing a temper tantrum last month when Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda made him bunt with the pitcher up next.
Offerman was hitting .210 when he was replaced by 28-year-old Rafael Bournigal, who had only 18 major league games under his belt when the season started. Dodger teammates applauded the move. "History is made," said centerfielder Brett Butler. "L.A. for the most part has made moves that were offensive-oriented. This one was made because of defense. There's not a guy with better hands in the entire organization [than Bournigal]. This has got to bring a sigh of relief from the pitchers."
The Phillies lost the heart of their lineup and the soul of their clubhouse on June 27 when catcher Darren Daulton was struck by a foul ball and suffered a broken collarbone. The next day, after catcher Mike Lieberthal was called up from Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to replace Daulton, Phillie manager Jim Fregosi was asked how much action backup catcher Todd Pratt would see. "I wish," said Fregosi, "I'd played him last night."
...Say this about general manager Jim Bowden of the Reds: He always aims high. In search of a starting pitcher, Bowden has looked past the players who are the most readily available—Bill Wegman and Jaime Navarro of the Brewers and Zane Smith of the Pirates—and has taken a shot at obtaining the Giants' John Burkett, a 22-game winner last year....
Juiced Ball Note of the Week: The Pirates, who at one point in June had only seven more homers than Ken Griffey Jr., set a club record by hitting a home run in 13 straight games between June 19 and July 3. The record was previously held by the '66 Pirates, who, with Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell, among others, were a little bit better hitting team than the '94 edition.
Between the Lines
Don't Blame Mark. Last Friday the Orioles and the Angels tied a major league record by combining to hit 11 home runs in one game, with at least one homer coming in each of the first seven innings. This was the eighth 11-homer game in history, the previous one having come on Sept. 14, 1987, when the Blue Jays hit 10 and the Orioles one. There was one pitcher who appeared in both of those games: Mark Eichhorn, who pitched for Baltimore last Friday and for Toronto in the '87 game. In a combined five innings in those two games, Eichhorn did not give up a dinger. On the other hand Oriole ace Mike Mussina gave up five homers in the first five innings of his team's 14-7 win over the Angels, becoming the first American League pitcher to be pounded for five taters and still win since the Angels' Willie Fraser beat New York 15-6 on Aug. 16, 1988.
Last Gasp. Thirty-five-year-old pitcher Tim Leary was back in the majors last week despite a 77-104 lifetime record and even though he had given up 70 hits in 50 innings for the Expos' Triple A affiliate in Ottawa this season. On June 4, Leary was released by Ottawa at his request because he hadn't been promoted to Montreal, and the Rangers—the American League West leaders, don't forget—were so desperate for pitching that they gave him a tryout on June 29, then signed him and used him on Saturday against the Tigers. In 4⅖ innings Leary yielded just one hit and struck out five.
There's an Age Limit. Phillie reliever Larry Andersen, who's 41 with thinning hair, on the reported age of new teammate Fernando Valenzuela: "If he's 33, I'm the president of the Hair Club for Men."