For all the brilliance of Drysdale's performance, his dominance and that of numerous other pitchers have baseball people seriously worried, as well they should be. Of the 545 games played so far this year, 264 of them have resulted in five-hitters or less, and that is not much action. There is not a baseball man worth his weight in clich�s who does not try to explain this trend away by saying, "These things tend to run in cycles." The hitting cycle, however, seems to have been out to lunch for too many years and an endless string of shutouts and low-hit games can get to be terribly boring. It is, in fact, terribly boring right now.
Everyone has read all the reasons or demurrers: 1) the hitters will hit when the weather gets warmer; 2) the big new ball parks are made for the pitchers; 3) the equipment is better today and what used to be hits are now stuffed into gloves about the size of one calf's hide; 4) the grass is too deep in every park save at the Astrodome, where very few people not named Rusty Staub or Jim Wynn seem to hit at all; 5) parents are intimidating their Little League children; and 6) pitchers are intimidating the batters with beanballs.
The truth is that virtually every organization in baseball has concentrated on pitching and defense more than any other aspect of the game. Today a team with excellent pitching almost seems able to be in every game without ever coming to bat. There is no stronger example of that than this year's Cleveland Indians, a second-place club with a team batting average of .246. The Indians, with Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant, Sonny Siebert, Steve Hargan, Stan Williams and some guys named Jose, are proving again what the Los Angeles Dodgers proved for years—the game is now almost all defense. And, unless baseball takes some legislative action, this trend is almost certain to continue.
Rod Dedeau, for 22 years the head baseball coach at the University of Southern California and a man who has seen nearly 100 of his players make it to the majors, has examined the situation carefully. "Pitching today," he says, "is the easiest thing of all to coach. Although there are more kids playing baseball than ever before, the ones you see with greatness written on them are pitchers. In the Los Angeles metropolitan area, for instance, I don't think in the last several years you could name over three or four hitters in all the 600-odd high schools around here, but you could probably name two dozen pitchers. The big new ball parks in the majors are also a factor. When a player hits a ball a long way for big outs the psychological effect is devastating. On the other hand, it bolsters the pitcher."
In today's age of specialization the hitter is at a disadvantage because relief pitchers pour in and out of games so that he never really gets a chance to look at one pitcher long enough to get his timing down. George Sisler, the very astute president of the International League, says, "I believe the lack of hitting in the majors is the result of a combination of factors. One, athletes grow up in highly organized Little Leagues where they don't get to play enough. They play only in organized games and in practices. They don't get to bat often enough. They don't bat enough on their own to develop properly. Two, the way baseball is set up today, with the increased bonuses and all, the emphasis is on getting to the major leagues too quickly. The result is a lack of time to develop talent in the minor leagues. Any time a player shows anything in the minors, he's brought up immediately. No time to develop his batting. A player is constantly in leagues over his head as far as hitting is concerned."
Dick Groat, who retired last year after a fine career as a hitter, sees the subject in a different light. "When I came up," Groat says, "you looked at two good pitchers and two so-so's you could pick your batting average up on. You can't do this today. Look at the New York Mets. They may be down in the standings but they have four good young arms that make it tough on everybody."
Currently baseball is looking into several ideas that are being proposed to return hitting to the game. One is pushing the mound back, another is lowering the height of the mound. ( Jim Fregosi of the California Angels has suggested that pitchers be made to pitch up out of holes in the ground.) Some people advocate the use of the wild-card pinch hitter who can be used two or three times during the game, but there are not many pinch hitters these days who seem to bat over .200.
With all the talk of a hitting famine this season, an umpire's sudden passion for search and destroy missions comes as a fascinating diversion. But even if a little frisking can be fun, it is no substitute for base hits and the fielding plays that go with them. Mr. Augie Donatelli—or somebody—is going to have to find another way to liven things up. Maybe Fregosi has a point.