David N. Townsend
Baseball Journal

February 24, 1998
The homers will not endure!

Okay, the gauntlet (or maybe the mitt) has now been thrown, and I am officially taking a stand as a contrarian, in opposition to the prevailing Conventional Wisdom throughout baseball punditry. I have now detailed, in previous Journal entries, my theories that the Home Run binge of the mid-1990s is subsiding (see April 1997), and that expansion does not automatically imply an increased surplus of hitting (see January 1998). I'm now prepared to go further out on my limb, by simply stating:

No one will break Roger Maris's home run record this year, nor any time in the foreseeable future. And American League home run totals will not significantly increase in 1998 over 1997, and will more likely decline.

Apparently, this view is heresy, this pre-season. The near unanimous consensus among all of the prognosticators is that the combination of another expansion season, with the prominence of Griffey, McGwire, and a few other candidates, virtually assures that the hallowed 61 mark will fall this year. And in general, another, perhaps new record, home run binge awaits us this season. I'm not buying it, for the reasons previously stated, and on which I'd like to elaborate a bit more.

It's all about pitching. How horrendous will the diluted 1998 American League pitching staffs be? It's really not that hard to investigate the likely answer. Take the expansion Devil Rays, who ought to be the real toast of the league. Their top 3 starters are likely to be Wilson Alvarez, Rolando Arrojo, and Tony Saunders. All the scouts like both Arrojo and Saunders, and Alvarez is a legitimate #1 starter. Still, is there a drop-off from the 1997 Milwaukee Brewers staff, whom these guys replace in the AL? Let's say their top 3 starters were Ben McDonald, Scott Karl, and Cal Eldred. They went a collective 31-35, 4.60 ERA, with 65 HR in 330 innings. Arrojo didn't pitch in the majors last year, but Alvarez and Saunders combined were 17-17, 3.90, with 30 HR in 225 innings (albeit half in the NL). So if Arrojo is a decent starter, it seems the Devil Rays will certainly be no worse at the top of the rotation than the team they'll replace was last year.

There are some other key replacements on starting AL pitching staffs entering Spring Training, compared with the beginning of last season, and on balance they also support the thesis that there should be no noticeable dilution of league pitching this year. These include the following; most of the new pitchers listed either came over from the National League, or became regular starters sometime during last season (the Milwaukee-Tampa Bay comparison is not repeated):

New pitchers in AL Spring rotations Pitchers no longer in AL rotations
Pedro Martinez (17-4, 1.90) Mark Langston (2-4, 5.85)
Butch Henry (7-3, 3.52) Tom Gordon (6-10, 3.74)
Jaret Wright (8-3, 4.38) Jack McDowell (3-3, 5.09)
Jason Bere (4-2, 4.71) Omar Olivares (6-10, 4.97)
Brian Moehler (11-12, 4.67) Rich Robertson (8-12, 5.69)
Glendon Rusch (6-9, 5.50) Willie Adams (3-5, 8.18)
Tom Candiotti (10-7, 3.60) Dave Telgheder (4-6, 6.06)
Mike Morgan (9-12, 4.78) Orel Hershiser (14-6, 4.47)

In addition to this general upgrade to AL starting rotations, there is the more important phenomenon of the balance of younger players entering the league, as explained in the following section.

The kids are all right. I've discussed this before, too, but not in this Journal. It is evident to me that the philosophies of major league organizations nearly across the board regarding the development of pitching talent have been evolving in recent years. Not long ago, most teams were rushing any young pitcher who had a half-decent season at AA to the majors just as quickly as possible. The caliber of what was available among major league veterans was just so bad, and the appetite for new meat was so desperate, that dozens of legitimate prospects were brought to the feast long before they were properly, um, cooked. The nadir of this tendency coincided with the juiced-ball/whatever phenomenon of 1994-96, and resulted in numerous young, quality pitchers getting their heads knocked off when they were still young and impressionable enough for it to ruin their development.

The poster boy for this type of sob story might be Felipe Lira. Still only 26 years old, he's been labeled a lousy pitcher, basically because he gave up 30 home runs in 1996, having been thrust into the rotation at Tiger Stadium in the Year of the Club, after a decent rookie season. He then collapsed altogether with a 6.34 ERA last season. In the minors, his BB/IP ratios were excellent, around 1:4, but by 1997, he was so gun-shy that he walked a batter every other inning. Other pitchers whose potential may have been cut short, or altered, by being rushed to the majors and/or by trying to compensate for the juiced ball include: Brian Anderson, Rocky Coppinger, Jeff D'Amico, Sterling Hitchcock, Jason Isringhausen, Jason Jacome, Marty Janzen, Jose Lima, Albie Lopez, Pat Mahomes, Salomon Torres, Bob Wolcott.

But most recently, one gets the impression that teams are being a bit smarter with their top pitching prospects, holding them back a little longer, giving them a low-key trial in the majors in August and September, rather than handing them the ball out of Spring Training, and usually only after a substantial number of innings at AA-AAA. More than a dozen rookie pitchers in the AL alone fit that bill last season. In the past, we might have seen Brian Rose, Carl Pavano, Mike Drumright, Eric Milton, Roy Halladay, Tom Fordham, Matt Perisho, and a bunch of other guys out on the front lines last April and May. But these top prospects didn't even touch the majors, or just had a little taste. And another crop that was just above them in readiness was largely held to half-season trials (see the list below).

