Pitchers can't come to grips with strikes


BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Blame it on the aluminum bat. That's Chris Welsh's theory. The Reds television analyst says modern pitchers grow up believing they can't handcuff hitters with the ball in on the fists, so they don't throw it there even when they start working against wood.

It's not so much that the strike zone has grown smaller, but that pitchers don't use as much of it anymore. They don't work the inside half of the plate as often as they once did, which means they throw a lot of pitches that allow hitters to extend their arms. That is asking for trouble.

Blame it on the split-fingered fastball. That's Ray Knight's theory.

The Reds manager thinks modern pitchers have become infatuated with the idea of an unhittable pitch, irrespective of their ability to throw it for a strike.

They want to select from a wide range of pitches when they ought to be narrowing their choices to things they can control. They are forever shifting gears when the situation calls for cruise control.

This leads to more walks, higher pitch counts, tired arms and increased offense.

Finding the plate

Baseball finds itself in severe imbalance this spring. The pitchers are so far behind the hitters that they would need the Concorde to catch up.

Tuesday night's scoreboard showed five teams scoring in double figures and the longest nine-inning game in major-league history.

The Montreal Expos hit .303 in April. The Minnesota Twins hit .301. Baltimore's Brady Anderson, heretofore a second-rate slugger, threatens both the home run record of Roger Maris and the bad-sideburn standards of George Foster.

Batting practice and ballgames have become virtually identical.

Batting practice, in fact, may be more challenging.

"Watch this," Knight said Wednesday afternoon, leading some media loiterers behind the batting cage at Riverfront Stadium. "Watch the next 10 pitches and count how many of them would be hits."

Eric Davis stood at the plate. He drove the next pitch over the fence against Reds coach Joel Youngblood, but was no better than two-for-five before yielding the cage to Eric Anthony.

Anthony hit a hard grounder between second and third and Knight declared it an out (assuming, perhaps, that Barry Larkin was at shortstop). He hit a sharp slice to left-center, but Knight decided that it hung in the air too long to land safely.

A conservative estimate would have credited the Reds with about four hits in the 10 swings. Presumably, they would not have fared so well against a pitcher better equipped to get them out.

Knight's experiment was intended to illustrate that major-league hitters will get themselves out if a pitcher simply finds the plate.

His point seemed particularly sharp in the wake of Tuesday's 10-7 loss to Pittsburgh, a game in which Reds pitchers walked 10 Pirates.

Fans grow fidgety

Pitchers complain that they can't get a strike called on the inside corner, or above the belt, or against certain accomplished hitters.

Knight, conversely, believes pitchers have grown "bat-shy," nibbling around the edges of the plate when they should be challenging hitters more directly.

Whatever its cause, the effects are that pitchers are going deeper in the count, allowing more walks, pitching fewer innings and yielding more runs. Games grow longer. Fans grow fidgety.

STATS Inc. reports that the average hitter sees .26 more pitches per at bat than he did as recently as 1989 (3.78 as compared to 3.52). The more pitches a batter sees, the better his chances of mashing a mistake. Baseball, circa 1996, is as mistake-prone as Marge Schott.

Blame it on expansion. Assume that the ball has been artificially sweetened. Bemoan the aluminum bat. Lament the split-fingered fastball. There's no single source to the decline of pitching.

You could write a book on all the theories, but the title is already taken: A Farewell To Arms.

Published May 2, 1996.