Baseball Expert Tony DeMarco has been covering the big leagues since 1987, and been casting Hall of Fame ballots for the last 14 years. He answers questions weekly here:
Q. It seems like we're having no-hitter alerts frequently, and offenses are struggling overall. What are the reasons for this, and is this a fluky thing, or a sign of a larger trend?
— Kurt Roberts, New York
A. There definitely is a larger trend here, and it's simply that we've fully gotten beyond the inflated offensive numbers of the Steroids Era, and returned to relative normalcy.
There have been two perfect games and three no-hitters this season: the White Sox's Philip Humber and the Giants' Matt Cain threw perfect games, and the Angels' Jered Weaver, the Mets' Johan Santana and a sextet of Mariners hurled no-hitters.
The 2012 MLB average for runs per game is at 8.6 through Monday — up a tick from last season's 8.56 mark, which was the lowest since 1992.
In contrast, the peak of the Steroids Era was 2000, when the average runs per game was 10.28. That number also exceeded 10 runs per game in 1996 and 1999, was above 9.5 for an eight-year stretch of 1994-2001, and was at least 9.0 every year from 1993 to 2009.
But notice the decline since 2006: (9.72); 2007 (9.6); 2008 (9.3); 2009 (9.2); 2010 (8.76); 2011 (8.56), 2012 (8.6).
The numbers from the last three seasons are in line with those from the early 1970s to the early 1990s. As many know, pitching mounds were lowered from 15 inches in height to 10 after the 1968 season — the so-called Year of the Pitcher — when runs per game average dipped to just 6.84 after being in the 7s from 1963-67, when a handful of future starting pitcher Hall of Famers were in their peak years.
Batting averages, home runs and slugging percentages have made similar declines in recent seasons:
MLB teams peaked at a .271 season batting average in 1999 (also .270 in 1994, 1996 and 2000), while the current average is down to .253.
Home runs peaked at 2.34 per game in 2000, and currently are down to 1.98 per game.
The average slugging percentage topped out at .437 in 2000, and currently sits at .402.
And in this season, the number of sub-.200 hitters — and I'm talking about regulars or at least platoon players — is alarmingly high. Put it this way: Mario Mendoza has plenty of company, as through Monday, there are no fewer than 14 players hitting under .200 with at least 100 at-bats:
Russell Martin (.197), Carlos Pena (.197), Jose Molina (.195), Gaby Sanchez (.194), Ike Davis (.191), Shelley Duncan (.191), Chone Figgins (.191), Rickie Weeks (.185), Brendan Ryan (.179), John Buck (.175), Nick Hundley (.172), Ryan Raburn (.168), Geovany Soto (.165), Xavier Nady (.157).
As for the reasons why, let's first give credit where it's due. Some elite-quality arms have entered the majors in the past few seasons, and they are making their marks: Stephen Strasburg, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Brandon Beachy, Yu Darvish, Madison Bumgarner, Wade Miley, Jordan Zimmerman, Matt Harrison, Ivan Nova, Jeremy Hellickson, Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel, and the list could go on.
The next reason that should be obvious is the drug-testing program — instituted in 2006 and beefed up since — is working.
Another perhaps underrated reason is improvements on defense — both in the speed and range of fielders, and in the more-aggressive positioning of defenders according to charts that show where hitters are most likely to put the ball in play.
It used to be that an infield shift was isolated mostly to left-handed pull/power hitters. Now you see teams — led by the Tampa Bay Rays — employing shifts of infielders for several hitters in a lineup.
So even though the trend in new parks has leaned heavily to offense-friendly dimensions, other factors have led to the recent decline in runs.
Q. Josh Hamilton is skipping the Home Run Derby again, saying he doesn't want to get hurt. Boston fans are saying Adrian Gonzalez's swing hasn't been the same since last year's Derby. Are these isolated concerns, or is the Derby a real danger to players?
— Jim Alford, University City, Calif.
A. Sure, there are understandable concerns — mostly in front offices — that competing in the Home Run Derby — and for that matter, All-Star Games and World Baseball Classics — can lead to injuries.
But as far as the Home Run Derby is concerned, to say there is any longer-term negative affect on regular-season performance from altering a swing to compete in the derby is ridiculous. A couple of weeks maybe, but anything beyond that, and any hitter who's great enough to be invited to participate in the Home Run Derby should be able to make any necessary adjustments.
First of all, unless you go deep into a derby competition, you're not doing much more than a regular daily batting practice session — although admittedly there will be adrenalin pumping as in a game situation.
Nobody is certain why Gonzalez's numbers are so far off his career norm, but to blame it on last year's derby participation makes no sense. That statute of limitations expired long ago. Other factors obviously are involved, and it usually involves pitchers finding and exploiting weaknesses. Playing out of position wasn't helping him, either.
As for Hamilton, there could be some trepidation on his part given that he's in a contract year. He's also battling a big slump right now that has tempered his awesome start to this season. We also have to consider that he's already put on what might be the greatest derby performance we'll ever see, so he really does have nothing to prove at this point.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Q. With talk about bringing in the fences as a few parks, do you know if there is a basic guideline for the distances fences should be from home plate?
— Frank, Seattle
A. The official MLB rule book doesn't get any more specific than this: "A distance of 320 feet or more along the foul lines and 400 feet or more to center field is preferable.''
Obviously, there are exceptions: The 37-foot-high Green Monster in Fenway is listed at 310 feet down the left-field line, although many believe it's closer than that to home plate. The Pesky Pole in the right-field corner in Fenway is 302 feet away.
The center-field wall in Minute Maid Park is 436 feet away — furthest in the majors, and up a hill, besides. But the left-field wall there is only 315 feet away (but 19-feet high) leading to many home runs lofted into the Crawford Boxes.
And sometimes, distance is only part of the equation. The right-field corner at AT&T Park is 309 feet, but the 25-foot wall and marine conditions make it one of the toughest right-field home run parks in the majors, unless you're Barry Bonds.
But as a whole, ballparks are more-uniform than they used to be. For example, in the Polo Grounds — arguably the most-extreme park in history — it was 279 feet down the left-field line, 483 feet in center, and 258 feet down the right-field line.
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