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WHEN BIGGER GETS SMALLER, SMALL GETS BIG

May 30, 2005
May 30, 2005

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May 30, 2005

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WHEN BIGGER GETS SMALLER, SMALL GETS BIG

With steroid testing in place, power hitting is already in decline. But it's a rising generation of good young pitchers that may be driving baseball into an era in which the little things matter again

What we like to think of as the smooth, linear history of baseball sometimes takes such a sharp turn that it's as if we've been thrown sideways from the sudden change of direction. Such jags in the road came in 1921, when a livelier, cleaner baseball was introduced after Carl Mays accidentally killed Ray Chapman with a tobacco-and pine-tar-stained fastball; 1947, when Jackie Robinson began the integration of the major leagues; 1961, when the era of expansion and the 162-game schedule arrived; 1969, when the mound was lowered to encourage offense; 1995, when the wild-card system changed the rules of engagement for October; and....

This is an article from the May 30, 2005 issue Original Layout

Did you just feel that?

One quarter of the way through the season it looks as if 2005 will provide another one of history's hairpin turns. After the greatest extended run of power hitting the game has known, pitching is starting to reclaim some of the vast territory it had surrendered over the past 15 years.

Complete games were up more than 50% through May 22, and complete-game shutouts were up 47% compared with the same date last year. Runs per game were down 4% and home runs per game were off 9% from the same point last year--and down 15% and 25%, respectively, from May 22 of 2000, the year that marked the height of the slugging lunacy (46 players hit at least 30 home runs). If this trend keeps up for the remainder of the season, 668 home runs will have been sucked out of the game in one year, and a whopping 910 compared to 2000.

A watershed moment came earlier this month when Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, the high priest of what has come to be known as Moneyball (in which fundamentals such as defense and baserunning suffered in the pursuit of on-base and slugging percentage), held a private meeting with his manager, Ken Macha, as his team stumbled through the third-worst start in Oakland history. "Kenny," Beane said, "do whatever you think you have to do, including bunt."

In today's game, bunt is no longer a four-letter word. O.K., maybe the weather turns hot and baseballs begin to fly again. The 2002 season, for instance, saw 1.92 homers per game through the first quarter but finished at 2.09, the ninth of 11 straight years in which the per-game average exceeded 2.0. (The rate was 1.97 through Sunday.) But something is going on here, regardless of meteorological patterns. For one, a deep group of young starting pitchers is entering its prime, rescuing the game from a generation of pitchers distinguished only by an excess of mediocrity. And, even more undeniable, this is the first season of baseball played under a punitive performance-enhancing drug policy. In Year One A.D. (after Deca-Durabolin) baseball has returned to being a game played by men with relatively natural physiques, and its nuances--bludgeoned by the pursuit of power at the plate and on the mound--matter again.

"[The game has] changed dramatically," Colorado Rockies G.M. Dan O'Dowd says. "Even in [Coors Field], home runs, or at least games decided by home runs, are down significantly. We've gone back to the game most of us knew growing up, after the decade and a half of offensive explosion. You can see the change this year because of the [steroid] testing. A lot of bodies are different. I think it's good for the game."

Says St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, "Now the good teams have to pay more attention to two areas: baserunning and defense. I think it's a better game when you know that on any given night you might see everything the game has to offer, not just home runs."

the steroid era, at least its unfettered shoot-'em-up days, is officially over. Ahead of the curve, the Chicago White Sox, having reengineered themselves from a power-dependent club to small ball practitioners with a deep pitching staff, are the best team in baseball (31--13 at week's end). Isn't it logical to expect that as the game moved from no steroids policy to one with public sanctions, there would have to be some effect on how the game is played?

"There has been a correction made in the system," veteran Florida Marlins righthander Todd Jones says, "and the numbers are going to suffer. But it's got to be good for the game to get back to an even playing field."

Actually, evidence of the effects of testing for performance-enhancing drugs is more anecdotal than it is empirical, because who knows for certain which players got off the juice? But those who play and study the game see a difference in the strength of some players. "This year the ball doesn't seem to be coming off the bat the same way," Cardinals pitcher Matt Morris says. "That pitch down and away is a fly ball out, whereas five years ago it was out of the park 90 percent of the time. You don't see guys hitting the ball out to the opposite field like you used to. Now, if you make your pitch, you can actually get guys out."

