Pitchers are cool again
Scoring was down from 10.53 runs per game in the first half of 2000 to 9.72 runs at the All-Star break this year, home runs decreased from 2.56 per game to 2.29, the major leagues' overall batting average fell from .272 to .265, and the number of walks tumbled from 7.66 per game to 6.65. Strikeouts, meanwhile, were up from 13.07 per game to 13.38. If the trend holds, hitters will have their lowest cumulative average since 1993 (when it was also .265), will walk at the lowest rate since '92 (6.50 per game) and whiff at the highest rate ever.
What gives? The enlarged strike zone has aided the resurgence of pitching, though the consensus lately is that the change in the zone hasn't been all that dramatic and hasn't been called consistently by umpires. The more persuasive explanation is that there are more good pitchers, especially young ones, than in recent years. The bumper crop of newcomers is led by the Twins' Joe Mays (age 25, 11-5, 3.02 ERA), the Astros' Wade Miller (24, 11-3, 3.79), the Brewers' Ben Sheets (22, 10-5, 3.59), and the Athletics' Tim Hudson (26, 9-5, 3.02) and Mark Mulder (23, 9-6, 3.77). In addition, six other pitchers who are 26 or younger are on track to win at least 15 games. If all these young pitchers reach that victory total, it would be the largest such group to do so since 1993.
Albert Pujols is the best young hitter in the National League
A 21-year-old unknown forced into the Opening Day lineup due to Cardinals injuries and the slow recovery of Mark McGwire (knee surgery), Pujols is having one of the most productive rookie seasons ever. Ranked in the top 14 in each of the Triple Crown categories (.323, 21 home runs, 66 RBIs), he's within reach of the National League rookie mark of 38 homers, held by Wally Berger and Frank Robinson, and has amazed teammates and opponents with his poise at the plate. Oh, yeah, he has also played four positions—first base, third base, leftfield and rightfield.
Alfonso Soriano will not win the American League Rookie of the Year award
Ichiro Suzuki (right), whose jump from the Japanese league to the majors has been a bigger hit than even the Mariners ever dreamed it could be, has emerged as a lock for the award over Soriano, the Yankees' second baseman and a strong preseason favorite. The 27-year-old Ichiro leads the American League in hits (134) and runs (76), is tied for first in steals (28) and tied for second in batting average (.347). The top All-Star vote-getter will be chasing bigger game in the second half: George Sisler's 81-year-old record of 257 hits in a season. Even if he falls short of that mark, Ichiro has a good chance to become the first player with more than 240 hits since 1930.
It turns out that with the unbalanced schedule, an ill-timed slump can wreck a team's season
Ask the A's, whose chance of repeating as American League West champs was destroyed by a 2-10 April skid against division opponents. The Mariners, who won 15 of their 19 divisional games in the first month, helped bury Oakland by taking five of six from the A's. Or ask the White Sox, who lost 11 of 13 to the Twins in the first half. Little wonder that Chicago, 39-33 against all other opponents combined, trailed AL Central-leading Minnesota by 13 games.
There's reason to watch the Orioles
Thanks to a collection of promising young arms, Baltimore (40-47) isn't as bad as many thought it would be. In fact, the starters have the fifth-best ERA (4.24) among American League rotations. Righthander Josh Towers, 24, who moves the ball around the strike zone like Greg Maddux, is 6-3 with a 2.22 ERA since being called up on April 28; righthander Jason Johnson, 27, has rebounded from a horrendous 2000 (1-10, 7.02) and is ranked in the top 10 in ERA (3.22) and opponents' batting average (.243); and righthander Sidney Ponson, 24, is 5-2 with a 3.22 ERA after getting shelled in two of his first three starts.
Coors Field batters can be tamed
Rockies lefthander Denny Neagle allowed more than three earned runs only once in nine first-half starts at home and was 4-0 with a 4.14 ERA at Coors. Rotation mate Mike Hampton won his first five decisions at Coors before losing three straight games.
Tony Muser still manages the Royals
Expected to finish above .500 and perhaps even contend for the American League wild card this year, Kansas City (34-53) is skidding toward its seventh straight losing season and is on pace to break the franchise record for losses (97). Muser, who has a 278-372 record since taking over midway through the 1997 season, owns the lowest winning percentage (.428) among active managers who have more than a year's service. Still, general manager Allard Baird refuses to blame his skipper for the train wreck and insists that Muser's job is safe.
There's life in these old legs