Listen very carefully. If you stand close enough to the plate, you can hear the best weapon a pitcher can wield in his bid to survive in one of baseball's greatest offensive eras. A good fastball announces itself in flight with an angry whisper. "It goes sssssssss," says Atlanta Braves righthander Greg Maddux, softly blowing air through his teeth in what sounds like the preamble to a steaming teakettle's whistle. "You can hear the good ones."
When a baseball spins fast enough, it creates a hiss as it cuts through the air. The faster the spin, the louder the hiss, which explains why the sinking 93-mph fastball thrown by Florida Marlins righthander Kevin Brown sounds like air rushing out of a punctured tire. "I stood and watched Kevin Brown throw on the side at the All-Star Game last year," Maddux says. "His ball didn't go sssssssss. It went SSSSSSSSS! It was the loudest ball I've ever heard. You can see why his stuff is so nasty."
Says Marlins backup catcher Greg Zaun, "His sinker hurts your hands when you don't hit it on the good part of the bat. And just catching it isn't easy. You can't get too cute with it or else you'll hurt your thumb. You don't worry about framing it or anything like that. You just try to catch it."
Brown had a 1.89 ERA last season—2.32 better than the National League average (one of the biggest such differentials in the game's history)—and held batters to the lowest slugging percentage (.289) in the majors. While more taters flew out of ballparks than ever last season, Brown permitted just eight home runs over his 233 innings. He faced 906 batters and walked only 31 unintentionally. "With the kind of movement he has on the ball," says Florida pitching coach Larry Rothschild, "that's the most amazing statistic from last season."
Heard any good fastballs lately? Not likely. Pitchers such as Brown, 24-game winner John Smoltz of the Braves, 265⅔-inning workhorse Pat Hentgen of the Toronto Blue Jays and Randy Johnson of the Seattle Mariners, who has gone 55-16 since 1993 and appears recovered from back surgery performed last September, are anachronisms. They are pitchers who have the heat to dominate games consistently. They matter in a sport in which the owners, in their quest to grab the attention and disposable income of the casual, give-me-action fan, have turned the pitcher into a prop.
"What it takes to succeed as a pitcher now is so much more refined than it was 10 years ago," says St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan. That explains why young, unpolished pitchers, in particular, are getting their lunches handed to them. Only one pitcher younger than 27 won more than 15 games last year: Andy Pettitte of the New York Yankees. Only three younger than 27 kept their ERAs below 3.50: Pedro Astacio and Ismael Valdes of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Steve Trachsel of the Chicago Cubs.
These days baseball belongs to the biggest, strongest men ever to have played the game swinging extremely light bats at baseballs that seem harder and livelier while the dimensions of ballparks and the strike zone grow smaller. Owners have ignored recent suggestions to raise the pitching mound or to insist that the umpires expand the strike zone to the dimensions that are called for in the rule book. Instead, the owners have assured the further escalation of offense by adding two expansion teams that will begin play next season—meaning that about 40 more pitchers who don't belong in the big leagues will be on major league rosters—and by planning another wave of retro ballparks designed to minimize foul territory and maximize home runs.
Today's state-of-the-art hitter crowds the plate with such impunity that he needs to wear a protective plastic guard over his lead forearm while his hands hang in the strike zone. He virtually ignores the inside pitch, knowing the umpire is not likely to call one a strike and the pitcher doesn't want to risk inciting a brawl or give up a home run by throwing one. So the batter dives into the pitch—he doesn't simply stride toward the pitcher as in the old days—and is just as likely to pull an outside pitch out of the park as he is to hit it out to the opposite field. Then, as Gary Sheffield of the Marlins did after crushing 42 dingers last year, he goes home to lift weights with a former Mr. Olympia to get bigger and stronger.
The 1990s hitter has a batting cage in his basement and a library of videotapes in his den. Batters, especially designated hitters, watch pitchers on the clubhouse television during games. It's not unusual for a batter to run to the clubhouse VCR after one of his at bats.
The home run, the quickest way to a fat paycheck, is so driving baseball that striking out is no longer taboo for batters, who last year whiffed at a higher rate than ever. The grip-it-and-rip-it school of hitting does not encourage cutting down on one's swing even with two strikes. Mo Vaughn of the Boston Red Sox was the American League MVP in 1995 while striking out 150 times, the most by an MVP in either league. Sixty-one players belted at least 25 home runs last year, but only seven of them didn't strike out at least 80 times (Barry Larkin, Sheffield, Bobby Higginson, Frank Thomas, Bernie Williams, Barry Bonds and Cal Ripken).