Weekend Observations
April 15, 2006

I didn't mention this in my notes about the Nats the other day but the ball is flying out all over, not just at RFK.  Rumors are circulating that the ball is juiced.  That's certainly one explanation, and I've heard from four different sources inside the game that the ball is wound tighter this year.  There's really no way to confirm either way. 

Another possibility is PEDs.  I don't believe that baseball's steroid policy is having any significant effect.  If players want to use PEDs, they still can and with relative ease as long as they do some research on masking agents and what's new in the field.  And baseball still doesn't test for human growth hormone, which isn't that much of a help by itself except with older players but can be of huge benefit when stacked with other PEDs.  But that's probably not why there have been so many home runs this year.

The reason is probably the weather.  Last year on Opening Day in DC it was 62 degrees at game time, but it dropped down to the low 50s/high 40s by the time the game ended.  This year, the temperature was listed as 72 degrees at game time, but the temperature according to my thermometer was 84 degrees at field level.  This year there have been 64 day games played to this point in the season.  Last year at this time, there had been 61.  The consensus is that the higher temperatures are not isolated to just DC, so if there are more day games and the average temperature is 10-15 degrees warmer than last year, that would go a long way to explaining why the balls are going out more frequently.   Balls carry much better in warmer air.

There also appears to be some residual effects from the World Baseball Classic.  It seems that a good number of the pitchers who participated in the event are experiencing a bit of a dead arm period early on and the hitters, especially guys like Vernon Wells who typically get out to slow starts, are coming out of the gate like a house afire.  This will likely normalize over the next few weeks.

Some game notes:

Rodrigo Lopez was throwing in the mid-80s until about the fourth inning of his start.  Then suddenly he started hitting 90.  Apparently, he was just wasn't overly pumped up when the game started but when he was close to being pulled, the adrenaline kicked in.  That was his explanation after the game.  But if he needs the other team pounding on him for a couple of innings to get his competitive juices flowing, this might be a long year for him.

Watched a bit of the first game between the Mariners and Red Sox and I took special notice of Roberto Petagine's at bat.  He's been the poster boy for the stat head revolt against scouting for nearly a decade, but the fact is that he has a long swing and a slider speed bat.  He was late on three Papelbon fastballs and none of them were clocked higher than 91.  He cheated a little on the last one so he could catch up to it and was only able to pop it up.  If your concerned about Papelbon, don't be.   He pays attention to what's going on so if a guy can't catch up to his fastball he keeps firing them in there until the guy starts cheating.  Then he'll show something different.  As for velocity, he buried a 95 mph fastball in on Ichiro's hands to strike him out in the at bat after Petagine. 

Do you know what the greatest irony of the whole Bonds situation is?  Time travel back to 1998 to the moment when Bonds decides to up the ante and start taking performance enhancing drugs.  Suppose you are there to convince him that it's not a good idea.  The previous three seasons he had averaged nearly 40 homers per season.  At the end of 1998 he had 411 homers.  Hitting 37 homers per season from 1999-2005, he would now be at 670 homers.  Without the steroids, he probably stays as healthy as Rickey Henderson did into his 40s.  Rickey was still getting on base at a 37% clip at age 43.  Hank Aaron was still playing at age 42.  Bonds had that kind of physical durability before he started taking steroids. 

Bonds' biggest enemy in the succeeding years has been his knees and the breakdowns caused by the stress put on them from his increased bulk.  Had Bonds not decided to take this unfortunate path, he would still be relatively healthy.  Had he not put on those extra 30-50 pounds, his knees would probably still be good for another three years, which means that he would likely be passing Ruth either late this season or early next season with at least one or two more years of decent production to chase down Aaron.  He actually stood a better chance of passing Aaron had he never taken steroids.  How ironic is that?  His career batting average would probably be in the mid-290s, but he wouldn't have been in the trouble he's in and he certainly would have been a much more sympathetic figure.  He would have finally gotten the adoration he so desperately wants - and there's no question that's what he wants... why else would he do a TV show about himself?  If he really didn't care what people think about him, he wouldn't open up his life to that kind of intrusion even if it is carefully controlled?

Regardless of whatever happens this year, Bonds is probably done after this season, if not before.  His knees are falling apart and his elbow is giving him problems and his body just can't withstand the pounding of another year.  I may regret saying this, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Bonds fail to pass Ruth before the All-Star Break.  I haven't seen that many of his at bats, but what I have seen hasn't been pretty, regardless of what Harold Reynolds says.  Teams (other than Bobby Cox led-teams) are pitching to him, and they are having success.  Sure, he gets the bat on the ball solidly on the mistakes over the plate but he's late on fastballs outside, he's not covering the strikezone as well as he once did and the ball isn't traveling as fast or as far when he does hit it.  I may be jumping the gun here, but unless something changes soon - and the reputed bone chips in his elbow work against a dramatic improvement - opposing pitchers are going to start working him like they do any hitter for whom they find a weakness.   As I noted in my book, there's a good chance that this year will be very much for Bonds like 2001 was for Mark McGwire: a dramatic drop in production followed by an abrupt retirement.