Less innings, more HR

May 21, 2002 4:17 AM

Over the last 15 years in baseball, home runs have risen while innings pitched by starters has diminished.

In 1970, there were eight pitchers who topped 290 innings for the season. Four topped 300, with Gaylord Perry leading the way with 329. In 1980, Steve Carlton threw 303 innings, and as recently as 1988, pitchers Dave Stewart and Orel Hershiser each topped 300 in the regular and postseasons combined.

But it’s a much different ballgame today. A year ago, Curt Schilling (256) and Randy Johnson (249) led the league in innings pitched and even that is considered a huge workload these days. For most starting pitchers, logging 200 innings is considered a high watermark.

Money is the major reason. Many pitchers are coddled in the minor leagues because teams don’t want to blow out the arm of a promising young pitcher. Expansion has made pitching the rarest of commodities, and organizations would rather have a young arm go seven innings instead of nine to save wear and tear.

Pitchers don’t complain about the lesser workload, since their livelihoods are at stake. Team payrolls in 1988 were in the $10-20 million range, but now clubs pay that for one star or a few top prospects.

The bullpen is now a vital asset in baseball. No longer do teams put their worst pitchers in the pen. The Reds and Athletics began this trend back in the 1970’s, and the baseball world copied it in the 80’s with the success of Tony LaRussa’s A’s and Lou Piniella’s Reds.

In 1990, the Reds had average starting pitching, but stormed through the playoffs and World Series with brilliant relief in Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers. Dibble and Myers were co-MVPs of the 1990 NLCS and when the Reds swept the Athletics in the World Series, managers around the league recognized how valuable a deep pen can be.

This is why the Reds and Pirates, two of the surprise teams in the majors this year, should be interesting to watch in the NL Central the next few weeks.

Both clubs have weaknesses on offense and in starting pitching, but their bullpens have contributed mightily to their surprising starts. The Reds and Pirates have combined to go UNDER the total in 45 of their first 72 games (62 percent).

Also, the Marlins, White Sox and Expos have combined to go OVER in 60 percent of their games.

In the AL, the Yanks, Red Sox, Twins and Mariners are loaded with strong relief arms. Only the M’s have gone OVER the total more than UNDER, while Boston, Minnesota, and New York have combined to go UNDER the total 55 percent of the time.

In the NL, the Dodgers and Giants have combined to go UNDER the total in 66 percent of their games due to strong bullpens. Bettors would be wise not to ignore the pen.