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Question of the Day
Anyone watching the nightly parade of home runs on “SportsCenter” might think baseballs are flying out of the park this season as frequently as always.
But the numbers tell a different story.
Given the risk of employing the phrase “on pace,” it is still revealing that as the 2007 season approaches its midpoint, major leaguers are hitting fewer homers than at any time since 1993. Going into last night’s games, big league teams this year are averaging fewer than one home run a game — 0.93 specifically — for the first time in 14 seasons.
The impressive power numbers of Prince Fielder and Alex Rodriguez notwithstanding, batters at their present pace will hit 623 fewer home runs than last season, an 11 percent decline. In 2006, 11 players hit at least 40 homers. So far this year, five batters are on pace to slug 40 or more.
Overall offensive production also is noticeably down. Last year, teams scored an average of 4.86 runs a game. Before last night, the average was 4.66. The decline is more pronounced in the National League, which does not use the designated hitter. If the current average of 4.42 runs a game dips even slightly, it would be the lowest figure since 1992.
Picking through the statistics reveals other potentially historic numbers. For example, the aggregate .259 batting average in the NL and the AL slugging percentage of .419 are both the lowest figures since 1992.
Accordingly, it has been a big year for pitchers. No pitcher won 20 games last season, and only two won 19. This season, four pitchers are on pace to win 20 and eight project to 19 victories. Eleven pitchers own ERAs below 3.00. Last year there were two.
“The pitching is better,” Washington Nationals first baseman Dmitri Young said.
It also has been a solid year for younger pitchers. Entering last night, Philadelphia’s Cole Hamels, 23, ranked second in the NL in strikeouts, while 24-year-old Justin Verlander (9-2, 2.78) had the Tigers atop the AL Central standings.
“There sure has seemed to be an influx of tremendous young pitching,” ESPN analyst and former Mets general manager Steve Phillips said. “More so than in the past.”
But other factors could be at work, as well.
“This year seemed to be colder than most starts of the season. There was some bad weather early on,” Cleveland designated hitter Travis Hafner said last week before the Indians played the Nationals at RFK Stadium. “I don’t know if you can point to one thing. It’ll be interesting to see as the summer goes on if the numbers turn around.”
Indians outfielder Trot Nixon believes the bats could be different this year.
“I think it’s the wood,” he said. “Sometimes the wood can be kind of rough. I’ve noticed a lot of bats this year, more than the last couple of years, that are frayed. What I mean is, going down the grain lines, it just split open after a couple of rounds of [batting practice].”
Or maybe it’s the ball. Conspiracy theorists have insisted for years that Major League Baseball has alternately livened-up and deadened the ball to suit its purposes. Perhaps in the wake of the increased offensive performances of 1998 through 2001 — which now has become inextricably linked to acknowledged widespread steroid use — the powers-that-be have decided that a less-juiced ball might be more politically correct.
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