Players are hitting the ball out of the park at a record setting pace in 2017, yet their achievements are not receiving the attention some would have expected
Baseball is in the midst of a power explosion the likes of which historically has filled stadiums, driven ratings and created a new crop of home run-bashing American sports legends, yet the reaction this time around has been a little more ambivalent.
Yankees rightfielder Roger Maris led the original power explosion in 1961 when he slugged a then-record 61 home runs to pass Babe Ruths long-time single season mark. There were 2,717 home runs in baseball that season, which set an all-time MLB mark for 0.95 home runs per game. There was some discussion at the time about whether the ball had been juiced that is, manufactured in order to travel further. But if baseballs were jumping more in 1961 it was not because the ball had made quite the transformation it had undergone in 1911. Back then a new cork-centered ball, as opposed to the rubber core ball of the dead ball era, saw scoring (and ticket sales) skyrocket. And so the sudden increase in home runs in 1961 was primarily pinned on the American League expanding by two teams and the subsequent watering down of the pitching talent.
Home runs didnt jump again until 26 seasons later in 1987, the year of the rabbit ball. Home runs shot up 20% compared to 1986 to 1.06 per game as players like Wade Boggs and Andre Dawson enjoyed power surges well above their career averages and a thin rookie named Mark McGwire blasted 49 home runs for the Oakland As. Then power numbers dropped right back down again in 1988. No evidence or study was ever produced to explain the sudden and massive blip, but conventional wisdom said it was juiced baseballs.
Juice of another kind fueled baseballs next power surge a decade later. With interest in baseball lagging following the work stoppage of 1994 and 1995, a home run chase by Sammy Sosa and McGwire by then remade into the size and shape of an NFL defensive end filled stadiums and made baseball the talk of the summer of 1998. Coverage of McGwires push to a new record of 70 home runs, four better than Sosas final total, dwarfed any other sports news including the possible destinations of NBA free agents. (Dell Curry, Stephs father, was a Hornets free agent entering the 1998-99 lockout season!)
The 1998 season averaged 1.04 home runs per game, short of the 1987 record of 1.06, but this time it was no blip. The 11 years between 1996 and 2006 accounted for what were then 10 of the top 11 home run years of all-time, with the 2000 season leading the way behind a whopping 1.17 homers per game. A season later brought Barry Bonds remarkable campaign of 73 home runs to break McGwires record. No one pinned the dramatic and sustained increase in home runs to juiced balls during this time. The reason was clear (and cream, if youd like): this was baseballs steroids era and the drugs were flowing just as many teams debuted parks with smaller outfield dimensions. Even middle infielders were expected to hit 20 or more a year in the sports anabolic age.
Then the public decided it was against chemically-enhanced sluggers, baseball instituted tougher testing and penalties for those caught using PEDs and home runs quickly dipped back closer to around an average of one per game, well off the rate of the steroid era. Which brings us to the power explosion of 2017.
Homers are being hit at a rate far greater than ever before in the games 114-year history: 1.26 per game. That number would obliterate the current record of 1.17 from 2000, a season smack-dab in the heyday of the steroid era. But the summer sports news isnt dominated by talk of epic blasts and home run chases like it was in years past. Instead of the latest tape-measure shots from Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger young stars most Americans probably havent even heard of it seems more people are talking about NBA forward Gordon Hayward leaving Utah.
Nor has this latest increase in home runs resulted in intense national debate and hand-wringing over the root cause although the possibility of extra lively baseballs has definitely been discussed inside the sport.
Theres a lot of people unhappy with the baseball, the New York Mets pitching coach, Dan Warthen, recently told USA Today. Youre seeing guys going opposite field, breaking their bats, and the balls are flying out. Its the balls. Theyre throwing harder with it, but theyre getting less movement, so theyre just hanging there. There has got to be some investigation.
What there wont be this time is a full-scale congressional investigation like there was in the midst of the steroids era. Few have claimed this latest uptick in power is due to PEDs. And that could very well be true. Or we could be foolishly forgetting (again) that athletes are always able to stay ahead of the testing curve if they want to. Even if steroids have left baseball, year-round weight training has not and muscled men connecting with baseballs left over the plate often ends with a souvenir in the seats. So, too, has offensive strategy continued to evolve in baseball, just as it did a century ago when players stopped choking up so far on the bat and suddenly found they could hit the ball a lot farther. Strike outs have skyrocketed this year and last along with home runs. The Yankees Judge already has 99 on the season; Maris struck out a total of 67 times in all of 1961. The taboo of King is gone from the game. Managers and GMs now embrace the downside of their batters striking out and sacrificing contact for the upside of more extra base hits. And all of these powerful swings are being served by pitchers with power arms unlike the game has ever seen. When a hardball travelling 98mph is met by the all-in swing of a giant, very loud things happen.
And while a baseball power surge failing to capture the national consciousness goes against decades of history, it might actually be a good thing. With the added publicity in the past, it was exhausting to see the country analyze and question every upper deck shot. And every pursuit of a baseball power record doesnt need to result in a national referendum on cheating and ethics. And every failed PED test doesnt have to be accompanied by a heartfelt discussion with Americas children. (Remember the children?)
Americas pastime is that only in history books now, but Major League Baseball is not dying as some would have us believe. The 2016 season boasted paid attendance of more than 73 million, good for 11th all-time. Last Octobers World Series brought in the best ratings in 15 years (although that was a lot to do with the Chicago Cubs historic victory). And now home runs are up. Way up. Maybe the balls are juiced. Maybe the players are. Maybe no one cares about any of it. The next baseball game you watch will probably have a home run or two or five. Feel free to just enjoy it.