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New zone could impact hitters

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By now, we have all seen the obligatory TV shots of bats, uniforms and equipment bags being loaded onto vans driving south, and soon there will be the long-tossing and pitchers covering first and either palm trees or saguaro cactus. Thankfully, spring training comes this week, that warm distraction from arbitration hearings, arrests in the NBA and six feet of snow.

Of all the spring story lines, the most significant probably will be the new strike zone. Oh sure, oh sure, we all remember the last two times the strike zone was going to be expanded to the rule book definition, and how the experiment never got north of the Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show. But those came in the days when the league offices directed the umpires with separate rules and ineffectual power. This time around, the wharf rat union mentality has given way to cooperation and the power is centralized in the hands of Sandy Alderson, who is not giving in on the issue.

"They say they want to call the strike three ball-widths above the belt," says one pitching coach. "That would be a radical change. But if they even bring it to one ball-width above the belt, or just move the top of the strike zone from where it's been -- right at the cup -- to the belt it's going to impact the game. It's going to be difficult for dead lowball hitters, or hitters who lock their eyes and line of vision on one plane; changing planes may be very difficult for certain hitters. It could hurt hitters who have a lot of movement in their swings, like Johnny Damon or Troy O'Leary.

"As for pitchers, it not only will help those who can ride the high fastball -- like Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Scott Elarton -- but it could really benefit those pitchers who can move the ball around the quadrants of the strike zone and who can now really alter hitters' sightlines. Greg Maddux and Rick Reed could be helped, and it's almost ridiculous to think what Pedro Martinez could do with the high strike. How about an 0.90 ERA?"

Another pitching coach suggested a look at the best and worst hitters against the top groundball and flyball pitchers. "That might give us some idea of who could be impacted," says the coach. "Those hitters who really struggle against the highball pitchers could have some problems." Especially when the top 10 lists of most extreme flyball ratios in each league include some very good pitchers.

With the help of ESPN baseball researcher/savant Jeff Bennett and the Elias Sports Bureau's Rob Tracy, that's precisely what we've done. The following tables list the pitchers with the highest groundball ratios and the highest flyball ratios (among starting pitchers) in each league, and then list the best and worst hitters against those pitchers.

AL extreme groundball/flyball pitchers
AL top groundball P's Ratio AL top flyball P's Ratio
Schoeneweis, Ana. 2.17 Helling, Tex. .52
Hudson, Oak. 2.08 Hernandez, N.Y. .66
Lopez, Tam. 1.68 Milton, Min. .66
Pettitte, N.Y. 1.61 Abbott, Sea. .78
Finley, Cle. 1.53 Appier, Oak. .81
Heredia, Oak. 1.49 Nomo, Det. .81
Rogers, Tex. 1.48 Clemens, N.Y. 1.00
Moehler, Det. 1.43 Ponson, Bal. 1.00
Sirotka, Chi. 1.42 Escobar, Tor. 1.00
Mussina, Bal. 1.41 Loaiza, Tor. 1.02

AL best vs. extreme groundball/flyball pitchers
Best vs. top 10 GB Avg./OPS Best vs. top 10 FB Avg./OPS
Sweeney, K.C. .447/1.155 Anderson, Ana. .406/1.181
Chavez, Oak. .439/1.402 Erstad, Ana. .394/1.026
Posada, N.Y. .439/1.196 Delgado, Tor. .392/1.190
Dye, K.C. .429/1.046 Stewart, Tor. .389/1.156
Valentin, Chi. .426/1.066 R. Alomar, Cle .388/1.139
Fryman, Cle. .420/1.251 Williams, N.Y. .383/1.087
Garciaparra, Bos. .406/.933 Fullmer, Tor. .375/1.079
Thomas, Chi. .400/1.376 Martinez, Sea. .365/1.238
Anderson, Bal. .396/1.071 Quinn, K.C. .356/1.219
O'Neill, N.Y. .388/.910 Rodriguez, Sea. .352/1.157
Quinn, K.C. .382/1.188 Ja. Giambi, Oak. .352/1.052
Jeter, N.Y. .381/.959 Jones, Min. .340/.979

