Cars left unlocked in Newark are safer than a lead these days. Through April, 14.8% of all major league games were won by teams that had trailed by three or more runs, the highest percentage of comeback wins from a deficit that large in this century.
The comeback percentage has risen every year since 1993. In that season, the major league runs-per-game average leaped 12%, to 9.2, a level that has been exceeded every season since. And bats are likely to boom even louder in the near future: The addition of two more expansion teams, the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1998, will have the effect of gasoline on a bonfire, fueling another surge in scoring.
Runs are so easy to come by that managers often abandon the idea of playing for one run. The Indians, for example, laid down four sacrifice bunts in their first 29 games, a pace that would challenge the record for fewest in a season (18), set by the 1990 Toronto Blue Jays. Bunting, often lamented as a lost art, is becoming an unnecessary one. If you watch an American League game these days, you're likely to see four times as many home runs as sacrifice bunts.
Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly says he has been surprised this season to see opposing teams play for one run "when I thought there would be more than that one run needed to win." For instance, in the third inning of an April 24 game against the Twins, with the score tied 7-7, Alan Trammell of the Detroit Tigers moved a runner to third with a grounder to the right side, a classic give-yourself-up play in the late innings of a close game. How important was moving along that runner, who later scored? Minnesota squeaked by with a 24-11 win. On April 30, Jose Offerman of the Kansas City Royals bunted a runner to third in the second inning of a 2-1 game in which Twins starter LaTroy Hawkins was laboring. Minnesota pulled out a 16-7 win.
In the 88 Colorado Rockies games played at Coors Field from the opening of that small, high-altitude park in Denver last season through Sunday, at least one team had reached double figures in runs 33 times. With that in mind, Rockies manager Don Baylor always plays his infield in at Coors whether Colorado is leading or not. "It's automatic if you're standing there [in the dugout] thinking about it," Baylor says. "You give up enough cheap runs when the ball's hit in the air. Some other places I wouldn't play the infield in, but here you try and cut off as many runs as you can."
Alou, whose Expos gave up 17 runs in three games in Denver in that April series and still won twice, says, "It's a different game there. There's not much you can do as a manager. I like the quick hook. But when I managed in Denver in the minor leagues, I learned that you had to leave your starter in until he gave up eight runs."
More runs are scored per game at Coors Field than at any other park, contributing to the popular notion that the newer, cozier stadiums are to blame for the increase in scoring. That is a myth. In recent years runs and home runs have increased at virtually the same rate at the older ballparks as they have at the five stadiums opened since 1991—Comiskey Park, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Jacobs Field, The Ballpark in Arlington and Coors Field—even when you compare those new parks with the stadiums they replaced. We're talking across-the-board inflation.
In no way has this explosion changed a manager's job more than in how he handles his pitching staff. Most teams carry 11 or 12 pitchers, whereas a decade ago nine or 10 sufficed. The Rockies and the Oakland Athletics briefly carried 13 pitchers last season. Why? Today's starting pitchers melt quicker than an ice-cream cone in July in Texas. Except for the war years from 1942 through '45, starters in this century annually pitched between six and seven innings per start. But last season that figure dropped to 5.93. This year it's sinking again, to 5.80 through April. Says Seattle Mariners manager Lou Piniella, "My philosophy is to get a starter through five innings so he can get the win and hand it over to the bullpen."
Here's how much the game has changed just in the span of St. Louis Cardinals reliever Dennis Eckersley's career: When he was a rookie, in 1975, managers used a combined 2.8 relief pitchers per game; last year they used 5.0, a 79% increase. Relievers had a better record, a better ERA and a better rate of strikeouts than starters last season. No wonder that when Alou is asked whether he prefers depth in his rotation or bullpen, he says, "I'd rather have a deeper bullpen. We thought about putting Omar Daal in the rotation. But better to have him pitch three or four times a week rather than once a week."
Likewise, Mariano Rivera has proved immensely valuable to the Yankees as a middle reliever. At week's end he had thrown 18 consecutive scoreless innings. In one seven-game span beginning on April 26, he worked in four games (for a total of 10 innings) and warmed up three times in two others, including once in the ninth inning with the Yankees ahead 5-1 and Cone pitching. At his current rate Rivera would finish the season with either 148 innings pitched or an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon.