Impact of Baseball Expansion: Pitching Stretched Even Thinner

BALTIMORE SUN

Sparky Anderson has seen the future of baseball expansion, and it is this:

--Lousier pitching.

--Sloppier play.

--Longer games.

"Five years from now, you're going to see pitching staffs that will make you cry," the Detroit Tigers manager said. "There will be some guys doing some wacky things like you've never seen before."

Oh, and this 1993 baseball season hasn't been strange enough?

Forget the Seattle Mariners and Baltimore Orioles playing brawlball in Baltimore, or the Philadelphia Phillies, everyone's favorite beer-league softball team, winning long after last call in Philadelphia, or Carlton Fisk setting a record for catching longevity and then getting released.

This is an expansion year.

And it's weird.

National League baseball is in Florida and Colorado now. So the country gets accustomed to ballplayers taking midday batting practice in shorts in Miami while pitchers in Denver take cover each time they serve up home-run balls that soar through the light air at Mile High Stadium.

Anthony Young of the New York Mets loses and loses and still has a job.

The Florida Marlins' Charlie Hough, 45, is considered a valued member of the starting staff.

The Colorado Rockies bid to become the first team since the 1939 St. Louis Browns to have a team ERA above 6.00.

Strange stuff always happens when baseball adds teams and players.

The Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators joined the American League in 1961 ... and Roger Maris hit 61 home runs.

The Houston Colt .45s and the New York Mets entered the National League in 1962 ... and the New York Mets lost 120 games.

Four teams were added in 1969, baseball split into divisions, playoffs were inaugurated ... and seven players hit 40 or more home runs while the Mets won the World Series.

The Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners hit the American League in 1977 ... and Rod Carew batted .388.

So what's going on in 1993?

Offense is up. Way up.

Remember: Expansion affected both leagues because the Marlins and Rockies had their pick of players from every major-league team. And, unlike past expansions, the new teams could plug holes with free agents. This is an expansion without any Marv Throneberrys or Choo Choo Colemans.

The funny incidents have been few. The Rockies showed up for the first day of spring training wearing "Hi, My Name Is ... " tags. The funniest thing about the Marlins so far has been the time that their grounds crew tripped over each other in trying to put a tarp on a rain-soaked field.

"We're talking about a big business now," said Florida general manager Dave Dombrowski. "Losing is not humorous."

Neither is baseball's talent drain.

"The expansion has watered down each team. That's obvious," said Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau. "And the addition of a poor pitching staff and a new ballpark in Denver makes Colorado an inviting place to play -- for the visitors."

Through the first 80 games for each of the 28 teams, Hirdt said team batting averages have risen by 13 points to .265 in the American League and by 14 points to .263 in the National League.

In the American League, home runs are up 8.5 percent and runs scored are up 7.0 percent.

In the National League, even pro-rating the numbers from 12 to 14 teams, home runs are up 26 percent and runs scored are up 12 percent.

"This has been a fairly outstanding and entertaining baseball season so far," Hirdt said. "There have been a lot of outstanding individual performances."

Such as Colorado's Andres Galarraga and Toronto's John Olerud hovering around .400. And Galarraga doesn't even get to bat against his own pitching staff. "It would be hard to be as bad as we were," said Richie Ashburn, a member of the 1962 Mets, "but our pitching on the '62 Mets was better than Colorado's, and that's saying something."

And the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds assembling a slugging percentage over .700.

And there are more than two dozen players on the fast track to either 100-plus RBI seasons or 30-plus home run years.

"I think any time you add teams, it will have some effect -- especially offensively," said Toronto's Paul Molitor, in his 16th season.

"In terms of day-to-day play, how the game is played, I don't notice much," he said. "But it shows up in the pitching, and that's why we're seeing more offensive numbers that seem a little more impressive."

Jim Palmer, the Hall of Fame pitcher and former Oriole, said deteriorating pitching in an expansion season is simply a matter of numbers. Add more teams. Add more pitchers. Watch the runs multiply.

"There are at least 22 pitchers who are in the big leagues who weren't there last year," he said. "Batting averages go up. Guys are then called up who don't have that experience. The games are longer, and more runs are scored. Everyone talked about the dearth of pitching talent before expansion. But it doesn't matter. What's the problem? To me, it's exciting that Olerud is going for .400. If he did it, no one would worry that it was in an expansion season."

The bottom line is this: Expansion has been a wild, raging success.

The Rockies may have one of the worst pitching staffs ever assembled, but they drew 1 million and then 2 million fans quicker than any other team in history.

And the Marlins are drawing well in Florida, playing respectable baseball and cementing a large chunk of their future with deals such as the one that got them reigning National League batting champion Gary Sheffield from the San Diego Padres.

They are even far, far ahead of the Mets in the race for sixth place in the National League East.

"We've been competitive in more games than I thought we would be," said Dombrowski. "A lot of people thought we'd lose by large margins. But we haven't. It's surprising to me that as we go through the season, we're not much different than the other clubs."

The Marlins are like all other teams in the major leagues.

Short on pitching.

But it could be worse. By the turn of the century, major-league baseball could have 30 or 32 teams, all scrambling for fifth starters, setup men and closers.

"If it's 30 teams, we might be playing 5 1/2-hour games," Anderson said. "We might be playing forever."

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