Sit back and enjoy the power
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
We know already that this is a home run era. We all know the numbers, how Barry Bonds and Luis Gonzalez are on 70 home run paces, Larry Walker and Todd Helton on paces for at least 50, and that if they all get to 50 that 16 of the 34, 50-homer seasons will have come since The Strike of 1994.
We appreciate that Bonds and Gonzalez will not face Koufax, Drysdale and Osteen in any series, or Dierker, Wilson, Griffin and Lemaster. Yes, we know this is expansion and we have heard more juiced ball than J.F.K. conspiracy theories.
We understand that in a period of 60 years, one man hit 60 home runs, and that between Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Bonds and Walker we could have six -- or even seven if Sosa goes off as he usually does in the hot weather -- 60-homer efforts in three seasons. And that those numbers have become so blurred they've lost their meaning and melted the awe.
But instead of devaluing their achievements by cursing today's pitching, we should enjoy the rides, and ask if it's just bad pitching or whether or not McGwire, Sosa, Bonds and Gonzalez are not fascinating, if not great, sluggers.
|Barry Bonds has hit five homers in his first nine games in August.|
Only one other player has hit a ball into McCovey Cove during the regular season, while it seems Bonds does it on call. Gonzalez hit three homers in a game in Kansas City, hit two more in a game in Dodger Stadium the next week, and barely missed two more in those two games. No one else did that.
"The fact is that these sluggers today are better trained, bigger, have a better understanding of the mechanics of hitting and are better than ever before," says Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, who has played such an important role in the development of Juan Gonzalez, Pudge Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Jeff Bagwell, Sosa and other home run hitters.
"There is so much more video today, so they know what pitches to look for and what those pitches do. They are much stronger. Look at a Palmeiro. He was traded by the Cubs because he didn't have enough power, but over the years he's learned to use his lower body to generate the strength to let his hands do the work. He learned the transfer of energy and how to get his hands in position to generate power.
"I remember Bagwell saying to me that he hit something like three homers in Double-A, and how he learned the fundamentals of power hitting and driving the ball in the air. Pudge Rodriguez always had a short, quick swing, but he learned to use his lower body and his top hand.
"Power is often learned," added Jaramillo. "Especially today. Look at all the players who take such good care of themselves that they develop power late, like Luis Gonzalez (or Steve Finley). Power hitters develop and learn. With a lot of great hitters, power is the last thing that comes."
Luis Gonzalez never hit 20 homers until he passed his 30th birthday. He was always an inside-out, left-center field hitter. But as he got older and wiser and let it fly, he learned how to use his lower half, learned how to look for pitches and work counts and get the ball into the air. Palmeiro averaged 15 homers his first eight professional seasons, Pudge 10 his first eight years. Walker averaged 20 his first four full seasons.
Edgar Martinez at 31 had never hit more than 18, Todd Helton hit 10 during his two minor-league seasons (and did not hit one at all during his two summers in The Cape League). Sosa's minor-league high was 11. Nomar Garciaparra hit 25 in 2½ minor-league seasons and 114 in his first four full major-league seasons. Before this season, Cliff Floyd hit 73 in parts of eight years, and may roar past 40 in 2001. Bret Boone, meanwhile, averaged 11½ homers from 1994-97, had 63 the next three and is headed for 40 this year.
"Bonds is a student who never stops learning," says Jaramillo. Barry told Rick Sutcliffe that he's learned to keep his upper half still, generate the thrust in his lower half, then throw his hands at the ball as if he's hitting a nail with a hammer. "He's got an incredibly quick, strong, fighter's upper hand," says Jaramillo.
Then throw in the equipment. "All those new bat companies like Carolina Clubs and the like changed the equipment," says D-Backs bench coach Bob Melvin. "They're all double-lacquered with such good wood that you can't even see the grains." Garciaparra points out that most bats are custom made, perfectly balanced, hard enough so that the 33-inch, 31-ounce models are tougher to break and "far better than what players before us got to use."
