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Hummel: MLB seeing a higher focus on homers

Hummel: MLB seeing a higher focus on homers

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There may be only a few 40-plus home run hitters, if any, this year, suggesting that the sluggers aren’t as chemically enhanced as some of those of the past. But there may be more 10- and 20-homer hitters than in many years, suggesting that if the sluggers aren’t juiced, maybe the ball is.

Or maybe it’s just the home-run-strikeout, all-or-nothing approach to hitting that many swatsmiths seem to have adopted because strikeouts are almost certain to be at an all-time high. Before weekend games, there were 41 players with 20 or more home runs, 90 with 15 or more and 157 with 10 or more. Given that there were 216 players who had seven or more homers one-third of the way through the season, it is reasonable that there will be 216 or more with at least 10 homers by season’s end.

The last time there was anything close to that double-figure number was in 2000 when there were 217 players with 10 or more homers and 102 with 20 or more, led by Sammy Sosa with 50.

But the strikeout totals between now and then aren’t even close. Big-league teams struck out at a rate of 6.45 times that year to 7.97 for this year. This year’s strikeout rate is dramatically up from the 7.70 per team, achieved both last year and in 2014 although the Cardinals, perhaps surprisingly, are slightly below the strikeout average at 7.90 per game.

The number of 20-homer hitters, if it reaches close to 90, as expected, would be the most since 2009 when 87 players hit 20 or more and five players had 40 or more led by the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols with 47.

This year, Baltimore’s Mark Trumbo, Todd Frazier of the Chicago White Sox and Edwin Encarnacion were the only ones at 30 or more before the weekend and Trumbo had just 31.

With both Tommy Pham and Jeremy Hazelbaker at eight homers, the Cardinals are in position to become the first club in franchise history to have 10 or more double-figure home-run hitters, with Jhonny Peralta an outside shot at five, considering he had just 123 at-bats.

The 2000 club had nine double-figure homer hitters, led by Jim Edmonds at 42 and concluded by both Shawon Dunston and late-season sensation Will Clark at 12.

The 1991 club, on the other hand, had only one double-figure homer hitter in Todd Zeile at 11. The last time a Cardinals team had no double-figure homer hitters came 97 years ago when Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby paced the 1919 club with eight homers. That club mashed 27 homers overall, clearly demonstrating that neither the slugger nor the ball were juiced.

On the other hand, Sosa, who is suspected to have had some artificial help, will go down in history as having three of the top six single-season home run totals in history — 66 in 1998, 63 in 1999 and 64 in 2001 — without leading the league in any of those seasons. The Cardinals’ Mark McGwire beat him in 1998-99 and San Francisco’s Barry Bonds with his record 73 in 2001.

WHO’S IN LEFT? OR RIGHT?

Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon has been praised for his genius move of inserting pitcher Travis Wood into left field on Sunday night, with Wood making him look good with an excellent catch into the ivy.

But Hall of Famer Whitey Herzog went Maddon one better — or 10 better on May 14, 1988 — when he moved pitcher Jose DeLeon 11 times from left field to right field in the last four innings of a 19-inning game, which featured the four-inning pitching appearance of infielder Jose Oquendo, who had come into the game at, of all places, first base, which he also rarely played.

The slow-moving DeLeon’s appearance was prompted by several factors, the most significant that righthander Randy O’Neal, who had been double-switched into the game for left fielder Vince Coleman (who had four hits) in the 15th inning, went from long man to short man when O’Neal came out of the game after one inning because of injury.

On a late Saturday night/Sunday morning, Herzog already had sent home Sunday starter Larry McWilliams. So, DeLeon, who never played any other position in his career, came off the bench and turned into an outfielder, moving in concert with normal right fielder Tom Brunansky. Wherever Herzog figured the ball might be hit — left field or right field — DeLeon would play the least likely spot, although he did catch one fly ball hit to him in right in the 17th.

But in the 19th, while playing left field, he couldn’t flag down an opposite-field double to left by Ken Griffey Sr., as the Braves scored twice to win 7-5, as pitcher John Tudor unsuccessfully pinch-hit for DeLeon in the bottom of the inning.

This wasn’t the only time Herzog maneuvered his pitcher into the outfield. Closer Todd Worrell was employed as a right fielder on three regular-season occasions, in 1986, 1987 and 1989. Most famously, Worrell finished the pivotal Game 6 in the National League championship series as a right fielder — Oquendo had started the game there — as lefthander Ken Dayley retired San Francisco’s Chris Speier and Jose Uribe for the final two outs of a 1-0 win that evened the series at three games apiece. The Cardinals pitched another shutout the next night to win the series.

In all four of Herzog’s moves with Worrell, the righthanded reliever never had to catch a fly ball. Same, almost, with lefthander Rick Horton who took a stint as a right fielder in the eighth inning (Willie McGee played shortstop) of a 15-5 blowout loss in Philadelphia on Aug. 7, 1987. The ubiquitous Oquendo, of course, was pitching, as Horton didn’t catch any balls but was forced to track down Glenn Wilson’s run-scoring double and a run-scoring hit by Lance Parrish.

Both balls had sailed over the head of Horton. “Some outfielders shy away from the walls,” Horton said afterward. “I just happened to shy away 30 yards from it.”

Oddly, after that season, pitcher/right fielder Horton was traded to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for righthander DeLeon, who didn’t know yet that, for one night, he also would be a miscast outfielder.

PROSPECTS AREN’T ALWAYS SUSPECTS

It is convenient to dismiss the second part of trade deadline deals when teams acquire a notable player for “prospects.” Yes, many of the young players never reach the big leagues, but a significant number of them do and famously so.

In 2002, the Montreal Expos acquired veteran pitcher Bartolo Colon — still pitching today but not for them — from Cleveland for minor league outfielder Grady Sizemore, minor league infielder Brandon Phillips and minor league pitcher Cliff Lee. Colon went on to go 10-4 in his lone half season with the Expos. Lee had an estimable career, including winning a Cy Young Award for the Indians. Sizemore had a good career although one marred by injuries, which also caught up with Lee. Phillips is still playing, as the Cardinals know all too well from Thursday.

In 1997, the Boston Red Sox traded to Seattle veteran reliever Heathcliff Slocumb, who passed through here, for minor league catcher Jason Varitek and minor league righthander Derek Lowe. That latter combination was prominent at Busch Stadium II in 2004 when the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years. Slocomb would have only eight more saves after 1997, three of them with the Cardinals in 1999-2000.

The Atlanta Braves made a trade with Texas at the deadline in 2007, enabling them to acquire first baseman Mark Teixeira for shortstop Elvis Andrus, righthanded reliever Neftali Feliz, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and pitcher Matt Harrison. Teixeira was gone from the Braves to the Angels a year later. The other players are still active.

On July 31, 2012, the Chicago Cubs traded righthander Ryan Dempster to Texas for a young righthander named Kyle Hendricks. Dempster was 7-3 the rest of the way for the Rangers but went to Boston, where he finished his career in 2013. Hendricks has been the best pitcher on baseball’s best team this year.

And, perhaps on a lower scale ...

The Cardinals acquired veteran righthanded reliever Steve Cishek from Miami last July for Class AA reliever Kyle Barraclough. Cishek washed out here and wound up in Seattle. Barraclough has been a dominant, late-inning pitcher for the Marlins, striking out an average of 14.9 batters per nine innings.

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