New strike zone a wait-and-see
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
Six weeks into the season, we will have some conclusive evidence of the impact of the Commissioner's Office's strize zone reformation. We will then have enough data on the time of games, pitches per at-bat and all offensive and defensive numbers, and we will then know how resolute the umpires were in sticking to the concept of one strike zone all the time.
However, in the first week, the consensus has been that, indeed, the strike zone is being called the way Sandy Alderson wants it called. The top of the zone clearly is higher than the bottom of the belt, as it has been called in the past, and several hitters who like to stand right up on the plate and plant their front elbow over the corner found themselves jack-knifing away from pitches only to have that inside corner called a strike.
Hideo Nomo, Mike Mussina and several pitchers clearly utilized the higher strike zone in their first starts. But the immediate effect often seemed to be a change in hitting philosophy -- instead of standing and waiting to hit in 2-1 and 3-1 counts, batters seemed to be reconciled to more aggressively going after the first good high fastball or hanging breaking ball they see.
"For years, I've watched hitters take that high hanging breaking ball," says one veteran advance scout. "Now, they seem to be hacking, because that might be the single best pitch to hit. And you can see some hitters go after that fastball up and out over the plate they might have taken knowing it would get them deep into counts."
If this is so, then some of what the Commissioner's Office hoped to achieve will have worked. Bud Selig wants a quicker pace, and swinging the bat accomplishes that. By calling the inside strike, it is hoped that hitters will back off the plate, which in turn will decrease hit batsmen and mound charging incidents.
And Rangers GM Doug Melvin thinks that with the ball put in play more consistently, it refocuses teams on defense.
"I think the impact won't be as significant in terms of strike outs, says Melvin. "Rather, it will cause more balls to be put in play, which in turn makes defense a much more important priority. Those teams that have poor defenses, especially in the infield, will pay for it. We said all spring that while we didn't go get name pitchers, we improved our pitching significantly because our defense is so much better at almost every position in the infield.
"Now that I see what's going on, I think the importance of that improved defense is greater than I thought before spring training began."
News and notesJohn Hart's work in Cleveland is done, his baseball career is not, whether it leads him to Baltimore. L.A. or Atlanta. Hart took a dormant franchise and built it into a consistent power that filled The Jake every night. Perhaps even more significant is that the Indians in the '90s changed the game in that Hart constantly had a group of smart, ambitious young executives developing in the office, from Dan O'Dowd and Josh Byrnes, who went to Colorado, to Paul DePodesta, who went to Oakland, to Hart's successor, Mark Shapiro, whose understanding of interpersonal relationships, intelligence, decency and vision make him one of the industry's shining stars.
Hart presently would like to take a couple of years with the slower job description he's laid out with owner Larry Dolan, but every time someone is looking for the proven leader, Hart's name will surface. If his close friend John Schuerholz moves up in the Turner world, Hart is a possibility, or with the Dodgers if that falls apart, or Baltimore when Peter Angelos realizes that it's better to hire someone and let him run the team than take the personal abuse Angelos has taken.
You are not alone if you cannot figure why the Dodgers would release Ramon Martinez, then have to start Luke Prokopec. "Most teams are trying to store as much pitching inventory as possible," says one GM, who knows that several people in the L.A. organization felt they would be better served by starting Ramon in the fifth spot and giving Eric Gagne more time to develop.
Whatever, Martinez is a free agent, and the Yankees, Reds, Pirates and Rangers are interested. After Christian Parker's poor debut, the Yankees interest may increase, but Ramon isn't enamored with playing in New York and would prefer the National League.
Just how great the new schedule has turned out to be was defined not just by the tense, heated Braves-Mets series, but the first inning of the White Sox-Indians series. In the bottom of the first inning of the first game of the season, when Kenny Lofton got on first, Indians manager Charlie Manuel bunted him over. When Lofton advanced to third with one out on a wild pitch, White Sox manager Jerry Manuel brought the infield in. This all happened in the first inning on Opening Day.
Red Sox GM Dan Duquette continues to try to find a shortstop, but the Rangers have asked for Sun Woo Kim in exchange for Kelly Dransfeldt while the Indians have asked for Trot Nixon for John McDonald (if Duquette could work a three-way deal so the Indians get a young Milton Bradley kind of center fielder, that could work) and the Expos want an everyday left fielder for Geoff Blum.
"We'll continue to look," says Duquette, wh may turn his eyes to Mark DeRosa, the Braves fine young shortstop who is playing at Triple-A Richmond.
Incidentally, there still remains an air of eery chill around the Red Sox, but after watching the Expos superb Opening Day pregame show and the outpouring of emotion for manager Felipe Alou, there is no way he is leaving Montreal.
Not only do the Giants have an exceptional starting rotation -- not to mention what one scout says "the best 8th and 9th inning combination in the league in Felix Rodriguez and Robb Nen" -- but they also have alternatives in Triple-A if they run into injuries. Kurt Ainsworth was the scouts' consensus as the best young pitcher in Arizona in spring training while they believe Joe Nathan's velocity eventually will come back and that they have depth in the system in righties Ryan Vogelsong and Jamie Arnold.