"It's amazing what Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and players like that did," says Jaramillo. "But think what they and Roberto Clemente and guys like could have done had they had the strength training and the coaching. They didn't coach or teach hitting then. They didn't have video. This is the strongest, best taught and, per game, best prepared generation of hitters in baseball history."
Open arms for Rocker in Cleveland
develop and learn. With a lot of great hitters, power is the last thing that
||— Rudy Jaramillo, Texas Rangers hitting coach
John Hart always liked John Rocker; he never thought though that two days after Rocker puts on an Indians uniform that he'll be going back to Yankee Stadium. But Hart has always known he is one of the best left-handed relievers -- if not the best -- in the game.
"I talked to a lot of our players like Robby (Alomar) before we made (the deal), and they were all for it. Robby said, 'how fast can we get him here?' " Hart said.
This is the best thing that's happened to Rocker. The Braves are conservative and never bought into him, and as the controversy over him has expanded, the Braves tired of answering questions about the bad boy.
But while Rocker may hate the media and may exaggerate his victim position, he is not a dumb redneck; he comes from a good -- if not great -- upper-class family and his board scores were higher than either 2000 presidential candidate, Al Gore or George Bush. The Indians are a group of personalities and Rocker can re-establish himself.
The Indians began the season with their three prime relievers -- Bob Wickman, Steve Karsay and Paul Shuey -- all free agents at the end of the season. They have signed Shuey, they are trying to sign Wickman and, as Hart points out, "we have Rocker for four years before he is a free agent."
Braves players privately indicated that they were tired of the Rocker circus, so this is the best thing for everyone. But the Cleveland upside is to the sky.
Forget the injury nonsense
The aborted Yankees-Expos deal reached such heights of silliness that the one player who passed a physical, D'Angelo Jimenez, was in a neck brace at this time last year. Does Ugueth Urbina have a questionable arm? Yes. But he was throwing in the mid-90s at Shea Stadium this past week, prompting Mets manager Bobby Valentine to ask if he flunked the S.A.T. Then added, "what was it, dental? Eyesight?"
One Mets official suggested the Yankees were being ridiculous, especially since at $4.2 million Urbina's arbitration salary in 2002 would be so prohibitive that he's just a 90-game rental before he's non-tendered in the offseason.
The Expos dismissed Branton Knight despite one Pirates official having clocked him at 94 on the gun at Yankee Stadium the previous week. "You can find something wrong in every pitcher because (pitching) is an unnatural act," says one GM.
Remember, the Orioles nixed signing Aaron Sele because they thought he was injured. Meanwhile, Scott Erickson pitched with a torn elbow from 1992 until it finally blew out last season.
The Mets found out that left-handed pitcher Billy Traber had a tear in his arm when they drafted him in the first round last season, forced his asking price down from $1.7M to $400,000 and this season he's lighting it up. Going into this college season, Harvard righty Ben Crockett was considered to be a first or sandwich-round pick coming off being the 2000 Cape Cod League's most valuable pitcher. His pre-draft physical revealed a tear in his elbow, so he dropped to the 10th round before the Red Sox selected him; he's back on the Cape this summer to prove he's healthy, and in his two starts has sat on 91 and in 16 innings has allowed two runs and struck out 27.
"The Mets used to be big on the Caliper (psychological) Test that the NFL loves," says one baseball official. "They decided not to draft Manny Ramirez because of that stupid test. People try to find reasons not to sign players, rather than looking for reasons to sign them."
What we're hearingThe Yankees now are on the prowl for another reliever and/or starter, before they get around to acquiring a bat at the trading deadline. They have made a run at Detroit's Todd Jones, who is also being courted by Arizona. For Jones, who is being used as a setup man as the Tigers try to determine if Matt Anderson can be a closer, is better suited for the role with the D-Backs because he'd close there.
"I haven't set up since the Astros made Billy Wagner the closer," says Jones. "But I understand the thinking."
