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BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Expansion Has Extended to Home Run Figures, Too

This season was a tale of the tape even before the four-homer explosion by Mark Whiten.

It is not a record year for home runs, but they are up significantly from last season, and the total will be surpassed in recent years only by ’87.

Despite the prolonged absence of Bash Brothers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, home runs have continued to fly as an array of young hitters contributes to a historic offensive year.

The Elias Sports Bureau, baseball’s official statistician, has been swamped, the home run average increasing about 25%, runs about 12% and the combined major league batting average, as of Thursday, having soared 11 points to .267.

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Only six other times, according to Elias, have both home runs and runs per game increased more than 10% from one season to another, and only five other times has the average increased 10 or more points.

It could be one of the biggest seasons for batting averages since 1939, when 17 players batted .320 or better; one of the biggest for productivity since 32 players drove in 100 or more runs in 1930, and clearly the biggest for home runs since a record 28 players hit 30 or more in ’87.

Said Angel Manager Buck Rodgers: “It seems like every time I pick up a paper, some hitter has set a club record for one thing or another.”

The hitters, of course, have received help. Observers cite the further dilution of pitching through expansion, introduction of Denver’s mile-high missile base, a shrinking strike zone that forces pitchers to deliver more hittable pitches, the basic reluctance of pitchers to throw inside, and renewed suspicion that the ball has again been wound tighter.

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“It’s not as lively as it was in ’87, but it’s definitely livelier,” Rodgers said. “It was a full twist livelier in ’87. I’d call it at about a half twist this year.”

In ’87, American League teams averaged a whopping 2.32 home runs per game, the National 1.88.

American League teams were averaging 1.87 homers at midweek, contrasted to 1.57 last year. The National League increase was even greater--1.75 compared with 1.30.

On Thursday, four players had 40 or more home runs, another 10 had 30 or more and another six had 28 or 29. Only two players finished with 40 or more last season, and another 10 had 30 or more.

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In addition, 16 teams have already exceeded their home run totals of last year, another two or three might still do it, and the Philadelphia Phillies could become the first team since 1953 to score 900 runs, as well as the first team in National League history to go an entire season without being shut out.

The juiced ball, however, is only one theory. Some others:

* EXPANSION--"It’s this simple,” Rodgers said. “Pitching was diluted to start with, and now it’s more diluted. I mean, it used to be that everyone needed a fifth starter. Now just about everyone is looking for a third and fourth starter as well.”

One result: The National League earned-run average has gone from 3.50 to 4.05, the American from 3.94 to 4.33.

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“Guys like Ken Griffey (Jr.), Frank Thomas and Juan Gonzalez are going to hit their home runs even if they played at the airport,” Rodgers said. “But now the guys who used to hit 10 are hitting 15, and the guys who used to hit 15 have 20 or more.”

Expansion has been compounded by the introduction of some home run havens: Camden Yards, reconfigured Candlestick during day games, Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami and, of course, Mile High, where teams are averaging 12.8 runs and 2.3 home runs.

The Colorado pitching staff, through Friday, had major league highs for ERA, 5.53; home runs given up, 159, and opponent batting average, .299.

And now, of course, with realignment, expansion is inevitable again.

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There will be two more teams within five years, then two more within another five.

“It’s not always what’s right in baseball,” Rodgers said. “It’s what’s expedient and profitable.”

* STRIKE ZONE--The league presidents notified umpires at the start of the season that they wanted enforcement of the letter-high strike, as defined in the rule book. It hasn’t happened.

“Anything above the belt is a ball,” Atlanta General Manager John Schuerholz said.

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It is his theory that since the umpires shed their balloon-type protectors in favor of the smaller, inside model, they have sought more protection by slotting low behind the catcher and can’t react to a 90-m.p.h. fastball above the belt.

“You’d think that with space-age technology, someone could come up with a comfortable and aesthetic protector that would allow them to get in the correct position to make the call,” Schuerholz said.

If the height of the strike zone has shrunk, the width has narrowed as well, Rodgers said. “Pitchers don’t get the corners anymore because the umpires are concerned about second-guessing from the center-field cameras. The pitcher has to throw to the middle of the plate. It’s a hitter’s strike zone.”

Added Schuerholz: “The art of pitching inside is dead. I’m not talking about doing it to injure someone or for macho reasons, but to keep a hitter honest. The effect of the brushback has been minimized. Hitters stand up there with impunity now. The pitcher knows that if he throws inside, he’s going to have to fight.”

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* YOUNG LIONS--For a sport said to have lost its attraction for multitalented athletes, baseball seems to have had a revival.

John Olerud, who has been around .400 most of the year, is 25. Carlos Baerga, who has set switch-hitting records with the Cleveland Indians, is 24, as is Gary Sheffield, who almost won the Triple Crown last season.

Sammy Sosa, who has gone from eight home runs with the Chicago Cubs to 31, is 24. Unannounced rookies of the year Tim Salmon, already at 30 homers, and Mike Piazza, on the verge of 30, are 25. Phil Plantier, also on the verge of 30 with the San Diego Padres, is 24.

