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The Big Bang
Tim Kurkjian
September 13, 1993
It seems as if every hitter is waving a big stick this season, and batting statistics are going through the roof
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September 13, 1993

The Big Bang

It seems as if every hitter is waving a big stick this season, and batting statistics are going through the roof

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After the San Diego padres scored five runs in the first inning against the St. Louis Cardinals on Aug. 23, Padre rightfielder Tony Gwynn challenged his teammates the next day "to get five more in the first tonight." No sweat. "And five runs became six...seven...nine...10...13," Gwynn says, relishing the memory. Joe Coleman, the Cardinals' veteran pitching coach, had never seen anything like it. "What a mess," he says.

Imagine, a 13-run first inning—there hadn't been a bigger inning in the majors since 1989—by a team with a 48-78 record and a lineup that looked to be right out of Triple A. Surprised? You shouldn't be, not in this year of outrageous offense, this year of The Big Hurt for pitchers. In fact, it wouldn't have been much of a shock if St. Louis had come back to beat San Diego in that game (the Cards lost 17-4).

It has been the summer of 17-4 games, 450-foot home runs and a lot of dingers by little guys with no business hitting the ball out of the park. This year the Philadelphia Phillies could become the first team in either league to score 900 runs since 1953 as well as the first National League team ever to go an entire season without being shut out. What's more, with a month left, one player still had a shot to hit .400, a pitcher had an even better shot at .400, four players were threatening the 50-home-run barrier, and every Ron, Rick and Barry was on pace to hit 30 homers or drive in 100 runs or both.

"Out there on the mound this year," says Texas Ranger reliever Tom Henke, "it's scary."

As a rule, ERAs expand in expansion seasons, but more so than the infamous expansion seasons of 1961 and '77, '93 will be remembered as a great season for hitters. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, at week's end, home runs per game were up 25.4% and runs per game were up 12% compared with last season. Only six other times in this century have both homers and runs per game increased by 10% or more from one season to the next. Says Padre hitting coach Merv Rettenmund, "Every time I look at the scoreboard, someone's reaching 100 RBIs faster than anyone in some club's history."

Heading into the final month, 27 players were on pace to drive in 100 runs. Only in 1930—the greatest offensive season in major league history—were there more 100-RBI men (32). The Rangers, the Detroit Tigers and the Toronto Blue Jays were good bets to have three players with 100 RBIs each. The last season in which three teams from one league did that was '50 (American League). The last year one team had three players drive in 100 runs was '84, when the Boston Red Sox did it.

Twenty-two players were on pace to hit at least 30 home runs (the record is 28, in 1987, the year of the rabbit ball). Eight of those players had a good shot to hit at least 40—which would tie the record set in '61—despite the fact that sluggers Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Darryl Strawberry missed most of the season because of injuries. In the meantime, Juan Gonzalez of Texas, with 41 home runs, and Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants, Ken Griffey Jr. of the Seattle Mariners and Frank (The Big Hurt) Thomas of the Chicago White Sox (page 40), with 40 each, will be gunning for 50. There has never been a season in which three players reached that magic number, and the only seasons in which two players did it were '38, '47 and '61.

But it's not just power hitters who were feasting at the plate. Through Sunday the major leagues' combined batting average was .266, up from .256 in 1992. According to Elias, in only five other seasons has the average jumped 10 points from one year to the next. If the 13 players who were hitting at least .320 maintain their averages, they will constitute the biggest group of .320-or-better batters since 17 hit that high in '39. Even pitchers were getting into the act. The Los Angeles Dodgers' Orel Hershiser was hitting .391, the Colorado Rockies' Armando Reynoso had belted two homers, and the Cincinnati Reds' John Smiley had a 4-for-4 game.

"It's like the 1940s again," says New York Met assistant general manager Ed Lynch. But instead of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, the premier hitters were Bonds and the Blue Jays' John Olerud. With a month to play, Bonds was leading the National League in home runs and RBIs (102), and he was second in hitting (.341). No active player has hit .325 with 35 homers and 120 RBIs in a season—the New York Yankees' Don Mattingly is the only active player who has reached those numbers in his best seasons combined—yet Bonds, Gonzalez, Griffey and Thomas all might scale those heights. As for the .300-30-100 plateau, eight players had shots. That would be the most in history and one more than in the last five years combined.

Until last week Olerud had a chance to hit the .400-30-100 trifecta. A lifetime .269 hitter entering this season, Olerud was hitting .391 as late as Aug. 27. But he went 7 for 33 in the next 10 games, and his average dropped to .379 on Sunday. In explaining his breakthrough, which had him bidding to become the first .400 batter since Williams hit .406 in 1941, Olerud says he's more aggressive at the plate (he was hitting .561 when he put the ball in play on the first pitch), handles the inside pitch better and knows the pitchers better. "Outside of that," says Olerud, "the only thing that's different is that I'm married." What makes Olerud's season even more remarkable is his power—he had a .635 slugging percentage and was on pace for 85 extra-base hits.

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