AL worst vs. extreme groundball/flyball pitchers
Worst vs. top 10 GB Avg. Worst vs. top 10 FB Avg.
Guzman, Min. .063 Chavez, Oak. .147
O'Leary, Bos. .102 Bell, Sea. .149
Stairs, Oak. .111 Olerud, Sea. .172
Singleton, Chi. .111 Durham, Chi. .172
Vaughn, Ana. .143 Cruz, Tor. .175
Batista, Tor. .153 Molina, Ana. .176
Coomer, Min. .161 Grieve, Oak. .179
Justice, N.Y. .171 O'Leary, Bos. .179
Vizquel, Cle. .173 Lofton, Cle. .180
Higginson, Det. .192 Daubach, Bos. .184
Cruz, Tor. .194 Randa, K.C. .186
Bell, Sea. .196 Clayton, Tex. .189

NL extreme groundball/flyball pitchers
NL top groundball P's Ratio NL top flyball P's Ratio
Maddux, Atl. 2.13 Person, Phi. .61
Hampton, N.Y. 2.12 Millwood, Atl. .67
Brown, L.A. 1.92 Elarton, Hou. .77
Wright, Mil. 1.85 Wolf, Phi. .83
Estes, S.F. 1.83 Stephenson, Stl. .84
Dreifort, L.A. 1.80 Sanchez, Fla. .85
Holt, Hou. 1.72 An. Benes, Stl. .87
Clement, S.D. 1.72 Rusch, N.Y. .88
Lieber, Chi. 1.57 Williams, S.D. .89
Astacio, Col. 1.56 Lima, Hou. .92

NL best vs. extreme groundball/flyball pitchers
Best vs. top 10 GB Avg./OPS Best vs. top 10 FB Avg./OPS
Lopez, Atl. .500/1.383 Jenkins, Mil. .457/1.088
Giles, Pit. .449/1.636 Helton, Col. .439/1.230
Young, Chi. .410/1.026 Grace, Chi. .429/1.196
Galarraga, Atl. .400/1.262 Casey, Cin. .429/1.313
Griffey, Cin. .394/1.139 Alou, Hou. .423/1.660
Hidalgo, Hou. .385/1.294 V. Guerrero, Mon. .410/1.160
Casey, Cin. .370/.998 Bagwell, Hou. .405/1.369
Rolen, Phi. .370/1.051 Beltre, L.A. .405/1.220
Gonzalez, Ari. .369/.961 Grudzielanek, L.A. .382/.923
Bell, N.Y. .360/.939 Wilson, Fla. ..377/1.239
Jackson, S.D. .357/.852 Kendall, Pit. .374/1.020
Bagwell, Hou. .356/1.141 Bonds, S.F. .359/1.371

NL worst vs. extreme groundball/flyball pitchers
Worst vs. top 10 GB Avg. Worst vs. top 10 FB Avg.
Lee, Fla. .118 Reese, Cin. .121
Belliard, Mil. .143 Zeile, N.Y. .152
Goodwin, L.A. .151 Lowell, Fla. .167
Meares, Pit. .154 Morris, Pit. .184
Buford, Chi. .158 Alfonzo, N.Y. .191
Zeile, N.Y. .174 Karros, L.A. .191
Piazza. N.Y. .182 Bell, N.Y. .208
Snow, S.F. .195 C. Jones, Atl. .220
Morris, Pit. .200 Bell, Ari. .220
Mueller, S.F. .204 Womack, Ari. .224
Ventura, N.Y. .204 Furcal, Atl. .226
Bell, Sea. .196 Clayton, Tex. .189

One wonders about the adjustment Oakland's potential superstar Eric Chavez will have to make. Check the numbers. He batted .439 with an OPS of 1.402 against the best sinkerballs, but had the worst average in the American League against the flyball pitchers. One wonders about Derek Bell, who appeared in the leaders vs. groundball pitchers and trailers among the flyballers. There are questions about lowball hitters like John Olerud, Ben Grieve, Brian Daubach, Joe Randa, Todd Zeile, Eric Karros, Pokey Reese, Mike Lowell. Or whether killer lowball hitters like Andres Galarraga, Jermaine Dye, Travis Fryman, Paul O'Neill and Luis Gonzalez might have some of their numbers muted. Or hitters that depend on putting the ball on the ground, like Rafael Furcal, Eric Young, Kenny Lofton and Tony Womack.