The Yanks have shopped everywhere, from Mike Williams, Jason Schmidt and John Vander Wal in Pittsburgh to inquiries about Jason Isringhausen in Oakland. But while the A's have faded, they will not move Isringhausen or Johnny Damon now unless they get a higher price than they might get on July 31, and GM Billy Beane is not inclined to deal Jason Giambi unless something changes.
"When I start to deal, I also plan to reload and add at the same time," he says. Which is what the Mets are doing. They are not going to dump Robin Ventura and/or Armando Benitez for prospects (incidentally, one Seattle official says "we haven't talked to the Mets about Ventura, but he isn't a fit here anyway").
Even if the Mets don't stay in the race, they're still going to be looking to add players in order to make for a better second half. They want to carry enthusiasm into the offseason and keep momentum headed in the direction of a new park in three years.
White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf has explained to players that the White Sox are budgeted to draw 2.7 million, which they are not going to do barring a miracle, and that for every 100,000 below 2.7 million, he loses $2 million. Math tells us that if he gets rid of David Wells and Sandy Alomar, he may be able to break even at 2.3M, but dumping is hard to do when the players never quit -- through Friday's game they have won 20 of 27 and fans remember the White Flag Deal of '97.
The Cubs still want a center fielder, but may have to take a bat for left field and let Rondell White play center the rest of the season. They'd love to get Moises Alou, but the Astros want a veteran starter in return for Alou, and whether or not the Astros would even consider Alou for Pedro Astacio is undecided at this point.
Understand, Vander Wal only makes $1.8 million, which ups his market value. The Mets figure if they got him, they could afford a more expensive hitter. They've kicked around the Glendon Rusch deal, but the Bucs are still scanning the market.
The Reds turned down Eric Gagne for Pokey Reese, and are actively shopping Dmitri Young. There were discussions about a deal that would have sent Young and Pete Harnisch, when he's healthy after the first of July, for Astacio, but Cincinnati can't hack Astacio's $9M salary in 2001; so the Reds are going with four rookies in their rotation.
The Padres eventually will discuss both right-hander Woody Williams and third baseman Phil Nevin, but the price -- particularly for Nevin -- will be very high, since they have no one else to protect Ryan Klesko in their order and the lineup could be very weak until Sean Burroughs, Xavier Nady and others are ready for the majors.
The Red Sox have dabbled in the Astacio and Wells sweepstakes, but right now would prefer to get a bat.
"Our pitching is pretty good," says GM Dan Duquette. Indeed, the four free agents Duquette used his money to sign (Tim Wakefield, Hideo Nomo, Frank Castillo and David Cone) combined make less than Darren Dreifort, who is 43-51 lifetime. And pitching coach Joe Kerrigan is convinced that Bret Saberhagen will make it back sometime next month.
This and thatDon't expect Mark Prior or Mark Teixeira to either sign soon or be in the majors this season. Prior's father doesn't want him throwing more than 150 innings this year, and he's already close to that after the College World Series. Prior likely isn't going to sign until Teixeira signs, and Scott Boras is going to wage a holy war against the Commissioner's Office attempts to keep down prices; reportedly the A's came under fire for giving right-hander Jeremy Bonderman $1.5 million for a late first-round pick, and there are limits to each area of the first five rounds.
For now, the Rangers have moved third baseman Hank Blalock from the Class A Florida State League, where he was hitting .380, to Double-A Tulsa.
On June 15, Blue Jays hard-working assistant GM Dave Stewart made a deal with the Reds to send Class A outfielder Alvin Morrow to the Reds for Deion Sanders. Before Blue Jays manager Buck Martinez was told by the club of the deal, he told writers he didn't want Sanders, so GM Gord Ash canceled the deal. But because he'd agreed on Morrow as the player to trade he told the Reds that he would agree to re-work the deal. So, Cincinnati got the prospect it wanted because Ash's word is ironclad.
