As awestruck fans stand slack-jawed watching a Mark McGwire missile head into the upper deck, they forget that the ball flying through the air started off in the hands of some poor pitcher who until a few seconds before was feeling pretty good about himself. As McGwire (36 homers off 34 pitchers, through Sunday), Ken Griffey Jr. (32 off 31) and Sammy Sosa (32 off 29) continue to chase Roger Maris's single-season record of 61 home runs, we decided to take a look at the pitchers they've been feasting on. To put everything into historical context, we also examined the winning percentage, ERA and experience of those hurlers who served up Maris's 61 in '61 and Babe Ruth's 60 in 1927. Among the findings: Considering the overall performance of the pitchers Griffey and Sosa have been teeing off against, it's no surprise they're killing the ball. But if McGwire sets the record, it looks as if he will have earned it against better arms. As for who's most likely to take the home run title come season's end...we'll just have to wait and see.
McGwire has gone yard off some of the National League's most successful pitchers: Nine of his victims, including the Padres' Andy Ashby and the Astros' Shane Reynolds, have won at least seven games. Sosa has homered off four seven-game winners, but Griffey's penchant for pounding losers (like Derek Lowe, 0-7, and Dennis Springer, 2-10) makes you wonder how many he'd hit if he faced his own team's abysmal staff. And while the numbers for Ruth and Maris reveal that they hammered subpar pitchers, keep in mind that there weren't many wins left after Ruth's Bronx Bombers won 110 games and Maris's 109, in an eight-and a 10-team league, respectively.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
While McGwire's victims have an ERA a hair under the National League average (4.17), Sosa's exceed the league standard by more than half a run. This means that Sammy is hitting a lot of his homers off guys who belong in Triple A—or the American League. Pitchers touched by Griffey have a sizable ERA, too, but it is barely a tenth of a run above the American League average (4.70). This is not to say that Griffey and Sosa haven't rocked some studs. Nine of Griffey's casualties are former All-Stars, and Sosa's ninth homer came off none other than Greg Maddux. By comparison, Ruth and Maris faced, and walloped, better pitching than any of the three current sluggers. (The 1927 average American League ERA was 4.14, while the average in '61, an expansion year, was 4.02.)
MAJOR LEAGUE EXPERIENCE
Sosa has taken advantage of novices, while Griffey has done much of his damage against old men who should know better than to try to sneak one past Junior. For example, nine of Sosa's homers have come off rookies (compared with five for Griffey and four for McGwire), but 10 of Griffey's 31 victims—including 15-year veteran Roger Clemens—have at least 10 years of major league experience. McGwire has been served by young and old alike, having tagged six cagey codgers, including 16-year vet Orel Hershiser and 15-year man Mark Langston. Likewise, Ruth and Maris tended to spread the misery around.