Power Surge in Baseball
by Glenn Dickey
May 25, 2006

THOUGH THEY know that home runs draw fans, even baseball owners are saying maybe they should check the baseballs being used, to see if they’re wound tighter, because of this year’s power surge.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. The anti-steroids crowd was sure that stricter testing would result in a “purer” game. As Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated explained it, fans would see a more athletic game, not just power.

Instead, they’re seeing teams hitting more home runs and Albert Pujols on pace to hit 79 this season, although Pujols is slightly behind Barry Bonds’ pace in 2001, when Bonds hit 23 homers in his first 44 games. The upsurge has been especially noticeable in the National League, which had fallen behind in the power numbers because NL clubs do not have a designated hitter in the lineup. (The way their pitchers hit against the Giants yesterday, the St. Louis Cardinals don’t need one!).

It never made much sense to believe steroids were the sole reason for increased home run totals because anecdotal evidence suggests that pitchers are using them, too.

Last Friday in The Chronicle, Jon Carroll wrote about sabremetricians, a group which started with Bill James when he started writing “Baseball Abstracts”, using statistics to draw conclusions which seemed counter-intuitive. When I started reading them, I first thought “Wait a minute!” because they challenged so many of the beliefs I had always held. But as I continued reading James, I realized that many of those beliefs were wrong, and I became a convert. (Many sportswriters still cling to their old beliefs, though, because they lack intellectual curiosity.)

James has since worked with the Boston Red Sox, whose general manager, Theo Epstein, has followed his principles. The results haven’t been too shabby. Billy Beane also follows many of the James’ concepts.

Carroll wrote of two sabremetricians, Arthur De Vaney and John Charles Bradbury, both of them trained economists, who separately came to the same conclusion from their studies: that steroids has nothing to do with the surge in power numbers. Their conclusion is based on a mathematical formula I don’t pretend to understand but which basically says that the 1993 and ’98 expansions were primarily responsible, because there are many players now in the majors who would otherwise still be in the minors. When that happens, the best players and pitchers benefit disproportionately, as the best hitters face more bad pitchers and the best pitchers face more bad hitters.

There are other factors. Most of the new parks that have been built in the last 15 years have been good parks for hitters. The new park in Philadelphia has supplanted Denver’s Coors Field as the hitters favorite. I’ve suspected that the ball has been “juiced” by changing specifications so it’s wound tighter.

Whatever the reasons, everybody in baseball is happy because home runs always boost attendance, and never more so than now.

BASEBALL HAS changed in many ways since I came to The Chronicle in 1963, and the way the game is promoted, out of necessity, has been perhaps the biggest change.

In the ‘60s, when players did not have free agency, a team that drew more than a million fans was very successful. That could be done basically with the baseball team itself. Horace Stoneham, the Giants owner when the team was moved to San Francisco, did almost no promotions beyond fixtures like “Bat Day” or the automobile giveaway on “Fan Appreciation Day” at the end of the season, but the Giants drew well over that magic million mark until the A’s moved to Oakland in 1968 and split the market.

Now, with free agency, player salaries have gone into the stratosphere. That means generally higher ticket prices, especially at the new parks, and a requirement that a successful franchise must draw more than two million, sometimes much more. That requires appealing to marginal fans, not just the hard core fans who used to show up for night games at Candlestick.

One way to do this is to provide extra, non-baseball entertainment at the park. The Giants have done a superb job of this at their park. When I walk around the park, as I did again yesterday, I’m always struck by the large number of kids who are on the playground in the left field section.

The other way is to provide a game that is appealing to the casual fans, and that always means more power. It doesn’t take a deep understanding of baseball to get a thrill out of seeing a batted ball leave the park.

This emphasis on the long ball often irritates the “purists”, who preach the virtues of “little ball.” This is one aspect that hasn’t changed since the ‘60s. The old-timers then often complained that the Giants didn’t bunt enough. The Giants’ managers, oddly enough, usually thought that they’d rather have Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, et al, swinging than bunting.

Now, the call for more “little ball” is even more ridiculous. Big innings are what win games, and it’s hard to get a big inning when you give away one of the three available outs. Even in the National League, managers have figured that out.

I’ve been following baseball all my life and, though I can enjoy a pitching duel between two good pitchers, like the 1-0 game between the A’s and Giants last Friday night, I love to see the good power hitters. Watching Pujols yesterday was pure joy. Everything he hit, even when he made an out, was hit squarely. He didn’t hit one out, but one of his drives hit the wall in right-center. He got only a single because the runners ahead of him had to hold up, thinking the ball might be caught.

On the Giants’ Tuesday night telecast, there was a graphic that showed the two hitters who reached 1000 his and 200 homers in the least number of games. Pujols was one, Mays the other – and Pujols was No. 1. His consistency has been remarkable, and he’s taken another step up this year. Barring injury, he’ll eventually challenge the career home run marks.

THE MEDIA emphasis on steroids has encouraged the imbeciles among the fans, especially in Philadelphia, where the mentality seems the same as that of the “Raider Nation”, to wear anti-Bonds shirts and wave symbols of steroid use. But, overall, I don’t think many fans care.

In Oakland, the fans booed Bonds when he came to the plate, but they gave him a standing ovation when he hit No. 714. If he hits No. 715 on the road, I think he’ll get the same kind of reaction.

Fans want entertainment, and the long ball is the most entertaining of baseball moments. They loved the 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, which overshadowed the pennant races. They loved Bonds’ run up to 73 in 2001. And owners love it because it brings people out to the park.

NOTE TO READERS: Starting next week, I’ll be writing columns on Tuesday and Friday for The San Francisco Examiner. Those of you living in San Francisco can pick up the paper, which is free, at newsstands. The rest of you can find my column on the web, at Examiner.com.

I’ll probably just write one column a week on this site, on Wednesday. I have an idea for a sports mystery that I’ve wanted to pursue, and I can do that with extra time. When I was younger, I could write five columns a week and still work on a book, but at 70, I don’t have the same physical or mental energy.

In football season, I’ll likely go to four columns a week. I may do three for the Examiner, but if they just want two, I’ll put two on the website. You can check that when I return from vacation in the second week of September.

Thanks to you, it’s been a great experience writing on this website. I thank you for your support, and I hope you’ll continue reading me here and in the Examiner.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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