BAM! POW! KABOOM! No, this isn’t a rerun of the Batman TV series from the 60’s. Its the sound coming from major league ballparks as baseballs fly over the wall. With a few games left in the regular season, more home runs have been hit in 2017 than any other time in the history of the game. And, there seems to be as many opinions on the reasons as there are home runs at the yard.
Last week, during an on-line debate with another fan, I took the position that the baseball isn’t the same as it was just a year or two ago. The other writer disagreed and brought up many salient points including launch angle, the “swinging for the fences” mentality of players, the increased average velocity of pitches, etc. While this might sound like a conversation between an “old-school” fan and one who leans toward analytics, that isn’t really the case. The best Fantasy players and most real-world baseball executives use a balanced approach toward scouting that includes statistics and eye-tests. Eye-tests sometimes fool us because anecdotal evidence can have a small sample size…like the nine HR’s hit in one game at Petco Park last week. However, when the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming and statistics are utilized to verify the results, you may have found the truth.
Let’s look at some of the anecdotal numbers…
> Less than 5,000 HR’s were hit in 2015…we are already over the 6,000 figure in 2017 (a 20% increase).
> Giancarlo Stanton of the Marlins is poised to be the first player to reach the 60 HR plateau since Barry Bonds in 2001.
> J.D. Martinez has hit 45 HR’s this season…16 in the AL and 29 in the NL.
> Scooter Gennett was claimed on waivers just prior to opening day by the Reds (in essence, the Brewers gave him away). This year, he has become the first player in history to hit four HR’s in one game and four Grand Slam HR’s during the same season. His HR totals the last three seasons are 6, 14 & 27.
> Rhys Hoskins was the #14 prospect in the Phillies organization prior to the season. After being called up to the majors on August 10th, he established a baseball record by hitting 18 HR’s in his first 34 games.
> Aaron Judge of the Yankees had a short stint in the big leagues late last season where he batted .179 with 4 HR’s in 84 AB’s. This year, he has 51 HR’s…more than any rookie in the history of baseball.
> Matt Olson was the #8 prospect in the Athletics organization last Spring. After being called up from the Minors, he had 24 HR’s in his first 184 AB’s. That’s one HR for every eight AB’s…Babe Ruth only hit one HR every 12 AB’s.
> Justin Smoak of the Blue Jays is 30 years old and had never hit more than 20 HR’s in a season…he has 38 HR’s in 2017.
> Kurt Suzuki was the regular Catcher for the Twins in 2014, 15 & 16 where he hit a total of 16 HR’s in 1,230 AB’s. This year (at age 33), as a part-time Catcher for the Braves, he has 18 HR’s in 259 AB’s.
> Details aren’t even necessary on additional career numbers by Yonder Alonso, Logan Morrison, Travis Shaw, Steven Souza and others.
Researchers have also lent their expertise to the discussion. A recent blog on fangraphs.com pointed out differing opinions about the radius of the ball being smaller or that the seams are smaller. No matter the variables, their analysis clearly believes that the ball is flying slightly further than in 2015…or 2014…or 2013. Small changes in flight distance, however, can make large differences in home run outcomes. A few months ago, the statistical website fivethirtyeight.com indicated that a study of game-used baseballs clearly showed that the balls are smaller and the seams are lower. That would result in less air resistance…or drag.
Of course, the Commissioner’s office disagrees and says that the baseballs are “within specifications”. If you’re old enough to remember Watergate, that’s what Ben Bradlee would call a “non-denial denial”. Just because something is within specifications doesn’t mean that it is the same.
A key point in the discussion is that this isn’t the first time Major League Baseball has attempted this subterfuge. Fantasy Baseball was in its infancy in 1987, but I can clearly remember that my pennant-winning team had a (skinny) rookie named Mark McGwire who hit 49 HR’s and a journeyman 3B named Brook Jacoby who smacked 32 round-trippers (never had more than 20 in any other season). It was also the year that Wade Boggs hit 24 HR’s…his average output for the other 17 seasons of his career was 6! Think about this…
> MLB HR’s 1985 = 3,602
> MLB HR’s 1986 = 3,813
> MLB HR’s 1987 = 4,458
> MLB HR’s 1988 = 3,180
> MLB HR’s 1989 = 3,083
You can’t blame the players for their home run mentality. After all, the owners still pay through the nose for mediocre performance that has highlight reel moments. Chris Davis of the Orioles is batting .219 with 26 HR’s & 188 Strikeouts but he’s making $23 Million this season. Jose Bautista is batting .204 with 23 HR’s & 165 K’s at a $17.5 Million price tag. For $22.5 Million, it seems like Joey Votto’s .319 BA & 36 HR’s is a better investment. But Votto gets criticized for not being more aggressive at the plate, even though his 80 K’s and 133 BB equates to a .454 On-Base Percentage.
In the September 18th issue of Sports Illustrated, Tom Verducci reminds us that some teams stick to a philosophy because they’re sure it works. Working the count, being more selective at the plate and putting the ball into play with two strikes are old-fashioned ideas that don’t show up in a box score. The reality, however, is that the three best teams at making contact are the Astros, Indians & Red Sox. The other category they’ll have in common is the post-season.