Monday, April 23, 2018
Sports

MLB watches as home run count soars

The All-Stars dressed in yellow and brown on Monday, making the field at Petco Park look, from above, like a grill full of cheeseburgers. The homage to the host San Diego Padres, who once wore similar uniforms, helped distinguish Home Run Derby day from every other day of this curious baseball season.

Home runs are up. Way, way up. Baseball arrived at the All-Star break with hitters on pace for more than 5,600 home runs, a level exceeded only once in history: in 2000, at the height of the steroid era.

"I'd like to say that guys aren't cheating," said Stephen Vogt, the Oakland A's catcher and a former Ray. "Everybody's going to speculate — right? — when the home-run numbers go up. But we are cleaning up the game, and I hope that's not the reason behind it."

Before 2003, when baseball began testing for performance-enhancing drugs, we searched for reasons to explain the surge in homers. Expansion, smaller ballparks and better nutrition all played a part — but history, rightly, gave steroids most of the blame.

So what now? Besides Dee Gordon — last year's NL leader in batting average and steals — the players caught in this season's drug net have mostly been marginal. Perhaps some sluggers are beating the system, but a widespread epidemic seems unlikely.

Commissioner Rob Manfred says he is not worried about performance-enhancing drugs being the reason.

"The increase in the number of home runs takes place against a very, very different backdrop," Manfred told the Baseball Writers' Association of America on Tuesday. "It takes place against the backdrop where Major League Baseball does 22,000 drug tests a year."

But something is happening. Two years ago, there were 4,186 home runs, or 0.86 per team per game. That was the lowest figure in any of the past 20 full seasons, dating to 1996. This season, there are 1.16 homers per team per game, up from 1.01 in 2015.

Put another way, at the current pace, home runs will rise by more than 700 over the previous season for the second year in a row. And one suspicious pitcher is keeping his theories private. "I'm not going to be the one who throws that stone," said Washington Nationals starter Max Scherzer, who leads the NL in homers allowed.

"But if they are up significantly, it would be interesting to see what MLB actually thinks about it."

Spokesman Mike Teevan said MLB does "extensive reviews of the performance of the baseball, and there have been no differences" to explain the increase in homers. Strikeouts, said starter Jon Lester of the Chicago Cubs, are also rising, and hitters are taking a different approach. "Guys are willing to take their punch-outs to hit the ball in the air, and swing hard in case they hit it," he said.

That theory would seem to make sense, especially as hitters react to the increasing use of infield shifts. Yet the overall percentage of fly balls has not risen. According to Fangraphs, it is 34.2 percent now; only two of the past 15 seasons have been lower.

What has changed is that a greater percentage of fly balls are turning into home runs. At 12.9 percent, that figure is the highest it has been since Fangraphs started tracking the statistic in 2002. At least in one sense, perhaps, throwing harder may be working against pitchers.

Vogt said he had been calling more fastballs up lately, because umps seem more willing to call them strikes. Missing with a high fastball can lead to homers, of course, and so can a poorly placed cutter. "The cutter has become such a big pitch, and more guys are trying to throw it," Vogt said. "But a cutter that doesn't cut is a really good pitch to hit out."

Vogt and other catchers, like Milwaukee's Jonathan Lucroy, said they had noticed nothing different about the baseballs — which, of course, they handle as often as pitchers.

"We throw those things so much, we'd be able to tell if there's something different about them," Lucroy said.

Lucroy pointed to recent changes at some ballparks — where fences have all come in — as having an impact. But some pitchers, like Texas' Cole Hamels, have thrived at smaller venues because they have multiple weapons to keep hitters guessing. Younger pitchers are rarely as skilled.

"When guys don't have four pitches they can essentially throw for strikes, that makes it a lot tougher," Hamels said. "Guys are just homing in on certain counts and what guys have done statistically in the past, and they're getting it."

Contributing: AP

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