Of the 14 players with 30 or more home runs as of Thursday, only two were 30 or older: Mickey Tettleton, 32, and Bobby Bonilla, 30. Of the four with 40 or more, Barry Bonds is the oldest at 29. Gonzalez is 23, Thomas 25 and Griffey 23.

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“They seem to be making them bigger and stronger,” Atlanta pitcher John Smoltz said. “I live and die with the home run, and sometimes you just have to give the hitter credit.

“I mean, sometimes there’s no other explanation.”

REALIGNMENT

The process appeared dead until:

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--The Cleveland Indians yielded to the Detroit Tigers and agreed to play in the American League’s Central Division, allowing the Tigers to remain in the East.

--The Florida Marlins said they would move to the National League’s Central Division if necessary, allowing the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates to play in the East, their first choice.

The National League situation is not settled. The Marlins, Pirates and Braves will discuss it again, but it appears that the Pirates, because of deep roots and rivalries, and the Braves, because of their time-zone preference on TBS, are unwilling to compromise.

The Marlins are willing to do that, even though both Florida and Atlanta would like to turn their geographical proximity into a rivalry.

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Marlin General Manager Dave Dombrowski said his team has a flexibility the others don’t.

“We don’t have the traditional rivalries (an established team does),” he said. “And from a geographical standpoint, we’re just as close to some of the teams in the Central Division as we are to some in the East.

“The only thing is the time zone, but it’s only a difference of an hour. It’s just not an insurmountable task for us to move to the Central.”

Cleveland owner Richard Jacobs, 68, was reluctant to give up his Eastern rivalries, but favored realignment and said: “This was the only way to get the thing moving. I’m too old to spend another 10 years talking about it.”

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The Indians also move into a new stadium next year and, with one of the best young clubs in baseball, might believe they can jump into a contending position more quickly in the Central.

AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST

Lee Smith isn’t the reliever he once was, but his acquisition by the New York Yankees might make the difference in the AL East. The Baltimore Orioles are without Gregg Olson and the Toronto Blue Jays have yet to find a replacement for Duane Ward.

Ward has 38 saves, stepping up to replace Tom Henke as the Blue Jay closer, but Toronto has failed in a season-long search for a successor to Ward in his valuable setup role.

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In a 12-game span before the start of a weekend series against the Angels, the Blue Jay bullpen was charged with four blown saves and a loss, only one involving Ward, whose six blown saves have been in games he was called on in the eighth inning, when Manager Cito Gaston had no setup options.

Gaston has resisted the temptation to move starter Todd Stottlemyre into that role, but it’s a possibility. Stottlemyre gave up one run in 7 1/3 innings of relief in postseason play last year.

Olson has a slight tear in an elbow ligament and is not expected to rejoin the Orioles, who had yet to miss him through a 29-game span before the weekend. Alan Mills and his bullpen colleagues had four saves and four victories in that period, blowing only one save.

Even so, Olson’s absence is seen as a ticking time bomb as the Orioles try to navigate the final three weeks with, basically, a three-man rotation of Mike Mussina, Ben McDonald and Jamie Moyer. Rick Sutcliffe is recovering from knee surgery, and Fernando Valenzuela has not won in nine starts since July 23.

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The Orioles have had a strange season, staying alive on the strength of a 10-game and two eight-game winning streaks since June 1.

They will close the season with a 10-game home stand against Detroit, New York and Toronto, but they have a chance to build a cushion before then.

They were 27-12 against Oakland, Boston, Milwaukee and Cleveland when they began a 12-game stretch against those teams Friday.

DAVIS’ DEPARTURE

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Three years of festering frustration for both Manager John Oates and one-time slugger Glenn Davis exploded the other day in a clubhouse shouting match that resulted in Davis being released by the Orioles and replaced by veteran Lonnie Smith.

Davis appeared in 185 of 463 games and hit only 24 home runs in three injury-marred seasons with the Orioles after hitting 163 homers in the previous five seasons with the Houston Astros.

His acquisition probably ranks as the worst in Oriole history. Consider:

--They got him by trading three of the best players their farm system has developed--Pete Harnisch and Steve Finley, who have turned in All-Star seasons with the Astros, and Curt Schilling, who has become one of the National League’s top pitchers with the Philadelphia Phillies.

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--To make room on the payroll and at first base for Davis, the Orioles traded Mickey Tettleton, primarily a catcher then, to the Tigers for pitcher Jeff Robinson. Robinson was 4-9 in his only season with the Orioles. Tettleton has hit 30 or more homers and driven in 100 or more runs in each of his three seasons with the Tigers. It seems likely that Baltimore would have won the East with Tettleton last year and would be winning it now.

--The Orioles paid Davis more than $10 million, even signing him to a two-year, $6.6-million contract after he appeared in only 49 games in ’91 because of a neck injury.

“I have nothing to bow my head about,” Davis said after his release. “I busted my butt, trying to come back. I need playing time now to regain my timing and I feel the Orioles owed me that after I agreed to go back to the minors on rehab (this season), but I have nothing to be ashamed about. I can walk out proudly.”


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