Watch­ing a power surge

Los Angeles Times - - INSIDE BASEBALL - ZACH HELFAND zach.helfand@latimes.com

On the night of June 16, base­ball fans with the right tele­vi­sion sub­scrip­tion were treated to an eerie dis­play of power.

It be­gan at 8:18 p.m. on the East Coast, when Todd Fra­zier of the Cincinnati Reds hit a home run to cen­ter field in the fifth in­ning at Detroit.

Twenty-six min­utes later, Bryce Harper of the Washington Na­tion­als hit a home run to cen­ter field in the fifth in­ning against Tampa Bay at St. Peters­burg, Fla.

Not long af­ter­ward, Gian­carlo Stan­ton of the host Mi­ami Mar­lins hit a home run to cen­ter field in the fifth in­ning against the New York Yan­kees, and later Al­bert Pu­jols of the An­gels hit a home run to cen­ter field in the sixth in­ning against Ari­zona at An­gel Sta­dium.

Fra­zier punc­tu­ated the fire­works with another home run, 45 min­utes af­ter his first.

“It’s im­pres­sive,” said Nel­son Cruz of the Seat­tle Mariners. “Es­pe­cially in this day and age.”

Cruz led the ma­jors last sea­son with 40 home runs while with the Bal­ti­more Ori­oles. As of Satur­day, 11 bat­ters, in­clud­ing Cruz, were on pace to match that to­tal. Pu­jols, Fra­zier and Harper were on pace for 50. Stan­ton for 60.

Only three times, ex­clud­ing the steroid era, have mul­ti­ple play­ers hit 50 home runs in the same sea­son, most re­cently in 1961, by Roger Maris and Mickey Man­tle of the Yan­kees.

The news that Stan­ton will sit out four to six weeks be­cause of a bro­ken left hand un­der­lines just how dif­fi­cult the ac­com­plish­ment is.

“It’s a big num­ber to reach, es­pe­cially right now with the era of great pitch­ers in the game,” said Pu­jols, whose ca­reer best is 49. “But you don’t fo­cus on that.”

In many sea­sons, one or two play­ers start fast. But this pace, for four play­ers, has been ac­com­plished in only three non­s­teroid-era sea­sons: 1930, 1970 and 1987.

And there’s another 50-home run threat: Nolan Arenado of the Colorado Rock­ies is on pace for 48.

At the top end, a hand­ful of play­ers are hit­ting lots of base­balls very far. Last sea­son, there were 50 home runs of 450 feet or more, ac­cord­ing to ESPN.com’s home run tracker. As of Satur­day, there were 44, and the sea­son isn’t even half­way over.

Re­mem­ber Stan­ton’s home run in May that left Dodger Sta­dium? He has since hit four home runs longer than that.

So where is the power com­ing from? Dodgers Man­ager Don Mat­tingly the­o­rized that the base­balls, com­pletely re­placed this year with the new com­mis­sioner’s sig­na­ture, were wound tighter. He was be­ing face­tious, but at least it’s a the­ory.

“I don’t think any­body can an­swer that ques­tion,” Pu­jols said. “No clue,” Cruz said. The more lively ar­gu­ment is whether the rate is sus­tain­able.

The dif­fi­culty of hit­ting 50 home runs is best il­lus­trated by the play­ers who have never done it. Among those were Ted Wil­liams, Lou Gehrig and Hank Aaron.

In his rookie sea­son in 1987, Mark McGwire hit 33 home runs in the first half and fin­ished with 49. In 1969, Reg­gie Jack­son, another slug­ger who never reached 50, hit 37 in the first half and only 10 in the sec­ond.

Pu­jols said the most im­por­tant fac­tor is health. Cruz said a hitter has to con­stantly study to know what to ex­pect from pitch­ers. And, in a pen­nant race, he said, home runs be­come an af­ter­thought. There are more sit­u­a­tions that call for pro­duc­tive outs or work­ing a walk. So can Pu­jols get there? “I’m not go­ing to play num­bers,” An­gels Man­ager Mike Scios­cia said. “I think he’s swing­ing the bat very well. One thing about Al­bert is, if he needs to move the run­ner over, he’s go­ing to do it.”

One con­se­quence of base­ball’s steroid era has been a loss of the fans’ abil­ity to trust. It is im­pos­si­ble to view this year’s home run boom with­out some skep­ti­cism, and al­ready there is talk that the chemists have evolved past the testers.

But for a night, at least, watch­ing five base­balls sail a com­bined four-tenths of a mile, it was hard not to hope it was clean, and that it con­tin­ues.

Not clos­ing time

In the 10th in­ning of the Dodgers’ score­less tie with the Chicago Cubs on Tues­day, Mat­tingly waited un­til the bases were loaded with no outs to sum­mon closer Ken­ley Jansen. The right-han­der is off to an ex­cel­lent start, but even he couldn’t work out of the jam.

Mat­tingly was sim­ply ad­her­ing to the pre­vail­ing strat­egy. Most man­agers avoid us­ing their closer in ex­tra in­nings on the road un­less the cir­cum­stances are par­tic­u­larly dire or they have the lead. Why? Mat­tingly said he waited to use Jansen be­cause the bot­tom of the or­der was due up. Re­cently, Mat­tingly went with rookie Josh Ravin in a tie score late on the road be­cause, he said, he knew Ravin could go sev­eral in­nings. It worked once and back­fired the next time.

Scios­cia said there are a few cir­cum­stances when the cal­cu­lus might change — if the heart of the or­der is due up, for ex­am­ple, or if the op­pos­ing bullpen is taxed. But man­agers are hes­i­tant to ex­pend their best re­liev­ers in a game they may lose any­way or have a lead be squan­dered by a mid­dle re­liever.

“I’m not go­ing to say it would never come up or make sense, but it would have to be some rare cir­cum­stances,” Scios­cia said.

St. Louis Car­di­nals Man­ager Mike Ma­theny used the same strat­egy in last sea­son’s Na­tional League Cham­pi­onship Se­ries twice with no suc­cess. In Game 5, af­ter a starter, Michael Wacha, pitched in re­lief in the ninth in­ning and served up a se­ries-clinch­ing three-run home run, Ma­theney ac­knowl­edged it was a bind.

“Just a tough spot for him to be in and not the spot we want him to be in,” Ma­theny said. “But we’ll put him out there again in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion.”

Change in Philadelphia

When an emo­tional Ryne Sand­berg re­signed Fri­day as man­ager of the hap­less Philadelphia Phillies, he be­came the fourth man­ager to be re­placed this sea­son.

He joined Mil­wau­kee’s Ron Roenicke, San Diego’s Bud Black and Mi­ami’s Mike Red­mond.

How un­usual is it for four man­agers to be dis­missed be­fore July?

In the last 10 sea­sons, nine man­agers were fired or quit within a team’s first 81 games. Only two of the re­place­ments, Jim Tracy of the 2009 Rock­ies and Buck Showal­ter of the 2010 Bal­ti­more Ori­oles, fin­ished above .500 for the re­main­der of the sea­son.

Car­los Oso­rio As­so­ci­ated Press

TODD FRA­ZIER (21), who hit two home runs in the game, con­grat­u­lates Cincinnati Reds team­mate Jay Bruce (32), who also hit one against the Detroit Tigers on June 16.

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