Then there are players who were on the bottom list against both the groundballers and flyballers -- O'Leary, David Bell, Junior Cruz. "They might be examples of hitters who have grooved swings or get locked in to one area," says one pitching coach. "They might be affected by having to move their sightlines up and down. The strike zone has been so small, down and out over the plate, that there have been a lot of hitters who have been able to sit and look in one area. If that gets changed, we're going to see a lot of hitters flushed out."

The Red Sox believe that if Hideo Nomo can get high strikes called, he could be much tougher this year. "He's always been a high, straight fastball/forkball pitcher, but he doesn't get the high strikes too often," says one AL scout. Nomo, in fact, threw only 54 percent first-pitch strikes last season, a poor percentage. "If he gets those strikes and hitters have to change their sight plane," says the scout, "Nomo will be helped, immensely." The same goes for Kevin Appier, Rick Helling, El Duque Hernandez and Woody Williams.

As you peruse the lists, you can see that it doesn't matter what strike zone Jeff Bagwell and Sean Casey are hitting in. They hit the best. Ditto Kansas City's Mark Quinn. Notice that Nomar Garciaparra, who is a good highball hitter, still maintained a .406 average against the best groundball pitchers, although his damage (his OPS is down 100 points) is slightly lessened. Garciaparra, Erstad, Edgar Martinez and Todd Helton just might be helped by the bigger strike zone.

An eye on spring
With all that digested, here are the rest of the top story lines of spring training.

2. Sammy Sosa. Will the Cubs sign him long-term or are they phasing him out as they try to move from being lovable to being good? Will that be a distraction? Will they trade him, and when? Kerry Wood and Corey Patterson may be the core storylines, but Sammy is Sammy.

3. Mark McGwire and Rick Ankiel. McGwire's knee and Ankiel's control will be closely monitored, although the Cardinals wish everyone would go away and come back to see them on Opening Day.

4. David Cone. As if there aren't enough Red Sox-Yankee themes this year -- Clemens, Carl Everett, Mike Mussina -- the attempted redemption of a career in Boston in a year when the Sox play three series in The Stadium could be a recurring theme in a season series straight from the creative mind of David O. Kelley.

5. Bryce Florie's courageous comeback. Come to think of it, this whole Red Sox team may be out of Ally McBeal; we all know that the last 25 years of ownership have been out of The Practice.

6. Chuck Knoblauch. He recently refused to work out in Tampa with a New York Times reporter watching. This is a pivotal year in his career and we'll see whether or not Alfonso Soriano or D'Angelo Jimenez has to step in and play second base.

7. The Texas pitching staff. OK, A-Rod, I-Rod, Rafael Palmeiro, Andres Galarraga and Ken Caminiti will take the Metroplex mind off the embarrassment of the NBA ownership's Penthouse Pet, but who in the world will pitch after Rick Helling and Kenny Rogers? Darren Oliver, Doug Davis ... Tim Crabtree closing? There will be a lot more trade rumors than restaurants in Port Charlotte, beginning with a Ugueth Urbina watch.

8. Cal Ripken's 20th year with the Orioles. And Junior Griffey's second in Cincinnati.

9. The David Wells-Mike Sirotka saga. Reports in Toronto indicate Mike Williams, the A-ball pitcher the Jays got in the deal, has arm problems as well. Ugh.

10. The best trade rumors out of Port St. Lucie concerning the Mets. They came at about 6.3 per 24-hour cycle last year. With needs for a top starter and a left-handed-hitting outfielder, that could be increased this spring. Then there'll be the Sammy Watch.

