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Overall Hitting Not So Gaudy

WASHINGTON POST

With Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey Jr. and Sammy Sosa chasing Roger Maris’s single-season home run record and Juan Gonzalez in pursuit of Hack Wilson’s one-year RBI mark, the natural inclination is to call 1998 a year of inflated expansion-season offensive numbers.

That has merit to a point. For the past few years, baseball indeed has been in the most homer-friendly era in its history.

But it’s not entirely true, even with the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks having begun play this season and virtually every major league team now scrambling for pitching help. Overall, offensive statistics are up very little or not at all from last season.

The game’s ultimate pitching craftsman, Greg Maddux, said during the All-Star festivities here last week that, even in this expansion year, he doesn’t think pitching is any worse than it was in the previous few seasons. The numbers support that assessment.

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At the All-Star break, the average major league game this season featured 9.56 runs and 2.03 homers. That means that scoring has increased less than 1% from last season’s average of 9.53 runs per game, and home runs are down nearly 1% from last year’s 2.05 per contest. In the American League, runs are up by nearly 2% and homers up by less than 1%. In the National League, scoring is down by 1% and home runs are down by nearly 2%, from 1.91 per game in 1997 to 1.88 per contest in ’98.

So it’s a great season to be a great hitter, but this year hasn’t been any kinder to the average hitter than any of the past few seasons. Maddux said that the record-chasing exploits of McGwire and Co. this year simply are a tribute to how good they are as hitters. San Diego Padre outfielder Tony Gwynn echoed those sentiments, saying he’s marveled at how good a hitter-not just how good a home run hitter-McGwire is.

“When I watched the other league, I just perceived him as a power hitter, a guy looking for a pitch to hit the ball out of the ballpark with,” Gwynn said. “But when we started interleague play last year when he was with Oakland, I noticed that if you get him out one way, you can’t get him out that way again. That’s the first clue.

“The second clue was, we had a game in San Diego. He was facing Joey Hamilton, and the count was 2-0. You would think a power hitter is looking for a pitch to drive on 2-0. He took a fastball right down the chute for 2-1. The next pitch was a heater down and in, and he inside-outed it to right-center for a double. That told me he’s a good hitter.”

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Gwynn said that McGwire, Griffey, Sosa and even his Padres teammates, Greg Vaughn, all are capable of breaking Maris’s record of 61 homers this year.

“That’s the thing that gets lost in all the home runs: All three of these guys--all four of these guys--are good hitters who are capable of using the whole field and don’t necessarily have to hit a home run to help their ballclubs,” Gwynn said. “You don’t just have power hitters. You have guys who understand hitting and are good hitters.”


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