On his way to the Yankee Stadium mound on May 21, after warming
up in the bullpen behind the leftfield wall, Toronto Blue Jays
righthander Roger Clemens wiped some sweat from his brow and
rubbed it respectfully on the bust of Babe Ruth in centerfield.
Later, upon departing the mound, Clemens scooped up a fistful of
dirt to take home in remembrance of his 200th career victory: a
4-1 gem in which he whiffed 12 New York batters in eight
innings. He had just shown how major league pitchers have
responded to the record-breaking slugfest of the 1996 season.
They've said, That's history.
The real dirt on this season is that pitchers have regained some
respect after a year in which a record 16 players had at least
40 home runs and only a half-dozen pitchers kept their ERAs to
less than 3.00. This year, while homers and runs per game have
slipped noticeably, 26 pitchers who have worked enough innings
to make the ERA standings had sub-3.00 ERAs at week's end. With
nearly one third of the season played, top pitchers were again
putting up top numbers.
Through Sunday the pitchers with the six best ERAs in the
American League--Clemens and Pat Hentgen of Toronto, Scott
Erickson and Jimmy Key of the Baltimore Orioles, and David Cone
and Andy Pettitte of the Yankees--all were former Cy Young Award
winners or runners-up, and each boasted an ERA no worse than
2.50. Righthander Pedro Martinez of the Montreal Expos (1.17)
led seven other pitchers in the National League with ERAs of
less than 2.50, including the Atlanta Braves' uber-righthander,
Greg Maddux (1.44), who seems impervious to the game's
fluctuations. "Maybe now you have the pitchers who are going to
have monster years," says Hentgen, whose streak of 40 innings
without allowing an earned run was ended by the Anaheim Angels
If the poster player for last year was Brady Anderson, the
Orioles leadoff hitter who had never hit more than 21 home runs
in a season but went deep 50 times in 1996, this year it might
be Yankees outfielder Paul O'Neill, awestruck as he departed the
clubhouse after Clemens had dominated New York. With raised
eyebrows, O'Neill shook his head and, in tribute to Clemens,
said only, "Wow!"
Even pitchers without Clemens's overpowering stuff have found
unprecedented success this year. Journeymen hurlers such as Mark
Gardner of the San Francisco Giants, Jamie Moyer of the Seattle
Mariners, Rick Reed of the New York Mets and Bobby Witt of the
Texas Rangers have prospered as unexpectedly as Anderson, Scott
Brosius of the Oakland A's, Steve Finley of the San Diego Padres
and Craig Paquette of the Kansas City Royals did in the power
department in 1996. Last season's Henry Rodriguez (20 homers
through May for the Expos) is this season's Jeff Juden (5-0 with
the Expos, his fourth team in five years).
Witt, nearly 2,000 innings into his career, is an example of
that rare breed in baseball: pitchers past the age of 30 who
suddenly blossom. The recent success of the 33-year-old
righthander, who became just the third pitcher in Rangers
history to start a season 7-0, and a handful of other
thirtysomethings explains why the search for late bloomers never
ends. Reed, who is 32 and had a 9-15 career record with four
organizations before this season, made his first Opening Day
roster this year; through Sunday he was 3-2 and ranked fourth in
the National League with a 1.72 ERA. Moyer, 34, was 4-1 with the
Mariners, his sixth organization, and 25-10 since the beginning
of 1995, when he had a 51-70 lifetime record. Gardner, 35, was
18-8 over the past two seasons with the Giants after having gone
41-48 with three other clubs.
No turnaround, though, has been as drastic as Witt's. He was
only 21 when he was rushed into the big leagues in 1986, and he
led the American League in walks three times in his first four
seasons. He once walked 10 batters and struck out 10 in the same
game. "If I fell behind," he says, "I'd just rare back, throw a
fastball and say, 'Here it is. Hit it.' A lot of times they did."
Last season Witt had the second-worst ERA in Rangers history
(5.41) among those who qualified for the league title, but he
had streaks of remarkable control on his fastball (which, with
age, had lost some of its steam). Texas pitching coach Dick
Bosman suggested minor mechanical adjustments to give him better
balance through his delivery, and over the winter Witt worked on
a changeup and a two-seam fastball, which has a sinking action.
"I've learned movement is better than velocity," he says. "I
wish I'd had the wisdom I have now when I started out."
Meanwhile, Anderson, Brosius, Finley and Paquette, who hit a
combined 124 home runs last year, had only 14 through
Sunday--proving again that the most consistent power is that of
gravity. Welcome back to earth. With the possible exception of
Jeff Kent of the San Francisco Giants, the home run and RBI
leader boards include no surprises this year.
