In the final tranquil hour before the game commences, as groundskeepers tend to their landscaping and happy music fills the ballpark, an offensive force has gathered in the bowels of the stadium. This is the time when the business of the major league hitter most resembles the Nixonian view of Communism: It "isn't sleeping. It is, as always, plotting, scheming, working, fighting." Never before, though, has the hitter's weaponry and intelligence been so vast.
In that last hour before all hell and 9.6 runs per game break loose, Seattle Mariners designated hitter Edgar Martinez bunts tennis balls blasted from a machine at 150 mph and then completes his twice-daily eye exercises. Texas Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez completes his fifth batting practice session. New York Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi pumps iron with his personal trainer, an exercise he will repeat after the game. Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter uses his team's $350,000 video system to catalog, analyze and, if he desires, burn a CD of every first pitch ever thrown to him by the game's starting pitcher (or every second pitch, or every curve-ball, or whatever subset he chooses). Cleveland Indians first baseman Jim Thome bats against a $150,000 pitching machine that duplicates the speed, spin and break of the curveball of the opponent's starting pitcher, firing the cloned pitches so they appear to come from the hand of a computer-generated pitcher on a video screen. Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton hits off a $9,000 computerized pitching machine that throws pinpoint fastballs, curves and changeups at random.
Make no mistake, comrades, this force is battle ready. Hitters, many powered by nutritional supplements such as creatine or andro—or, as many in the game suspect, steroids and human growth hormone—take precisely honed swings that generate lift (strikeouts be damned), using thin-handled, big-barreled bats made from rock-hard materials that used to be more commonly associated with kitchen remodeling than hitting: maple and triple-dipped lacquer (page 86). Poor pitchers. They're getting more than just an ash-kicking now.
"Almost all the recent developments in the game have favored the hitters," says former American League batting champion Don Mattingly, now a part-time Yankees coach. "I think the great hitters would be great in any era. What's happening now is, all hitters have access to more things to make them better."
The evolution of hitting and the modern emphasis on power have created the greatest extended run of slugging the game has known, an era that not coincidentally dates to 1993, the year baseball expanded from 26 teams to 28, before adding two more teams five years later. The American League slugging percentage has been better than .400 for nine straight years, and the National League has cracked that plateau eight years running, both record streaks.
Indeed, it seems as if every Tom, Dick and Bubba belts 25 dingers these days. San Diego Padres outfielder Bubba Trammell did so last year. "Let's face it," says Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Carlos Delgado, "balls are better, bats are better, guys are bigger and stronger, and there's more technology. It's not hard for guys to figure out: If you hit 30 home runs, you can make $5 million even if you strike out 200 times." ( Delgado, who blasted 39 homers and struck out 136 times last year, will earn $17.2 million in 2002.)
Standing out in the crowd of modern sluggers isn't easy. Take shortstop Rich Aurilia, which the San Francisco Giants did to no fanfare in a trade with Texas after the 1994 season. Aurilia hit .324 last year with 37 home runs—stats that would have won him a batting title or a home run title in nine of the 12 full seasons before 1993. Last season, however, he didn't even crack the Top 10 in either category.
Still, 10 hitters—Giambi (then with the Oakland A's), Helton, Rodriguez, Giants left-fielder Barry Bonds, Mariners second baseman Bret Boone, Indians rightfielder Juan Gonzalez (now with Texas), Arizona Diamondbacks leftfielder Luis Gonzalez (page 72), Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones (who'll play leftfield in 2002), Chicago Cubs rightfielder Sammy Sosa and Rockies rightfielder Larry Walker—did make both Top 10 lists in their respective leagues, a time-tested measure of premier hitters. "When you do that," says Delgado, who finished fourth in hitting (.344) and tied for fourth in homers (41) in 2000, "you're talking superstar, the best of the best."
You're also talking about the Blended Hitter, who often combines the clout of Thome and the bat wizardry of Mariners rightfielder Ichiro Suzuki. Thome, once a minor league batting champion with moderate power, has evolved into a massive, big-swinging slugger. He takes a huge stride into pitches and swings on an upward plane toward the ball, which makes him prone to strike out and hit fly balls. Thome whiffed 185 times last year (just four short of the major league record) and hit more flies (128) than ground balls (124). He also walloped a career-high 49 homers while batting .291. Suzuki, the 2001 American League batting champion with a .350 average, was the toughest player in the league to strike out (53 times in 738 plate appearances). He hit 379 grounders and 144 flies—and eight home runs. He slashes at the ball with very quick hands as his body drifts forward; his dash to first base seemingly begins even before he makes contact.
Not since 1966, when a record-tying 11 players made both Top 10 lists, did so many hitters turn the trick as last year's crop. Five of those '66 hitters became Hall of Famers, including Al Kaline, who hit just .288 (third in the league) with only 29 homers (seventh). With six more National League teams and four more American League teams than in 1966, today's hitters face much fiercer competition for the Top 10 spots.