"Not only are there fewer opposite-field homers," says Morris's pitching coach, Dave Duncan, "but also you don't see pitchers getting beat by guys hitting homers who shouldn't be hitting homers. It's fair now. It's a better game."

Says Milwaukee Brewers G.M. Doug Melvin, "You're always going to have power hitters who will hit 40 or even 50 home runs. But the effect [of steroid testing] will be on the middle-of-the-road hitters, who aren't going to hit 20 to 25 anymore. You trust what your eyes tell you, and certain guys are not as big as they were. We all see it."

Suddenly, like the bald eagle, the near-extinct every-day player without home run power is making a comeback. At week's end 34 players had more than 50 at bats without hitting a homer. Only nine players in the past four seasons have finished with at least 200 at bats and no homers. In 1992, before another round of expansion helped kick-start the great slugging era, there were 19 such players.

If power helped dumb down the game--think how little baserunning and defense matter in slo-pitch softball--then a decline in power means small ballers such as Craig Counsell of the Arizona Diamondbacks, David Eckstein of the Cardinals, Juan Pierre of the Marlins, Scott Podsednik of the White Sox and Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners are more valuable.

Philadelphia Phillies closer Billy Wagner says of the effects of the drug-testing policy, "When you take [steroids] away, I think it takes down the confidence level of hitters. Before, some guys weren't so worried about getting jammed, because they were so strong and confident they felt they could still hit a home run. I think some guys aren't that confident now."

Houston Astros righthander Roy Oswalt says the impact of steroid testing is likely to be more obvious "in about two or three years. A lot of guys who have been on steroids have gotten big enough to where they can hold it for two or three years by lifting. There will probably be a little bit of difference in the numbers this year, but I think it will be a big difference a few years from now."

But Gary Wadler, a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency and associate professor of the NYU School of Medicine, doesn't think it's too early to see the full effects of the testing program. "The usual rule of thumb is two to three months [for the benefits of steroid use to] really begin to tail off [after usage stops]," Wadler says. "If we see numbers decline more two or three years from now, it will be due to fewer players using steroids [at that time], not players stopping now."

Testing will hurt some pitchers as well. After all, of the 71 minor league and major league players that had been busted through Sunday for testing positive in 2005, 34 were pitchers. Indeed, relief pitching, which in recent years has placed a premium on throwing very hard and very often--job requirements that invite the strength and recovery benefits of steroids and like substances--was worse this year (4.19 ERA through May 22) than last (3.97).

"You don't see as many guys throwing 94, 96 [mph]," Duncan says. "I see more of an emphasis on getting movement on the ball. More guys are throwing sinkers and cutters."

Says Beane, "It does seem like there are a number of pitchers throwing 90, 91 this year who were 94, 95, 96 in previous years. I don't know the reason for that."

the crackdown on performance-enhancing drugs is only a part of the changing nature of the game. For instance, the generation of hitters that benefited from the shift in the mid- to late-'90s to smaller ballparks, a smaller strike zone, harder bats and the proliferation of muscle-building supplements, legal and illegal, is showing its age. The nine active home run leaders entering this season (none are younger than 34) had combined for only 24 home runs at week's end, with six of those sluggers (Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, Juan Gonzalez and Jim Thome) spending all or part of the season on the disabled list and the other three (Rafael Palmeiro, Ken Griffey Jr. and Gary Sheffield) showing only moderate power.

In addition, many other veteran sluggers are off to slow starts that make a familiar 30-homer season an uphill climb. That group includes Moises Alou of the San Francisco Giants, 38; Larry Walker of the Cardinals, 38; Todd Helton of the Rockies, 31 (five homers apiece at week's end); Steve Finley of the Los Angeles Angels, 40; Luis Gonzalez of the Diamondbacks, 37; Jeromy Burnitz of the Chicago Cubs, 36; and Mike Piazza of the New York Mets, 36 (six homers each).

