Inside Baseball: Where have baseball's hitters gone?

St. Louis' Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA in 1968, which was known as the Year of the Pitcher. Home runs, batting averages, runs, and slugging percentages are all down this year from 2009, though the declines are not as dramatic as those of '68.
St. Louis' Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA in 1968, which was known as the Year of the Pitcher. Home runs, batting averages, runs, and slugging percentages are all down this year from 2009, though the declines are not as dramatic as those of '68.
Posted: June 27, 2010

Perhaps no single moment better illustrated baseball's 2010 offensive slump than Ryan Howard's first-inning at-bat against the Indians on Thursday afternoon.

Howard has hit enough Citizens Bank Park home runs to recognize one when he's struck it. And after he connected with a fat fastball from fat Fausto Carmona, the Phillies first baseman clearly thought he'd done it again. The long drive touched off all the familiar Pavlovian homer responses.

The Phillies slugger dropped the bat and, standing tall and proud, walked into his trot. Carmona hung his head. Fans leaped from their seats. On Comcast SportsNet's telecast, the voice of announcer Tom McCarthy - who, along with analyst Chris Wheeler, had mentioned how well the ball was jumping in batting practice on this humid day - rose a few octaves in excited anticipation.

And then Indians centerfielder Trevor Crowe ran it down at the wall.

"That," said a clearly mystified McCarthy, "is the third ball the Phillies have hit to center field in this series that for whatever reason didn't get high enough."

"For whatever reason" has become a familiar phrase around baseball as players, coaches, broadcasters, and others try to decipher just what is causing the dip in offensive numbers.

Home runs, batting averages, runs, and slugging percentages are all down from 2009. There have been two perfect games, a third that should have been, two no-hitters, and countless no-hit flirtations.

Colorado's Ubaldo Jimenez has put up pre-All-Star Game numbers - 13 wins, an ERA of 1.60 - that bring to mind Denny McLain and 1968, the Year of the Pitcher. That year, you might recall, Bob Gibson had an ERA of 1.12, McLain won 31 games, Carl Yastrzemski won the AL batting title with a .301 average, and the AL hit like Juan Castro, finishing with an anemic league-wide average of .231.

While things aren't nearly that dramatic this year, there are plenty of theories for the decline, most of which have more holes than Russell Branyan's swing.

Is it an absence of steroids? An improvement in pitching? Too many swing-from-the-heels batters? Is it the balls that aren't as lively, and not the hitters?

"Selfishly, I'd like to think it was all due to better pitching," said John Smoltz, the former Braves pitcher who now works for MLB TV. "But it's a lot more than that. Everybody wants to take the dots and connect them all and say, 'See, that's the reason.' But in reality it's probably a whole bunch of things." Such as. . . .

Fewer steroids

Reason to believe: Home runs per game have dropped below two per game for the first time since 1993.

Reason to doubt: It wasn't just hitters who used performance-enhancing substances. You've got to assume plenty of pitchers did, too. So shouldn't it be a wash?

The apparent reduction in steroid use seems to be the most popular explanation. Baseball's stricter drug-testing undoubtedly has cut down on power cocktails and power numbers. As we near the end of June, no one is threatening Roger Maris' 61-homer season, let alone Barry Bonds' 73.

Through June 24, only one player - Toronto's Jose Bautista - had as many as 20 homers. It's possible this could the first season since 1992 (Fred McGriff, 35) when the big-league leader will have fewer than 40 homers.

"I don't know how rampant steroids were," Goose Gossage, the Hall of Fame reliever, said when asked for an explanation for the offensive dip, "but I got a feeling now that they were pretty rampant." And with fewer juiced-up sluggers, there seems to be - at least at Citizens Bank Park - fewer tape-measure shots.

"You're seeing it all over baseball," said Bob Brenly, the Cubs broadcaster and former Diamondbacks manager. "Balls that used to go 500, 600 feet are now going 380. You've got to believe testing is a big reason why."

Better pitching

Reason to believe: Perfect games by Roy Halladay and Oakland's Dallas Braden, plus no-hitters by Ubaldo Jimenez and Edwin Jackson.

Reason to doubt: The alleged pitching staffs in Arizona, Milwaukee, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh.

ERA has dipped this year, to a point it hasn't been since 1992. Strikeouts are up. Many good young hitters who put up outstanding numbers in 2009 have fallen off the edge. Two of the best examples are in Philadelphia this weekend.

Toronto's Adam Lind and Aaron Hill, who hit .305 and .286, respectively, last season, were at .211 and .188 entering the weekend.

"The elite pitchers are way ahead of everybody else. They're having dominating years," said Smoltz. "But the pitching as a whole, one through five, or one through 12, isn't that much better than the offenses."

Bad hitters

Reason to believe: All those batters who swing for the fences even when they've got two strikes on them.

Reason to doubt: How can you explain the fact that, simultaneously, almost every hitter in baseball has seen his numbers dip this season?

Baseball executives talk about how few good-hitting lineups there are, while neglecting to note that it's the game's economic policies that helped create this power paucity.

"We've seen the emergence of a lot of young players who are in the league probably sooner than they need to be because of economic decisions," said Smoltz.

"Look at all the teams that spend a ton of money on one guy. Then they have to fill the rest of their rosters with guys who aren't ready. There are a couple of elite offensive teams - the Yankees, the Phillies, the Red Sox when they're healthy - but on the whole we've got some really bad offenses. And part of that is the game's economics."

Less-lively balls

Reason to believe: See Howard, Ryan.

Reason to doubt: Texas' Max "Not Manny" Ramirez, who has four career home runs, hit a ball 451 feet this year.

Few are talking about this possibility, but it would not be the first time baseball has tampered with balls in an effort to artificially engineer the game.

Officials for the ball manufacturer, the Rawlings Co., did not return phone calls or respond to e-mailed questions on the topic.

Of course, if baseball officials are really worried about offense, they could always lift the ban on aluminum bats, a move that undoubtedly would end the lively-ball debate, as well as the lives of several pitchers.

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068


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