Detroit's Cecil fielder, who lost some weight in the off-season, is off to his best start, having hit nine homers in his first 20 games. The Tigers first baseman had never before hit more than seven homers in April; now he is threatening the major league record of 11 first-month homers held by Graig Nettles, Mike Schmidt and Willie Stargell. "Cecil is a pure home run hitter," says White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas. "That's what he does: hit homers."
That may sound like a compliment from Thomas, but it's possible to infer a hint of criticism. When Fielder hit three homers against Toronto on April 16, he raised his average from .189 to .228. He also ran his season hit total to 13 at the time: nine homers, two doubles and two singles. Thomas, on the other hand, wasn't generating as much interest with his seven homers at week's end, but he was hitting a robust .397—best in the American League.
This is not to single out Fielder for criticism, but there's no denying that there is an all-or-nothing, go-for-the-fences trend in today's game. Fielder makes an astonishing amount of money—at $9.2 million, he's the highest-paid player in the game this year—yet he's slow on the base paths and doesn't hit for average. And that lesson is not lost on a lot of other players. Too many hitters today just swing as hard as they can most of the time, which produces some big home run totals but can also result in low batting averages and a huge number of strikeouts.
The reason for this: Those high homer totals pay off with large contracts, especially in arbitration. But the art of hitting has suffered as a result. If you look at a list of all the players who have hit 30 homers in a season and then look at their batting averages, 16 of the 20 lowest averages have come since 1982—and in 14 of those 16 cases the hitter struck out more than 110 times.
That go-for-broke attitude is trickling down to players who have no business trying to hit homers. Among the league leaders in strikeouts this season are a frightening number of leadoff hitters who should be putting the ball in play and getting on base any way they can. Randy Velarde (20 K's through Sunday) and Chad Curtis (18), the leadoff hitters for the Angels and the Tigers, respectively, are on pace to strike out more than 144 times this season, as are the Padres' Rickey Henderson (16) and the Reds' Vince Coleman (19). But the worst culprit is Dodgers second baseman Delino DeShields, who at week's end had already gone down on strikes 21 times in only 19 games. That's unacceptable for a player whose greatest asset should be his speed.
As bad as the pitching is, and as many homers as there are flying over the walls, the RBI leaders in baseball aren't knocking in impressive numbers of runs these days. No one has come close to threatening Hack Wilson's major league record of 190 RBIs in 1930 or Lou Gehrig's American League mark of 184 in 1931. The last player with 150 or more was the Dodgers' Tommy Davis (153) in 1962, and the league leaders have reached 140 RBIs only four times since then. Maybe it's because the table setters are too intent on going deep like the power hitters, rather than simply getting on base so they can wait at home plate to shake hands when the big guys knock them in.
One leadoff hitter who is swinging for the downs and doing quite well, thank you, is Baltimore's Brady Anderson. On Sunday the Orioles' outfielder hit his fourth straight first-inning leadoff homer, which is believed to be a major league record. At week's end Anderson was tied for second in the league in homers, with eight, but he was still batting a stellar .354 (with 10 strikeouts) and had a .443 on-base percentage.
A Royal Mess
Having had a chance to watch Kansas City play a few times, one veteran scout says shortstop Jose Offerman and second baseman Bip Roberts might eventually go down as the worst double-play combination of all time. As a team the Royals are currently next to last in the league in fielding (21 errors in 18 games through Sunday), and a big reason is the defense up the middle. Offerman was finally benched for five games last week after committing four errors in his first nine games. He was back in the lineup last Saturday and promptly made another error.
Granted, the Royals are a small-market team with budget limitations, but one still has to wonder what exactly the K.C. front office was thinking when it put together this team. The Royals had one of the game's top defensive infields a year ago but let third baseman Gary Gaetti and shortstop Greg Gagne sign as free agents with the Cardinals and the Dodgers, respectively, and they traded first baseman Wally Joyner to the Padres for Roberts. They also traded for Offerman and installed rangeless Bob Hamelin at first and a platoon of Keith Lockhart and Joe Randa at third. Now they have the worst defensive infield in the game.