"Anytime so much attention has been devoted to a lack of
pitching, as it was last year, people are going to try to remedy
the situation," Toronto general manager Gord Ash says. "The top
teams might be the same, and the middle ones might be the same,
but I think the bottom teams have improved, and that's producing
the better numbers."
At the end of last week, every division leader but the Cleveland
Indians was winning with pitching and defense. And it was
primarily because of improved starting pitching that 1996
laggards such as the Giants, the Mets, the Detroit Tigers and
the Pittsburgh Pirates were winning much more often than they
did last year (chart, left). Among the young starting pitchers
making an impact this season are Francisco Cordova, 25, of the
Pirates (3-3, 1.62); Jason Dickson, 24, of the Angels (6-1,
3.77); Shawn Estes, 24, of the Giants (6-2, 2.75); and Brian
Moehler, 25, of the Tigers (3-3, 3.30). Dickson could become the
first starting pitcher in 16 years to win the American League
Rookie of the Year award. "There's no doubt that the pitching
has improved," says Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, "and, as
everyone says, good pitching is going to beat good hitting."
The Tigers staff ERA of 6.38 last season was the worst in
American League history, but this year it was 4.46 through
Sunday, thanks to the development of Moehler and Justin
Thompson. Only the 1931 Philadelphia Phillies ever finished a
season with such a dramatic improvement over the previous year,
surpassing their previous season's ERA by 2.13. Of course, the
baseballs were wound more loosely in '31, the season after what
has become known as the Year of the Hitter. This season's
pullback in hitting has triggered the usual theories--which
change more often than Larry King's wedding plans--about the
liveliness of the baseball.
"You're damn right the ball is different. You bet it is," says
Milwaukee Brewers manager Phil Garner, who said in spring
training that he thought the balls were softer. "It's showing up
at the bottom end of the lineup. You're not seeing those
seven-eight-nine hitters hitting them out. You're not seeing the
little guys hit opposite-field home runs, as you did last year.
Now when a pitcher throws one down the middle of the plate and
the batter takes a good swing and it doesn't go out, the
pitcher's confidence level goes up, and he makes better pitches."
Counters Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove, "They haven't deadened
the ball. But if pitchers are making better pitches, balls are
not going to be hit as hard or as far."
Clemens leads a pack of veteran pitchers who have regained their
health and form. Clemens, Cone, Key, Randy Johnson of the
Mariners and Curt Schilling of the Phillies, all of whom spent
time on the disabled list in '95 or '96 and went a combined
43-36 last year, are off to a 33-9 start. In beating the Yankees
last week, Clemens used a fastball clocked at 93 mph and a
splitter that dropped wickedly at 89 mph. "He beat us with two
pitches," Cone says. "He's better than he ever was."
Only the previous night, Hentgen had shut out the Yankees 2-0 on
five hits in the kind of pitching duel (with Pettitte) that is
coming back into favor. Toronto's pitchers had accounted for six
of the 68 shutouts in baseball at week's end, up from 51 at the
same point last season. There had been 11 games that ended 1-0,
compared with seven at this juncture a year ago. And games in
which one team scored at least 10 runs had dropped by 10%.
"Either it's the weather, or the gods of baseball want to take
control of things again," says Chicago White Sox third baseman
Chris Snopek. The weather has been unusually chilly in many big
league cities, and that tends to favor pitchers. "I think you'll
see the home runs pick up with the weather being a little
warmer," says White Sox pitching coach Mike Pazik. "With warmer
weather the balls travel a little farther. You're already
starting to see it." Brewers pitcher Cal Eldred agrees. "Some
guys who usually hit home runs are just now starting to hit
them, so let's give it some more time," he says. "It may even
Now there's a smart pitch. While pitchers may have regained a
bit of their edge on hitters this season, they know they are a
long way from ending what remains a hitter's era. After all,
getting lit up constantly last year did impart at least one
lesson: No lead is safe anymore.
Better starting pitching is one reason that fewer runs have been
scored per game so far in 1997 than in any major league season
since 1992 (the year before the last round of expansion). Here
are the teams whose starters had the best combined ERA in each
league through Sunday, the ERA for the same teams' starters last
year and the corresponding stats for all starters in both leagues.
1997 1996 1997 1996
AL TEAM ERA ERA NL TEAM ERA ERA
Blue Jays 3.54 4.76 Braves 2.69 3.45*
Yankees 3.59 4.96 Dodgers 3.02 3.51
Orioles 3.82 5.47 Mets 3.12 4.38
Royals 3.82 4.37* Marlins 3.36 3.76
Tigers 3.95 6.64 Cardinals 3.39 4.20
LEAGUE 4.61 5.17 LEAGUE 3.84 4.30
Source: Elias Sports Bureau * League leader