|Monday, September 30
Trend shows pitchers catching up with hitters
Forget the long ball.
After a decade of record-setting bashing in baseball, pitchers finally are starting to catch up with hitters.
Home runs in the major leagues declined for the second straight season and scoring was at its lowest level since 1993. The drop coincides with baseball's push to have umpires call a larger strike zone, the one defined in the rule book.
''We've seen the emergence of some outstanding pitching over the last two, three years,'' baseball executive vice president Sandy Alderson said Monday. ''Is that cyclical? I think it's difficult to assume it's related to the strike zone. But the trend is clearly downward.''
Scoring dropped to 9.24 runs a game this year, its lowest level since a 9.20 average in 1992, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, baseball's statistician. Just three years ago, bulked-up batters sent 10.58 runs across the plate each game.
They're not quite passe, but balls are flying over fences less frequently.
After peaking at 2.34 a game in 2000, the average dropped to 2.25 last year and sank to 2.09 this season. It hasn't been that low since 1998.
''The pitching in the league is as strong as ever,'' New York Yankees slugger Jason Giambi said.
Baseball's ads feature cartoon images of puffed-up thumpers, but big offensive numbers waned this year.
Only eight players hit 40 or more homers this season, half of the 2000 total, and 28 reached 30, down from 47 in 2000.
Just 36 players had 100 or more RBI in 2002, down from 47 two years ago.
Even singles hitters are having a tougher time.
Baseball's .261 batting average this year was the lowest since .256 in 1992. The 4.27 ERA was the lowest since 4.18 in 1993.
''The intention was never to reduce the scoring,'' Alderson said. ''The intention was to enforce the strike zone without any preconceived notion of what might happen.''
As a byproduct, baseball is achieving its goal of speeding up games. The average time of a nine-inning game was 2 hours, 52 minutes this season, down from 2:54 the previous year and 2:58 in 2000.
And it's not just because of the rule-book strike zone. Strikeouts, which jumped from 12.90 a game in 2000 to 13.34 last year, when back down to 12.94 this year. Walks, which dropped from 7.50 a game in 2000 to 6.51 the following year, went back up to 6.70.
''When you reconfigure the strike zone, you're taking pitches away from the outside part of the plate and adding pitches up and low in the strike zone,'' Alderson said.
''I think it's getting closer and closer (to the rule book), and I think we saw substantial improvement this year in calling the strike zone more uniformly, more consistently,'' Alderson said. ''I think by and large the umpires made a real effort to adjust, and we were very pleased with that effort.''