On the mend
Among the most important storylines each spring are the injuries, the players emerging into breakout seasons and the newcomers. (For the latter two, click over to lists). After McGwire, here are the most significant rehabs and comebacks to watch:

  • John Smoltz, Atlanta. The former Cy Young winner has felt great since late last summer. The Braves may have lost out on Mike Hampton, but what would they have done with five of those pitchers? Yes, Kevin Millwood is one pitcher who should benefit from a higher strike zone. There are actually several medical stories to watch at the Braves' Disney complex -- Rico Brogna, Brian Jordan, Odalis Perez (who could be a huge addition.

  • Craig Biggio and Billy Wagner, Houston. If Biggio is back at the top of the order -- and reports indicate he's in better shape than he's been in a couple of years -- and Wagner can close ahead of setup man Doug Brocail, the 'Stros will be back. The third rehab to watch is Shane Reynolds coming off minor knee surgery, and whether or not he can return by the end of April.

  • Larry Walker, Colorado. After playing in only 87 games last season, Walker has worked feverishly all winter and the Rockies believe he will return, with vengeance, to his place as one of the game's elite players.

  • Albert Belle, Baltimore. Despite working for three to five hours a day this offseason, he and the O's are worried that his degenerative hip condition is career-threatening.

  • Pudge Rodriguez, Texas. Until he plays, there's always a concern. There's also the recovery of budding star Ruben Mateo, who if he is healthy and breaks out would add another top gun to an explosive Rangers team.

  • John Valentin, Boston. The club did not think he could make it back from his May knee surgery and went and acquired Chris Stynes and tried to sign Ken Caminiti. But Valentin has been working out five days a week in Fort Myers -- then flying home to his family on the weekends -- and believes he can make it back. OK, Valentin hasn't knocked in 80 runs since 1995, but he is a good complimentary player and an outstanding defender on a club that has its defensive leaks. Naturally, the Red Sox have their annual collection of rehab specials -- Bret Saberhagen, Juan Pena, Pete Schourek and many more -- but that assures pitching coaches Joe Kerrigan and John Cumberland of 19-hour days.

  • Matt Williams, Arizona. His problems, similar to Rico Brogna's back condition, will not go away, and the star third baseman is 35 years old. Of course, that's young by D-Backs standards. They have to be concerned about Todd Stottlemyre holding up, but they also don't have to worry much about Curt Schilling. A few more months past surgery and he could be a 20-game winner.

  • Robin Ventura, Mets. He was breaking down in every joint of his body last year, but look for a big comeback.

  • Mark Wohlers, Cincinnati. He feels better than he has in five years, his arm is back, so is his confidence, and might be to Danny Graves what Mariano Rivera was to John Wetteland in 1996.

  • Juan Gonzalez, Cleveland. The question is his back. The physical he took before signing his Indians contract indicated that surgery is inevitable, but the timetable is uncertain. Even his critics among Detroit players believe that if he is healthy, with Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel and Robby Alomar in front, he could knock in 140-150 runs. The Indians have several other pitching injuries to watch, from Chuck Finley's knee scope to Jaret Wright's rehab from shoulder surgery to reliever Sean DePaula's recovery (he has lost 20 pounds and club officials believe he will be a major factor in the seventh and eighth innings) to what's left in Charles Nagy's arm.

  • Gary DiSarcina, Anaheim. He's been through this period when everything feels normal, but no one knows if his shoulder will hold. The Angels hope so, because while Darin Erstad has ascended to the unquestioned leader of the clubhouse, DiSarcina is not only a solid shortstop, but a driving force of the team's personality.

  • Jason Schmidt, Francisco Cordova, Pittsburgh. If they are as healthy as the Pirates think, then with Kris Benson, Jimmy Anderson and Todd Ritchie, the Bucs could have one of the league's best rotations. Since Schmidt and Cordova are prospective free agents, they could have two big July trade chips if they are in the second division.

  • Wilson Alvarez, Juan Guzman, Tampa Bay. Between them, they got four outs in 2000. Not only could they help the Rays pass the Orioles in the AL East, but Guzman, Gerald Williams, Fred McGriff and Greg Vaughn could be used for future building blocks at the trade deadline.

  • Jose Rosado, Kansas City. If there isn't a change in the system, the Royals' window will be open for about two years with all their talent, so if they're going to pass .500 and contend for the wild card, Rosado must be healthy and back to his All-Star form.

