Inside Pitch: It's a hitters' paradise

Inside Pitch: It's a hitters' paradise

SAN FRANCISCO -- Starting with the 1969 season, when Major League Baseball lowered the mound from 15 to 10 inches, pitchers have been making concessions with just about every change that has come to the game.

One after another, new rules and changes have been added that are geared to help offenses rather than pitchers. The designated hitter, smaller strike zones and new ballparks that have generally been more hitter friendly than the old parks are just a few of the changes that have helped hitters at the pitcher's expense.

"I do think we've gone so far to help the hitters that if you pitch in this era, then maybe you should get an asterisk by your name," Mets closer Billy Wagner said. "They've lowered the mound, shrunk the strike zone, built all these new hitters' parks, let guys wear armor all over their bodies so they can lean over the plate without worrying about getting hit and pretty much took away the inside pitch. I think all of us pitching in this era should get an asterisk by our names, just as an indication that, hey, this guy pitched in an era when pitchers had a lot more to deal with than [in] other eras."

While not completely disagreeing with Wagner, Milwaukee right-hander Ben Sheets admits the changes have helped hitters more than pitchers.

"Baseball, that's the way it is," Sheets said. "We'd love for [the mound] to be higher, but what can you do? I don't know if we should get more credit, but you can't compare pitchers in this era to another one."

Others believe the tide might be turning.

"I certainly think that pitching is coming back," San Diego right-hander and National League All-Star Game starter Jake Peavy said. "You look at all of the young pitchers that have come into the league in the last few years, maybe all of the home runs and offense baseball had for a while there is starting to turn back the other way."

Wagner, Sheets and Peavy don't think there will be any changes coming that will help pitchers, and if the track record for the last four decades is any indication, they are probably right.

"I don't spend time worrying about it, to tell you the truth," Sheets said. "I just accept things the way they are. It could be worse -- I could be pitching on a flat ground in the sugar cane league in Louisiana."

Pearls from the diamond:

-- Will Alex Rodriguez stay with the Yankees or exercise his right to opt out of the contract and sign as a free agent elsewhere? Rodriguez isn't saying one way or the other, but an informal polling of a few baseball front-office types at the All-Star Game has A-Rod bolting the Bronx after the season and winding up with either the Angels or Boston, with the Dodgers as the dark-horse candidate.

"The years and money are going to limit the field to the [big markets] and those three have the resources and are logical fits," one official said.

-- The Mets entered the All-Star break having lost six of their last eight games but shortstop Jose Reyes doesn't believe it is any cause for concern.

"You have ups and downs in any season," Reyes said. "We played very good in the first part of the season but we didn't play so well [before the break]. But we've got a lot of guys on the DL. Now we get Pedro Martinez back, and [Tom] Glavine [and] Oliver Perez and Jorge Sosa have been pitching well, so I think we're going to be better. We've got a great team and I think you're going to see us play even better in the second half."

-- Houston rookie Hunter Pence is the NL batting leader now that the center fielder has recorded enough plate appearances to qualify. Pence is hitting .342, including .405 in July. Though he's had only 273 at-bats, Pence has 40 extra-base hits (23 doubles, six triples and 11 homers).

"He's the whole package," one NL scout said. "What you saw Grady [Sizemore] do for the Indians, this guy has the same kind of talent." Sizemore led the American League with 92 extra-base hits in 655 at-bats last year.

Sizemore is the second Major League player in history to record 50 doubles, 10 triples, 20 homers and 20 steals in the same season (Hall of Famer Chuck Klein was the first, in 1932 with Philadelphia).

Pence has shown a knack for hitting balls out of the strike zone, which has helped him compensate for his developing plate discipline (just 10 walks and 52 strikeouts). But he has the ability to put up Sizemore/Klein-type seasons, which is why the Astros aren't regretting trading away Willy Taveras even though Jason Jennings had a disappointing first half.

-- Twins manager Ron Gardenhire doesn't like to think about life after Torii Hunter even though that is a very real possibility if Hunter leaves via free agency after the season.

"You have pinholes and you have manholes," Gardenhire said. "Torii Hunter leaving us is a manhole."

Gardenhire's had no choice except to listen nervously to all the rumors. A lot of the talk centers on Hunter going to New York, where the Twins played three games last week against the Yankees.

"When we left New York," Gardenhire said, "I thought we were gonna leave him there."

-- Speaking of Hunter, he said he prefers to stay in Minnesota but knows he may wind up elsewhere and isn't adverse to changing leagues.

"My main goal is to try to be with the Twins," he said. "I've been with those guys for 15 years. If I happen to be a free agent, I'm still playing the game that I love, though. I hate that I'm not going to be with the Twins, but I still get to play this game that I love. And it doesn't matter what team I'm with. I would consider every town -- I don't have a short list. I have a long list."

-- Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon has added a cut fastball and used it last week for a game-ending called third strike in a win over Tampa Bay last week.

"I've started throwing it more in games," he said. "Some will back up on me and not do what I want, but I've got to go out there and throw it in game situations to experience those feelings of what it's like to fail, because the cutter is a pitch you can't go out there and throw 100 mph. I have a tendency to do that sometimes, but I'm learning how to back down off of it and let the pitch do its work."

-- The Mark Teixeira rumor mill should start turning again after the break as the Texas first baseman, who is rehabbing a strained left quadriceps muscle, might rejoin the Rangers in Anaheim this weekend.

-- Some hitters routinely heat up after the All-Star break and have throughout their career. Here's the breakdown of the five active players with the highest career batting average and OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) after the break.

Batting average: Todd Helton .344, Albert Pujols .340, Robinson Cano .329, Vladimir Guerrero .326, Ryan Howard .324 and Derek Jeter .324.

And OPS: Ryan Howard 1.109, Barry Bonds 1.075, Albert Pujols 1.059, Todd Helton 1.040 and Manny Ramirez 1.016.

Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.