The best case in point would be Justin Thompson. His development proceeded methodically through each level of the minors, reaching AAA after some 450 minor league innings at age 23, and was then given a 59-inning major league trial at the end of 1996 (1-6, 4.58). By 1997, he was evidently ready, and the results (15-11, 3.02) prove it.

You want a list of young AL pitchers who's 1998 credentials are similar to Thompson's before 1997, in terms of minor league experience, performance, age, and major league trial? How's this:

Player Age Minors IP Majors IP AAA ERA ML ERA
Thompson 97 24 530 59 3.42 4.58
Colon 23 325 94 2.22 5.65
Rigby 25 420 78 4.37 4.87
Serafini 24 750 31 4.97 4.40
Carpenter 23 550 81 4.50 5.09
Cloude 23 500 51 AA: 3.87 5.12
Eyre 26 650 51 AA: 3.84 5.04
Yan 23 600 19 3.10 10.89
Pittsley 24 475 115 4.42 5.70
Rose 22 490 3 3.02 12.0

How about these pitchers' propensity to give up home runs? As a group, making their first major league appearances last season, these 9 pitchers yielded 71 HR in 514 major league (rookie) innings last season. That's an average of 1.24 per 9-inning game, which is above the AL average of 1.10, but lower than most of the departed pitchers listed above (including Hershiser), and lower than several other established pitchers, such as Juan Guzman (2.10), Tim Belcher (2.31), John Smiley (1.52), Bobby Witt (1.42), and others. And we can assume they'll tend to improve in their second seasons.

The bottom line. So who are the cruddy, has-been pitchers who are going to get the tar kicked out of them this year? Middle relivers and 5th starters? Last year's corps tended to do the job, at least better than in '96. Look, expansion only adds some 22 pitchers to the majors who wouldn't be there otherwise, or less than 1 per team. That implies the last pitcher on the staff, who will pitch the fewest innings, in all probability. And we've already identified at least 18 newcomers to the AL (there are more) who are not exactly dreck.

Meanwhile, what about the new kid hitters entering the league, and/or the veterans who get to stick around, some 28 of them? How much power will they add? How will they influence the balance left over from 1997? Well, Jose Cruz, Jr. will be around for a full year, and Fred McGriff's an American Leaguer again. Todd Greene and Ben Grieve and maybe Bubba Trammell should contribute their share this season. But I don't think Quinton McCracken or Kevin Stocker will challenge the fences all that often. Expansion seems to have kept Wade Boggs and Rickey Henderson in the game, and they should club about 10 dingers between them. So why should we assume that the power records will collapse from coast to coast?

The simple conclusion is that there is not actual, today, real-world evidence to support the conventional wisdom that this year's expansion will result in a renewed blast of unprecedented offense, at least not in the American League (I don't do the NL). You may continue to believe otherwise, but I'll be right here, prepared to eat crow or shout I-told-you-so, come October.

The would-be kings. Finally, even if I'm right about the relative balance of hitting and pitching, and the likely continued decline of power totals this year, aren't Griffey and McGwire the exception? Couldn't they break Maris's mark even without an expansion-dilution effect? Well, of course they could. But if we talk about what is likely, there is very little reason to expect either of those sluggers, great as they are, to surpass 60 home runs, this year or any year.

Look at any other superstar in history, and their careers had peaks and valleys, fluctuations around a norm for all major statistics. For Ken Griffey, an average season in the past 5 years is 486 AB and 41 HR; even projected to 600 AB, his HR pace has only averaged 51 per season. Last year, he put it all together, reached 600 AB for the first time in his career, and still fell 5 HRs short (10%) of the record.

The one big factor in Griffey's favor is, he's still (amazingly) only 28, and arguably hasn't reached his peak yet. If that's true, he might hit 60 HRs in each of the next 4 years, and then level off at 45-50, while zooming past Hank Aaron by his mid-30s. That would make Ken Griffey the greatest baseball player of all time, probably the greatest in any sport, along with maybe Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretsky. Maybe he is. But if he's merely on a par with the Ruths and Foxxes and Aarons, then it's much more reasonable to assume that 1997 was Griffey's greatest season, and that he'll slide back somewhat this year, closer to his career averages.

Some of the same reasoning applies to McGwire. But as the slugger with the greatest home run frequency in history, he seems actually closer to the Maris level than Griffey, even though he's 34. If McGwire could have managed 600 AB during any of the past 5 seasons, while maintaining the same HR pace, he'd have smashed 67 taters. But he never gets close to 600 AB, mostly because of injury, and also because he walks so darn much. The wild card with McGwire is St. Louis, and NL pitching. After the trade last year, McGwire homered at the uncanny pace of 83 in 600 AB! Once again, however, he fell 3 short of the record in the one season in which he finally stayed injury-free, and now he's a year older. All personal and historical precedent suggests that McGwire's closest shot at Maris will be his 1997 season.

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