Oops. Jose Nunez has a good arm and was an astute Rule V Draft pick by the Dodgers from the Mets, but to use a kid in a crucial situation instead of a Jessie Orosco against a left-handed hitter like Luis Gonzalez in a critical situation is asking a lot. And it cost the Dodgers in an early pennant-race showdown this week. In his one inning of work on Tuesday -- the seventh inning -- Nunez allowed two runs and was tagged with the loss in L.A.'s 3-2 defeat to the Diamondbacks.
The Indians continue to marvel at what Ellis Burks has brought to their franchise in terms of leadership. All spring, Burks took young players like Corey Smith out to eat and advised them on everything baseball and personal. Now the season has opened and Burks has had C.C. Sabathia move in with him and sold the kid one of his cars.
The SFX Baseball division claims to be completely separated from Clearchannel Communications and Rangers owner Tom Hicks, but the Players Association and other agents are still dubious. And now other owners wonder about Hicks' involvement in Tickets.com.
Unless a player makes dumb investments in record companies or other flighty notions, they can't lose money the way owners can lose money. This is a true story -- one owner had 50,000 shares in a .com company that went for $199 a share six months ago. As the stock slid, the owner held on, waiting for it to come back. The stock now is worth $1.97. Calculate that.
Funny how these things happen. Last spring, the Padres were happy to virtually give Ed Sprague away to the Red Sox, and the throw-in was a pitcher the Red Sox couldn't have cared less about. This spring, that pitcher, Dennis Tankersley, was one of the most impressive prospects in the San Diego organization.
Players, owners and individual teams calculate team payrolls in different ways, but whether one ranks the Yankees first or third, the fact remains that they don't have one really bad Mike Lansing/Al Martin contract.
The Astros are a little concerned about Lance Berkman's right shoulder, which this week required a cortisone shot. But Octavio Dotel's strong start Friday night confirmed what many in the organization felt was a spring in which he demonstrated tremendous improvement. "We really didn't know if he was just a guy with a great arm whose future was middle relief," says one Astros official. "But this spring he showed that he is developing a feel for pitching, changing speeds and showing a curveball none of us knew he had. If he keeps this up, he could be a very good pitcher."
Melvin thinks that Peter Munro, who came over with Mike Young in the Esteban Loaiza deal last summer, is going to end up a factor on the Rangers pitching staff before the year is over. "He's really learned to pitch and had a very good spring," says Melvin. "The one time he had a bad outing was when he tried to overpower hitters, and he learned from it. He used to have a power mentality, and he has good stuff, but he can win in the big leagues when he pitches."
Melvin on Andres Galarraga: "We all have heard about what a remarkable man he is, but until you're around him and see the way he is with other players, you almost can't believe it. The day he arrived, he went down to the minor-league fields and introduced himself to all the young Latin players, and he kept that up all spring."
One of the best signs in Toronto's good start to the season was Chris Carpenter's start Thursday in Tampa Bay. "He was almost unhittable," says Rays manager Larry Rothschild. "His fastball was starting out at the knees and dropping a foot, and his curveball was outstanding. He looks as if his confidence is back and that he can win big."
When the Rockies watched how well Tim Drew threw this spring in earning the Indians' fifth starter spot, it made Dan O'Dowd a little queasy. At the trading deadline last summer, the Rockies had a deal to send Rolando Arrojo to Cleveland for Drew and Paul Rigdon. But when Boston agreed to eat Mike Lansing's salary, there was no choice between taking talent or ridding the franchise of a bad contract. O'Dowd had to accept the far weaker deal with Boston, but the cash helped sign Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle.
It should come as no surprise that Reggie Sanders didn't even make it to the D-Backs opener before landing on the disabled list for the 16th time in his professional career.
Several of Jim Bowden's peers are wondering if he knew Scott Williamson was blown out when he was offering Williamson around in spring training for Russell Branyan, Daryle Ward and others. Oakland is very fortunate that Reds ownership wouldn't take on Ben Grieve's modest contract at the winter meetings when a Williamson-Grieve deal was being talked about, so the A's have Johnny Damon and Cory Lidle instead of an elbow operation.
One baseball man at Hideo Nomo's no-hitter laughed at Mike Lansing taking two steps, then jumping and rolling over on a routine pop fly. "But the strangest ending to a no-hitter I ever saw," says the scout, "was Mike Scott's that clinched the division for Houston in 1986. (First baseman) Glenn Davis didn't know why we were celebrating. He didn't know that it was a no-hitter or that we'd clinched the division."
How big is Ichiro Suzuki in Seattle? They had a reception for 2,500 guests at Safeco Field Sunday night before the opener that included a Buddhist ceremony blessing the field.
For those wondering why Jimy Williams originally planned to use Scott Hatteberg at DH against right-handed pitching instead of Dante Bichette, well Hatteberg's OPS in 2000 against righties was .861, Bichette .802.
My favorite Rob Tracy/Jeff Bennett Elias note of the week is the fact that Mike Hamton on Monday was the fifth Rockies pitcher ever to take a shutout into the ninth inning at Coors Field. By the way, the others were Mark Thompson, Roger Bailey, John Thomson and Brian Bohanon. Second favorite? Omar Daal took a no-hitter into the fourth inning on Opening Day. Last season, he went further than three innings without allowing a hit once all last season.
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