Scoring in the majors is down from 10.8 runs a game last April to 9.6 through Sunday, and there's no shortage of theories to explain why. "Pitchers are getting ahead in the count more," says Rangers general manager Doug Melvin. "The weather this spring has been much colder than last spring in a majority of places," says Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski. Twins righthander Brad Radke has the simplest explanation. "Maybe," he says, "the pitching's just better."
Whatever the reason or reasons, the offensive bull market of recent seasons turned bearish this April. The American League batting average dropped from .278 last April to .261 with one day left in April 2001, and walks decreased from 746 per game to 6.73. Similar trends held in the National League, in which batting average fell from .264 to .260 and walks per game crashed from 8.16 to 6.84.
The most likely explanation? Confusion over the new strike zone, which hitters, pitchers and umpires are still trying to sort out. "Much was made of how uniform umpires were going to be on the new strike zone, and it hasn't happened," says Giants second baseman Jeff Kent. "The inconsistency has made it much tougher on the batters because we've been conditioned to know what's a strike and what isn't, and now it's changed."
Most players say umpires have been inconsistent in enforcing the new high strike and in eliminating the wide strike. "Some umps are calling the high pitches," according to Red Sox catcher Scott Hatteberg, "but a lot are still calling the pitch four or five inches off the plate. The zone is that much bigger."
Predictably, some pitchers insist that they're getting squeezed ("The strike zone has gotten a lot smaller—no corners—and the umpires are inconsistent with the high pitch," says Cardinals reliever Mike Matthews), and the sudden wildness of, say, the Braves' Tom Glavine, who through Sunday had issued 5.6 walks per nine innings, nearly twice his career rate, suggests that on occasion they are. Twins manager Tom Kelly believes that the new strike zone has varied from ump to ump almost as much as the old one did. "You'll go a few games without seeing the high strike," says Kelly, "then, all of a sudden, there it is again."
The only consensus: Confusion over the strike zone plants doubts in hitters' minds, and that could explain the drop in scoring. "It's probably affecting the hitters more because they don't know if it [the high strike] will be called," says Boston reliever Rod Beck. Adds one National League advance scout: "Before, hitters just looked down, because anything over a certain line would be called a ball. Now those pitches might be strikes, so hitters have to track them. Once you have to move your eyes, it's tougher to hit."
Sanders's Sweet Start
No Candy Bars For this Reggie
Through Sunday, Diamondbacks rightfielder Reggie Sanders was batting .344, with eight home runs and 19 RBIs. "I'm 33 and in the best shape of my life," says Sanders. "That has made all the difference."
And what a difference. After coming to the Braves in December 1999 from the Padres as part of a six-player deal, Sanders, who was expected to yield speed and power as Atlanta's No. 2 hitter, provided zip. He hit .194 for the first five months of the season and missed 59 games largely due to ankle and hamstring ailments. Even with a strong September, he finished with a .232 average, the lowest of his nine full seasons in the majors.
Determined to turn things around on the field and to shed his reputation for being injury-prone (through 2000 Sanders had been on the DL 14 times), Sanders spent the off-season working out six days a week with a personal trainer. He also studied yoga and continued to practice karate, in which he holds a black belt. He eliminated fatty foods, even giving up his beloved Kit Kat bars. (Well, almost: "I still sneak one from time to time," he admits.)