  • Tony Gwynn, San Diego. No one wants to see him limp to Cooperstown.

    News and notes

  • No matter how the Sirotka deal is altered -- the Jays don't want David Wells back, but they sure wish they'd taken Glendon Rusch and Rick White -- there are no allegations of Ken Williams dealing damaged goods. Before the deal was consummated, Williams gave Gord Ash every possible medical report, and at the time White Sox trainer Herm Schneider believed Sirotka would be fine by the start of the season. And Williams originally refused to include Sirotka in the deal, so he couldn't have had any indication that the left-hander had a torn labrum and would be out for the season.

  • Pat Gillick says he doesn't think Gil Meche's shoulder operation will keep him out for the season. "We think he'll be back in July," says Gillick. However, the M's now will not entertain any more deals for Jose Paniagua or Brett Tomko. The Yankees had talked about them in a trade for Alfonso Soriano, and the Expos had discussed Orlando Cabrera.

  • The bizarre firing of longtime Speakers of Sports agents Jim Bronner and Bob Gilhouley was a bizarre twist to the SFX buyout of three of baseball's largest agencies. Bronner reportedly was trying to get out of the deal for two reasons: 1) the conflict of having the company owned by ClearChannel Communications, which is owned by Rangers owner Tom Hicks; and 2) control issues vis-à-vis SFX boss Randy Hendricks. SFX is retaining Bronner and Gilhouley's most important aides -- Fernando Cusa and Pat Rooney -- although it will be interesting to see how many players move to other agents despite the promotions of the highly respected Cusa and Rooney. But Bronner has a legitimate beef about the conflict with Hicks. The Players Association wouldn't deal with either the Hicks/SFX conflict or the flagrant conflict of IMG and the Yankees hooking up on a marketing agreement.

  • Hicks told Metroplex papers that his deal with Alex Rodriguez is a better deal than the 10-year, $189 million deal signed by Derek Jeter. When George Steinbrenner read that, he tried to back off the deal that his lieutenants worked so hard to get. "Hicks is full of it, but he got George riled," says a baseball official. "Hicks said his deal was seven years. It's 10 if A-Rod wants it to be 10. And the present-day value isn't what Hicks claimed -- it's $23 million a year, $230 million total."

  • Tuesday is Closer Day in the wacky world of arbitration -- Antonio Alfonseca (midpoint, $2.75M), Keith Foulke (midpoint, $2.65M), Danny Graves (midpoint, $2.59M), John Rocker (midpoint, $2.44M). ... Disregard anything when someone tries to argue range factor. ... Among the pitchers asking to throw for teams in attempted comebacks: Sid Fernandez (hey, if an '86 Met like Jesse Orosco can get $1.3M guaranteed by the Dodgers at 44, why not El Sid) and Butch Henry. ... Steve Karsay is going to be stretched out working as a potential starter for the Indians, and in mid-March Charlie Manuel will decide whether or not to put him in the bullpen. Karsay would like to start, and believes 110 pitches will be less strain than all the ups and downs of the bullpen role. Whether or not Manuel can spare him out of the pen is a serious issue. ... Yes, Darren Bragg has his customary number 56 with the the Mets. Why 56? "L.T., dude," says Bragg. Lawrence Taylor was his idol, and Taft School legend claims that Bragg once tackled an opposing running back so hard he knocked him out. The running back? Mo Vaughn. ... The Brewers believe they're going to draw three million to Miller Park, which would be a great thing. ... Not that Florida's Alex Gonzalez needs to bounce back or anything, but his OPS last year (.542) was 31 points lower than Mike Hampton's career OPS (.573). ... In case you've forgotten how well Mike Mussina pitched for a wretched team last season, here are numbers to take to spring training: he was second in the AL in batting average against, second in baserunners per nine innings, fourth in strikeout/walk ratio, sixth in strikeouts per nine innings and tied with Pedro Martinez in tough losses (6). In case you're wondering, Omar Daal led the majors in tough losses with seven.

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    The list: 10 rookies to watch

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