- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 27, 2007

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.

“That’s something that people rarely talk about that, but I think it’s a huge factor,” Indians pitcher Paul Byrd said. … “I think they can make a ball do whatever they want it to do.”

Over the years, Byrd added, he can tell “from just grabbing balls, there are balls that have a little mush to them, and there are balls that are like cue balls.”

Then there is what has come to be known as the “humidor effect.” The Colorado Rockies a few years ago started storing baseballs in what essentially was a temperature-controlled humidor to keep them from drying out. Dried baseballs not only flew farther out of the park but also were more difficult to grip. Home runs at Coors Field immediately declined. This year, all clubs have been storing baseballs in temperature controlled environments.

But as with the game itself, the steroid issue looms over the discussion.

In the wake of allegations of steroid use by Barry Bonds and other players, Major League Baseball bowed to pressure and toughened its drug testing policy, beginning random tests for steroids starting in spring training of 2005. Critics claimed the punishment for getting caught was not tough enough, so later that year Selig instituted much more stringent penalties, including a 50-game suspension for a first offense.

Even though power numbers rose in 2006, the true effects of those decisions now might be starting to be felt.

“We have a steroid-free game right now,” Nationals general manager Jim Bowden said. “We’ve been able to clean up our game, and I think that has something to do with it, as well.”

Added Phillips: “I think you have to at least consider that drug testing has had an impact. … Players are concerned with their reputations and their images.”

Dr. Gary Wadler, author of the book “Drugs and the Athlete,” said, “I think it’s fair to factor in [drug testing] as a potential explanation for the decreased number of home runs. Whether that’s the sole cause or not is speculative. If the numbers hold up, then that could be an explanation.

“There is an increased awareness among players that they could get snared. And the fact that they’re aware of that could change their behavior is not an unreasonable supposition.”

The fear of being caught up in a criminal investigation, such as the BALCO case, also can be a powerful deterrent according to Wadler. However, he noted baseball does not administer blood tests for human growth hormone (HGH), which, he said, can improve performance when used with low levels of testosterone that do not show up in a urine test.

“I don’t think there’s any question that HGH use has increased,” he said.

Until there is more information, Wadler said, speculation should be at a minimum.

“I think we’ve got to be careful that we don’t attribute everything to drugs,” he said. “The more we move away from speculating into the realm of fact, the better we’re going to be.”

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