Sunday, September 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Some theories on why MLB home runs have taken off

TORONTO — The postseason began in Toronto on Tuesday with two fitting representatives of baseball in 2016. The Orioles led the majors in home runs. The Blue Jays ranked second in homers among playoff teams. Each team had six players with 20 or more homers.

The Orioles did not set a major league record for homers; their 253 fell 11 homers short of the 1997 Mariners. The majors' leading home run hitter, Baltimore's Mark Trumbo, hit 47 — impressive, but nothing approaching a record.

For casual observers, then, this year's home run explosion might have seemed fairly subtle. Yet only one season featured more home runs: the 2000 season, with 5,693. This year's total was 5,610. Nobody hit 50, but everyone seemed to hit 30.

That is only a slight exaggeration. Just two years ago, in 2014, just 11 players hit 30 home runs. This season, 38 players did. Overall, players hit 701 more homers than they did in 2015 and 1,424 more than they did in 2014.

An understandable conclusion, given how quickly the numbers have spiked, is that the ball must be juiced. An alternative — another widespread epidemic of juiced players — would be crippling to a sport still scrubbing off the stain of its delay in implementing testing for steroids.

Commissioner Rob Manfred, in town for Tuesday's game, reiterated his stance from July: The game has evolved, but the ball is the same.

"We have tested the baseball — we are absolutely convinced that this issue is not driven by a difference in the baseball," he said. "My own view is that the spike is related to the way the game is being played now, the way that we are training hitters from a very young age. We have not been able to find any external cause that explains the spike in home runs."

The game has, indeed, become a largely all-or-nothing exercise: Besides the surge in home runs, strikeouts reached another record high in 2016, and sacrifice hits reached a record low.

Steve Phillips, the former Mets general manager who was covering Tuesday's game for TSN in Canada, cited three plausible on-field theories for why home runs were up.

"Everybody does a leg kick now; even little guys," said Phillips, who also hosts for MLB Network Radio. "There's nobody that's a slap hitter anymore. It's completely different in the way you can generate the bat to the ball and rotate your hips."

He continued: "And when you look at these bats now, they are so lacquered. You don't even see the grains anymore. It's almost like they've got this coating on the outside of it.

"And the other thing that happened was everybody said: ‘All right, let's get all these flamethrowers.' But guys can hit fastballs. So the average fastball might be more now, but the hitters, all they do is change their timing, so they've caught up to that as well. You've got a lot of guys with good fastballs now that don't have as good secondary stuff."

In the background of any power increase, though, are bound to be echoes of the steroid era. Testing for performance-enhancing drugs dates to 2003, and baseball's current policy is widely considered to be very strong.

At the start, though, it was more complicated. Baseball conducted anonymous survey testing in 2003 to determine whether to enact further testing with penalties. David Ortiz was on the list of more than 100 players who tested positive, and Manfred raised the possibility Sunday that at least 10 of those players had test results that were not as clear-cut as the others.

"There were legitimate scientific questions about whether or not those were truly positives," Manfred told reporters Sunday. He said the test results in question were never vetted "because we knew they didn't matter."

"We knew we had enough positives that everyone agreed on that we knew we were going to trigger the testing the following year," he said.

Asked Tuesday if he were trying to give guidelines to voters as they consider Ortiz's Hall of Fame case, Manfred said, "The only thing that I've ever said on that topic is, I see a huge difference between players who are caught, suspended — whether it's because of a positive test or some investigation — on the one hand, and writers have to make a judgment about what that means. On the other hand, I do think that it's unfair to base a decision on rumor, innuendo or what I regard to be an ambiguous piece of information that was never intended to be public in the first place."

Ortiz will be eligible for the Hall of Fame on the 2021 ballot. In the meantime, he will try to lead the Red Sox to another championship. When they last won, in 2013, several of their postseason victories turned on homers.

Extreme power, of course, is no guarantee of success. The Royals put just one ball over the fence in last fall's World Series, but they beat the Mets in five games with a relentless lineup of contact hitters. The Giants had no 30-home run hitters on the rosters of their 2010, 2012 and 2014 champions.

This is not just a small-sample fluke. Elliott Kalb of MLB Network studied every postseason since 1995, the first to feature wild-card teams. Only once did the postseason team with the most regular-season homers end up winning the World Series: the 2009 Yankees. Only one other team, the 1995 Indians, even won the pennant.

More than half the time, the leading home run team was bounced in the division series — including those 1997 Mariners, with Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Edgar Martinez, who could not solve the Orioles' Mike Mussina in a quiet four-game exit.

This year's Orioles team scored 51.9 percent of its runs via homers; only one team — the 2010 Blue Jays, at 53.1 percent — had a higher figure. The 2016 Mets were right behind the Orioles, at 51.1 percent.

"You've just got to know who you are and who you're not," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "It's about scoring runs. If we had some different people show up, we would play a different game."

More and more teams are playing this type of game, the power game, again. We will know soon enough how it translates to October.

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