Among all the aging, shrinking sluggers, the poster player is Jason Giambi of the New York Yankees. Giambi, 34, has hit four home runs this year and only 16 since Opening Day 2004; only months after the 2003 All-Star break, when, according to his BALCO grand jury testimony obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle, he stopped using performance-enhancing drugs, including steroids. Giambi had averaged 36 homers per season from 1998 through 2002.

Few young, true sluggers have emerged to replace the likes of Giambi. Of the 36 players to hit 30 home runs last year only eight are younger than 28: Hank Blalock and Mark Teixeira of the Texas Rangers, Adrian Beltre of the Mariners, Miguel Cabrera of the Marlins, Adam Dunn of the Cincinnati Reds, Albert Pujols of the Cardinals, Aramis Ramirez of the Cubs and Brad Wilkerson of the Washington Nationals. The biggest stars of the next generation may well be starting pitchers. "Pitching is getting better," says San Francisco Giants manager Felipe Alou. "More good pitching is being developed in the minors, and I don't see can't-miss hitters like [Vladimir] Guerrero, Griffey, A-Rod [Alex Rodriguez], Bonds and Manny [Ramirez] coming up."

At week's end eight of the 17 pitchers with an ERA better than 3.00 (minimum one inning pitched per team game) and 38 of the 62 pitchers with an ERA better than 4.00 were in their 20s. The young guns include Roy Halladay of the Toronto Blue Jays, 28; Oswalt, 27; Mark Buehrle of the White Sox, Johan Santana of the Minnesota Twins, Ben Sheets of the Brewers and Brandon Webb of the D-Backs, all 26; Josh Beckett of the Marlins, 25; Brett Myers of the Phillies and Mark Prior of the Cubs, 24; and Rich Harden of the A's, Jake Peavy of the San Diego Padres and Dontrelle Willis of the Marlins, 23.

It's the first wave of quality starting pitchers to come into the game since the Steroid Era began in the early '90s. Consider this elite group of pitching elders, all of whom have Hall of Fame credentials: Roger Clemens, 42; Randy Johnson, 41; Tom Glavine, 39; Greg Maddux, 39; and John Smoltz, 38. However, between that gallery of greats and the young guns is that generation plagued by mediocrity. Among pitchers between 30 and 35 years old only Pedro Martinez (three Cy Young Awards, 186 wins and a 2.72 career ERA) is on the path to Cooperstown. The pitchers behind him in that age group fall off rapidly in stature: Andy Pettitte, Mike Hampton, Aaron Sele, Kirk Rueter, Brad Radke, Pedro Astacio, Bartolo Colon and Steve Trachsel.

Oakland's Beane says the wave of young pitchers is the result of "a vacuum effect": As pitching waned and sluggers thrived, clubs rushed to fill the void with an emphasis on signing and developing young arms. "It's Economics 101," Beane says.

These young pitchers have been raised on the QuesTec strike zone, small ballparks and maple bats. This is the only world they have known. Indications are that the first quarter of this season will turn out to be more than a mere tapping of the brakes, and that baseball is indeed entering a poststeroid era that diminishes power hitting, in which case these young pitchers may be at least as responsible for that trend as the specimen collectors making the rounds in big league clubhouses.

"People are going to put it at steroids' doorstep," Astros manager Phil Garner says. "But I see better pitching coming into our game, and I think the [offensive numbers] would have been down no matter what. I think we're going to go through the Decade of Pitching now." ■

If this keeps up, 668 home runs will have been sucked out of the game in one year.
"That pitch down and away is a fly ball out," Morris says, "whereas five years ago it was out of the park 90% of the time."
This year 38 of the 62 pitchers with an ERA better than 4.00 are in their 20s.
COLOR PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON (GIAMBI)UP AND DOWN While sluggers such as Giambi (opposite) are struggling, small ballers such as Podsednik are rising in stature.COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by John Biever [See caption above] COLOR PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON BAT CONTROL FREAK Ichiro, criticized as a singles hitter, now looks like a man ahead of his time.COLOR PHOTOAL TIELEMANSUPPER HAND Myers is part of the generation of dominant young pitchers.