Servin' Up Taters As three All-Star sluggers chase Roger Maris's hallowed record, SI took a hard look at the players who will crown the new home run king--the pitchers

July 05, 1998

As awestruck fans stand slack-jawed watching a Mark McGwire
missile head into the upper deck, they forget that the ball
flying through the air started off in the hands of some poor
pitcher who until a few seconds before was feeling pretty good
about himself. As McGwire (36 homers off 34 pitchers, through
Sunday), Ken Griffey Jr. (32 off 31) and Sammy Sosa (32 off 29)
continue to chase Roger Maris's single-season record of 61 home
runs, we decided to take a look at the pitchers they've been
feasting on. To put everything into historical context, we also
examined the winning percentage, ERA and experience of those
hurlers who served up Maris's 61 in '61 and Babe Ruth's 60 in
1927. Among the findings: Considering the overall performance of
the pitchers Griffey and Sosa have been teeing off against, it's
no surprise they're killing the ball. But if McGwire sets the
record, it looks as if he will have earned it against better
arms. As for who's most likely to take the home run title come
season's end...we'll just have to wait and see.


McGwire has gone yard off some of the National League's most
successful pitchers: Nine of his victims, including the Padres'
Andy Ashby and the Astros' Shane Reynolds, have won at least
seven games. Sosa has homered off four seven-game winners, but
Griffey's penchant for pounding losers (like Derek Lowe, 0-7,
and Dennis Springer, 2-10) makes you wonder how many he'd hit if
he faced his own team's abysmal staff. And while the numbers for
Ruth and Maris reveal that they hammered subpar pitchers, keep
in mind that there weren't many wins left after Ruth's Bronx
Bombers won 110 games and Maris's 109, in an eight- and a
10-team league, respectively.


While McGwire's victims have an ERA a hair under the National
League average (4.17), Sosa's exceed the league standard by more
than half a run. This means that Sammy is hitting a lot of his
homers off guys who belong in Triple A--or the American League.
Pitchers touched by Griffey have a sizable ERA, too, but it is
barely a tenth of a run above the American League average
(4.70). This is not to say that Griffey and Sosa haven't rocked
some studs. Nine of Griffey's casualties are former All-Stars,
and Sosa's ninth homer came off none other than Greg Maddux. By
comparison, Ruth and Maris faced, and walloped, better pitching
than any of the three current sluggers. (The 1927 average
American League ERA was 4.14, while the average in '61, an
expansion year, was 4.02.)


Sosa has taken advantage of novices, while Griffey has done much
of his damage against old men who should know better than to try
to sneak one past Junior. For example, nine of Sosa's homers
have come off rookies (compared with five for Griffey and four
for McGwire), but 10 of Griffey's 31 victims--including 15-year
veteran Roger Clemens--have at least 10 years of major league
experience. McGwire has been served by young and old alike,
having tagged six cagey codgers, including 16-year vet Orel
Hershiser and 15-year man Mark Langston. Likewise, Ruth and
Maris tended to spread the misery around.

B/W PHOTO: JAMES DRAKE [Roger Maris swinging bat in game] THREE COLOR CHARTS: CHARTS BY JARED SCHNEIDMAN [Charts not available--bar graphs comparing winning percentage; earned run average; and years of major league experience of pitchers homered against by Babe Ruth in 1927, Roger Maris in 1961, and Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Mark McGwire in 1998]