By the way, Tony Gwynn is dead serious about coaching at San Diego State.
In his latter years, Felipe Alou took some hits for never developing hitters out of swingers, and the Expos went into the weekend with a .310 on-base percentage and not one player with more than 20 unintentional walks. Vladimir Guerrero had 24 walks, but seven were intentional, while Lee Stevens had 21, one intentional. By the way, the Expos keep refusing to take calls on salary dumps, except for the Urbina case. Apparently they budgeted a $20 million loss, and owner Jeffrey Loria is not going to fold up and go away. If Montreal offends other owners' sensibilities, then he wants to move.
Now there are three themes to the All-Star Game -- Cal Ripken, Ichiro and Bonds.
Why is Luis Gonzalez fifth among NL outfielders in the All-Star balloting? The guy is having a tremendous season.
Why it's easier to run up a good record in the American League -- going into the weekend, there were five AL teams with winning records and five NL teams with losing records.
Telling comment on the Blue Jays from pitcher Dan Plesac to Toronto Star columnist extraordinaire Richard Griffin: "In my 16 years, this is the most underachieving team I've ever been on."
I may be wrong, but isn't Jason Kendall worth a lot more as a catcher than as a left fielder?
What is it with baseball? Here they set up the Futures Game to showcase what athletic talent the sport is developing for the Sunday before the All-Star Game in Seattle, and some teams -- Florida, with pitcher Josh Beckett, and Boston, with third baseman Tony Blanco -- have refused to cooperate by sending requested players to the game.
The Red Sox coaches hand it to Dante Bichette, who, whether he's in or out of the lineup, shows up every day on the road at 2:30 for extra hitting.
As Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy starts to interview candidates for the vacant GM job, he has been refused permission to interview the Mets' Jim Duquette and L.A.'s Dan Evans. Meanwhile, interim GM Roy Smith works to make some trades.
"Being busy allows me to put all the other stuff aside and not worry about whether or not I'm a candidate," says Smith.
When the Mets traded for Al Leiter prior to the 1998 season, one of the prospects they sent to Florida was 6-6 slugging OF Robert Stratton. The Marlins sent him back to the Mets because of a back condition and had him replaced by Cesar Crespo. Stratton is now in Double-A and developing into a big-time power hitter.
"I don't know of too many players who hit the ball any further (than Stratton)," says one Mets official. Adds an Eastern League scout: "When I first saw him, I didn't think he was a prospect. But I've changed my mind. I really like him and think he can be an impact major-league slugger."
No one can ever explain why the Mets gave away Bubba Trammell for Donne Wall in the offseason when the Mets needed power in their outfield.
Tom Glavine insists his shoulder is now fine, which means that he should soon find the strike zone -- if there is a consistent one -- and go off on a winning streak.
Former agent Dennis (Go Go) Gilbert, one of the world's nicest guys and biggest baseball fans, hopes to know by the end of the month if he has the cash to buy the Angels and keep the franchise running.
When Bob Melvin was catching for the Orioles back in the late '80s, Curt Schilling was a young player with the O's. "Curt is now the most prepared pitcher I've ever been around," says Melvin. "But when I played with him, he might have been the most unprepared."
One of the strangest sites to see is how much Tim Salmon, after signing his four-year, $40.8 million contract that begins next season.
"He's gone from being a plus-plus outfielder to a decent outfielder," says one scout, "but what no one can figure out is why he holds his hands so close to his body when he's hitting. Everyone who sees him knows to throw fastballs in and he can't get his hands free to do anything about it."
There were several teams, including the Mariners, which thought they could have done better than Rob Bell for Ruben Mateo. Since arriving at the Reds' Triple-A affiliate in Louisville, Mateo has gone off, and he and Adam Dunn could be in Cincinnati soon.
Orioles broadcaster Mike Flanagan plans to break out his old David Wells line this weekend with the White Sox in town: "When Boomer goes into the woods, the bears all move their food up into the trees."
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