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WAS IT CORK OR COINCIDENCE?
For all that was said and written about the surge in home runs last season, it's amazing how much pertinent information was either missed or misrepresented. We would like to present our theory on the increase. First, the numbers: Compared with 1986, dingers rose 14.4% in the American League and 18.8% in the National. Only once before 1987 did more than one team hit at least 200 home runs in a season. In '62 the Tigers had 209, the Giants 204. Last year five clubs hit more than 200: the Tigers (225), Blue Jays (215), Orioles (211), Cubs (209) and Giants (205). For some of these teams the increase was tremendous. San Francisco had only 114 homers in 1986; last year's leap to 205 represents the fourth-largest single-season increase in history (see table, below).
Many fans and baseball insiders believe that a juiced-up baseball was the source of all those extra home runs. But no one ever came up with any convincing evidence. Let's examine two other possible reasons for the barrage.
One theory holds that it was the result of a deterioration in pitching skill. Throughout the summer we kept hearing with increasing regularity this lament: "They just don't make pitchers like they used to." Well, if new, less-talented pitchers were giving up the lion's share of the homers, then you would expect that the home run rate against established pitchers would have stayed pretty much the same. We checked. We divided the pitchers in each league into two groups—those who worked at least 162 innings in both 1986 and '87, and everyone else. In the American League our 17 established pitchers allowed 13.6% more homers than they did in 1986, while the other group had a 14.7% increase. That's hardly enough of a difference to support the contention that the new guys couldn't pitch. In the National League, the 12 pitchers in Group 1 yielded 32% more homers than they did in '86, compared with a 16.5% increase for the other pitchers! So much for the notion that poor pitching was responsible for the additional home runs.
Another possible culprit was the bat. For those who relish home run hitting, Aug. 6, 1987, was a dark day (see chart, above). On that date umpire John Kibler impounded the bat of Mets third baseman Howard Johnson on the suspicion that it was cork-filled. For the week beginning Aug. 3, the home run rate was 3.44 per 100 at bats. Four weeks later, it had plummeted to 2.45, which was even lower than the 1986 rate.
Some fluctuations in home run production are expected over the course of a season, but the degree of change that occurred after the confiscation of HoJo's bat—and the subsequent confiscation, or threat thereof, of other players' bats—would occur by chance only once in 3,309 trials. To us, that's conclusive evidence. The verdict: There were tampered bats out there, although we're obliged to mention that Johnson's bat, at least the one checked by the National League, was found to be clean. We don't doubt that the ball may have been livelier last year. But we're certain that the increase in homers was in large measure the result of the juiced-up bat as well.
PITCHERS WHO ARE AHEAD OF HITTERS, AND VICE VERSA
During his first two seasons in the American League, the Indians' Cory Snyder faced Roger Clemens of the Red Sox nine times and struck out every time. Only one other batter, Gary Matthews, has struck out in as many consecutive at bats against a particular pitcher, in that case J.R. Richard, in the 13 years we've been keeping track of such data (see table, top right). After Snyder, Phillies pitcher Bruce Ruffin has the longest continuing streak, with eight straight K's against the Mets' Dwight Gooden (three of the batters in the table are pitchers), but no streak among active major leaguers is alive at seven. Three are currently at six: the Tigers' Gary Pettis vs. the Twins' Bert Blyleven, the Giants' Robby Thompson vs. the Astros' Nolan Ryan and the Mariners' Glenn Wilson vs. the Orioles' Tom Niedenfuer.
Pity Ken Phelps of the Mariners. He hasn't struck out every time he has faced the Tigers' Jack Morris—only half the time—but he has gone 0 for 26 against Morris since 1983. The middle table at right shows the longest current streaks of hitless at bats by batters against particular pitchers in regular-season games. An asterisk marks cases in which the streak encompasses the entire career of each member of the pair.
Of course, even the most one-sided mastery does not guarantee perpetual success. Remember, those are regular-season numbers. Phelps should take note that the 20 consecutive outs that Minnesota's Tom Brunansky made against Doyle Alexander didn't hamper the hitter at all in last year's playoffs. Brunansky broke loose against Detroit's Alexander with a vengeance, slamming a run-scoring double in Game 1 and a two-run double in Game 5. If Seattle ever meets Detroit in the championship series, maybe Morris should pitch around Phelps.