Early batting leaders surprise; pitching figures can be misleading

Early season statistics are frequently out of kilter, so we won't start handing out any batting titles just yet, but there certainly are some surprising names up among the leaders more than a month into the 1985 campaign. Who would have thought, for instance, that the National League batting leader with a .362 average at this stage would be St. Louis second baseman Tom Herr, whose career major league average is nearly 90 points lower than that at .276? Or that the 1-2 hitters in the American League at .367 and .354 respectively would be first baseman Bruce Bochte of Oakland (.284 lifetime) and rookie catcher Mark Salas of Minnesota, who hit only .244 at Louisville last year and is still batting ninth for the Twins?

It's a long season, though, and fast starters with no previous history of year-long supremacy usually tail off sooner or later. Perhaps more relevant, therefore, are the early figures of Dale Murphy -- a hitter whose past performances indicate he just might keep it up over the entire campaign. After 29 games, the slugging Atlanta outfielder was batting .348 with 10 home runs and 32 RBIs. The latter figures project to 56 and 178 for a full season, and while no one expects him to reach those heights, he seems well on the way to surpassing the totals of 36-109 and 36-121 that earned him consecutive National League MVP awards in 1982 and 1983.

Pitching statistics at this time of year can be even more misleading -- affected as they are not only by the hurler's own performance but by that of his team when he is on the mound. These things also tend to even out to some degree over the long season, but not necessarily in the first month or so. Thus Rick Mahler, while pitching well but no better than two dozen or so other starters, is the major league leader in wins with a 7-1 record. One clue to the Atlanta right-hander's success in the won-lost column can be found in a recent statistic disclosing that in his last four victories his teammates scored an average of 7.6 runs per game -- a pretty nice cushion to work with. Not that the Braves have been tearing the cover off the ball -- in fact the team has a losing record and hasn't scored that much for its other pitchers -- but they've had their hitting shoes on behind Mahler.

Nolan Ryan, meanwhile, has been having the opposite kind of spring -- pitching magnificently but getting little support from his Houston teammates. Just in the past week, for instance, he sustained a 1-0 loss to Montreal and another eight-inning, one-run effort against the same club which netted him no decision although the Astros went on to win the game 3-2 in extra innings.

Montreal's pitchers had the sharpest performance as a whole during the past week, setting a couple of club records and beginning to flirt with the league marks as they hurled four straight shutouts and 41 consecutive scoreless innings. Joe Hesketh (with relief help from Jeff Reardon), Bryn Smith, Bill Gullickson, and David Palmer (again with an assist from Reardon) were the winners in the streak, which was finally snapped by that loss in Houston Monday night. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Atlanta did tie a major league record, albeit a dubious one, by getting shut out four times in a row -- once in New York, followed by the three straight at Montreal. The Braves weren't that far from making it five, either, scoring just once Monday night as Len Barker pitched a 1-0 victory over the Mets in Atlanta. The loss snapped a six-game New York winning streak that kept the Mets atop the National League East standings despite Montreal's surge.

Boston slugger Tony Armas, who had a .450 batting average, a 1.100 slugging percentage, 4 homers, and 7 RBIs last week, is the latest American League Player of the Week. National League honors went to San Francisco reliever Scott Garrelts, who posted two victories and two saves.

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