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Baseball offensive production drops in first week of season

Big league pitchers hurl 14 shutouts, home runs at five-year low as batters off to cold start in 2002

Posted: Tuesday, April 09, 2002

NEW YORK -- Pitchers are striking back.

While Barry Bonds seems immune, home runs during the first week of the season dropped to their lowest level in five years and scoring plunged to its lowest point since 1993.

It's not just Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling who have made runs disappear. There were 14 shutouts in the opening week, up from eight last season.

''There are a lot of good pitchers in this game, and guys are adjusting,'' said Pittsburgh outfielder Brian Giles, who thought cold weather was a factor. ''You saw some balls in Chicago that were well hit but just stopped carrying. It's tough on the hitters when it's cold.''

There was an average of 1.90 homers per game during the first week, down 24 percent from 2.49 in the opening week last year and 31 percent from 2.74 two years ago, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, baseball's statistician. Bonds, the NL player of the week after hitting five homers, had 3 percent of the major league total.

Teams scored an average of 8.97 runs per game in the first week, down 10 percent from 9.96 in last season's opening week and 16 percent from the 10.68 in 2000.

Where have all the bashers gone?

''We played in Kansas City, and the weather was cold, so maybe that has something to do with it,'' Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire said.

San Diego Padres manager Bruce Bochy said weather part of it but not the whole reason.

''Of course, we saw Schilling and Johnson and you're not going to see a lot of home runs,'' he said. ''Throughout the league I think there's just been some really cold days there that guys are playing in. Once it gets going we'll see the ball leave the ballpark here soon.''

Despite the drop in offense, the average time of a nine-inning game was 2 hours, 59 minutes -- up three minutes from last year's opening week. Baseball had promised to speed the pace of games this season but said remembrances of the victims of last year's terrorist attacks added time last week.

''We kind of expected that, with all the opening ceremonies and 'God Bless America' added into the mix,'' said Bob Watson, the vice president of on-field operations in the commissioner's office. ''We're going to have our staff out in the field next week, and we're going to be getting after that. This week was to let everybody get their feet on the ground and get underway. They know what they need to do, and we're going to attack from there.''

Last year, baseball made a push to enforce the strike zone as it is defined in the rule book -- if any part of a ball crosses over any part of home plate, and if the pitch is between the hollow of the knee and the midpoint between the belt buckle and shoulders. Players said they hadn't noticed any change from last year to this.

''They were just calling what they normally called,'' Boston pitcher Pedro Martinez said.

Umpires haven't pushed pitchers to take less time or batters to step out less.

''It's not affecting the way we play, or anyone else that I've seen,'' Los Angeles manager Jim Tracy said.

In a sign that the strike zone could be shrinking again, strikeouts per game declined to 13.13 per game after rising from 13.02 in the first week of the 2000 season to 13.79 in the opening week last year.

Walks increased to 7.26 per game after dropping from 7.56 in the first week of 2000 to 6.97 in the first week of last season.

''Early in the season last year, they did make an effort to call the high strike,'' New York Yankees reliever Mike Stanton said. ''They might still call some high pitches strikes more than in the past, but there's not much difference. It was like the balk a few years ago -- every year it seems like there's something different they're trying to enforce.''

Average attendance the first week was 31,339, down 2 percent from the 31,872 average for the 91 games in the first week last year.



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