With April nearly behind us, and a surprisingly low number of shower-outs (but one roof-out), we can submit to our first review of developments in this 1998 baseball season. Remember the predictions of January and February? I said home runs would be down, not up, and young pitchers would be good, not lousy, this season. The reasoning is there for you to review. With about 1/8 of the games played, how does my neck out on the limb look, compared with the bobbing heads of the "Expansion will bring a new offensive explosion" yeah-sayers?
Through April 19, 1998:
|Total major league home runs||500|
|Total runs scored||2527|
|Total games played||257|
|Home runs per game '98||1.95|
|Runs per game '98||9.83|
|Home runs per game, '97||2.06|
|Runs per game, '97||9.61|
|Home runs per game, '96||2.19|
|Runs per game, '96||10.07|
So, expansion will bring a deluge of home runs? So far, homers per game are way behind the pace of last year, as well as that of 1996, 1995, and 1994. Runs per game, on the other hand, are up slightly from last year, although well behind the 1996 pace. These twin trends are exemplified by the Yankees home opener with Oakland, in which the 17-13 score included only one home run. Are there more walks? Are hitters getting more doubles? Are poor fielders creating more unearned runs? I haven't yet investigated the answer, and it may well change as the season goes on. But to date, expansion has not yet produced any kind of record-smashing home run binge, just as I predicted.
Then I also suggested something to the effect that a large number of young, mostly sophomore pitchers ought to be taking a step forward this season, while there would be fewer young hitters doing the same than in the recent past. Here are some examples of players who could be said to fit this forecasts, at this early stage (through April 19):
"Yeah, so?" you say, with a mix of irritation and guarded respect. Well, naturally, like any baseball nut, I like to make predictions and then brag when I'm partially right. But it goes a little beyond that. I also get annoyed with the army of commentators, including very respected followers of the sport, who cave in to the unproven presumptions of "conventional wisdom". I remember one old Bill James column (who was the absolute Champion of shooting down conventional wisdom, and boy, do we miss him these days), about Dale Murphy and Bob Horner. He quoted some scribe as saying that Murphy would hit better when Horner came back from an injury to hit behind him in the Atlanta lineup, because Murphy would "get better pitches to hit." James went on to show, satistically, that Murphy had always hit better without Horner behind him, and that his numbers went down with Horner in the lineup. But people just went ahead and made these assumptions, contrary to the facts.
The same is true, so far this year, about the impact of expansion. I can't tell you how many articles and statements I've seen about expansion "diluting" pitching, and how this will be a year for home run and other offensive records to be broken all around baseball. And because everyone believes this so much, they interpret just about every home run or high scoring game as more evidence. The other night, when McGwire hit 3 home runs in a game, Tim Kurkjian said on Baseball Tonight that this was just an indication of how things are going this year, and the show's host responded, "Yeah, if you like offense, this is the year for you." Nobody bothered to mention that such sluggers as Albert Belle, Brady Anderson, Travis Fryman, Tony Clark, Rickey Henderson, Cecil Fielder, Andruw Jones, Reggie Sanders, Bobby Bonilla, Raul Mondesi, Steve Finley, and J.T. Snow were wallowing with sub-.225 averages and only a smattering of homers among them. They jump all over the 15-10 scores, but nobody talks about the shutouts, the 2-1 and 3-2 results, the seventeen starting pitchers with ERAs under 3.00, in the American League alone. Sure, the Mariners hit 32 home runs as a team in the first 3 weeks; but the Tigers hit only 8.
I hope I'm right about the direction the trends are going. If I'm wrong, I'll analyze it and admit it. But mostly, I wish we could all just watch the games and wait and see what happens, because the one thing I know will be true is that, this year, a lot of things will happen that no one expected, and that's what makes it fun.
Unexpected Sox. Meanwhile, easily the most pleasant surprise of this early season has been our hometown Red Sox. The recently completed home stand, on which they went 9-1 with 5 last at-bat, come-from-behind wins, might be one of the two or three greatest homestands in team history (up there with Morgan Magic of 1988). And they kept it alive so far on the road in Detroit.
What I never understood about the pre-season analysis of the Red Sox was how everyone claimed that their pitching was so thin. Coming into the season, I thought that this team had some of the deepest decent quality pitching in baseball, starting with Pedro Martinez, and including two more Cy Young winners in Saberhagen and Eckersley, plus a long list of respectable younger guys like Wakefield, Henry, Rose, Wasdin, Lowe, along with a pretty decent closer in Gordon. Sure, there were question marks, but every pitching staff in baseball has question marks; but I would have matched this staff up with the Orioles, at least, and it's miles above both Cleveland and Seattle.
The real weakness of the Red Sox was and remains the outfield offense. So far, they've survived, as O'Leary is having a strong season, and Bragg has been clutch, and the defense and vesatility of the other guys has mostly made up for their weak bats. But down the road, I doubt this team can stay in a race with the Yankees and Toronto (I think the Orioles are overrated, the Blue Jays are underrated, and the Devil Rays will soon fade), without finding another serious right-handed bat to help win some games before the 9th inning. Is Tim Naehring coming back? Will Billy Ahsley or some other farmhand make an impact? Or will they need to give up some pitching depth (Robinson Checo?) to go get a Matt Stairs or a Hal Morris around the All Star break? Opinions are welcome!
Can we all just get along? Meanwhile, the Red Sox' winning streak is good news and bad news for myself and most opinionated Sox fans. For the Duquette bashers, we must grudgingly acknowledge that he has managed to put together a fun, exciting, enthusiastic team, with a lot of versatility, that's easy to root for. There are few prima donnas of the likes of Canseco, Greenwell, Boggs, and Clemens among this group, and we really do have a different hero every night. We also have to give credit to Jimy Williams, who so far seems perfectly suited to this team, and is pulling all the strings masterfully, and entertainingly.
But there's some crow to be eaten by the Mo Vaughn bashers, as well. He has unquestionably been the soul of this team from the first day of Spring Training, through the incredible home opener grand slam, and including clutch hit after clutch hit. He still may not field or run with any great grace, but he's only made 1 official error so far (fewer than Palmeiro), and he's scored 13 runs, good for 10th in the league, so he can't be clogging up the bases too much. Most of all, he's been an inspiration to the fans, and to his teammates, who have been unanimous in declaring their support. At this moment, there is virtually no other player who could take Vaughn's place, on this team, and contribute as much as he has been. Now would be the perfect time for both Vaughn and Duquette to step forward, swallow a little pride, and conclude a reasonable contract that closes the door on the off-season squabbles (even going all the way back to Clemens, et al.), and permits this team to get on with this season on a truly positive, optimistic note. That would be something to really get excited about.
Comments? Questions? Impassioned, hyperbolic
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