The Chili Parlor


July, 1998
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What Makes That Baseball Fly?

If you talk to anyone with even a passing interest in baseball, they’ll tell you 1998 is the year that Roger Marris’ single season homerun record (61) is going to be bested. What there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on is why so many balls are flying out of the parks.

The first and most often cause you’re likely to hear is, a livelier, juiced up baseball. Rawlings Sporting Goods, the manufacturer of baseballs for the major leagues, cries foul whenever they hear that accusation. Other theories run along the lines of lousy pitching, muscled up hitters, smaller ball parks or a smaller strike zone. While I don’t think you can attribute this year’s homerun derby to smaller ballparks, the other factors sited above may have some validity.

There’s often a direct correlation between who you’re talking to and what they think is the reason for the higher average of runs per game.

Hitters will tell you it’s because they spend more time lifting weights and less time lifting Bud Lights. Players are undeniably bigger than they’ve ever been. Look at Mariner’s outfielder Darren Bragg. He looks like he should be competing for the Mr. Olympia crown instead of a batting crown. St. Louis’ Mark McGwire has 17 ½” forearms. My neck falls short of that by two inches. There’s no doubt about it, the players are getting bigger.

Talk to a pitcher and he’ll blame everything on the paltry strike zone umpires are making hurlers aim for. And if you look at film or tape from the ‘70s, the strike zone was definitely a lot larger. In 1998 you may get a little play from corner to corner but there’s just no room for error up and down. Pitchers also complain about the earlier start and later finish of the season. They say the cooler weather has a huge effect on pitching.

Fans will tell you that expansion has so depleted the pool for players that guys who never would have seen a major league dugout ten years ago are in starting rotations. And some of the problems begin at an early age. Aluminum bats are giving hitters an edge on the heat. When high school kids, in fact little leaguers find out their fastball can be tagged for a hit, they all start working on junk pitches to get them out of trouble. Very quickly, the majority of these kids that aren’t big enough or strong enough, trash their arms before they’re out of their teens. There’s an art to pitching and it takes time and patience to develop. With the small strike zone, a batter doesn’t need to adjust to pitches like he did years before. Major League pitchers are also discouraged from protecting the plate by threats of ejection and league pressure. Bob Gibson in 1998 couldn’t be near as effective or intimidating as Bob Gibson in 1968.

You can’t point to any one thing and say “That’s what’s causing the huge number of runs we're seeing in ball games this year.” There are a whole lot of factors contributing to the change in the complexion of the game.

It’ll be exciting to see somebody (maybe two or three sluggers) hit 61+ homeruns this season but there’s still something to be said for an old fashion pitcher’s duel.

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