Bad Ball: MLB’s Baseball/Home Run Bacchanalia
If the San Francisco Giants indeed deal for the slugging superstar Giancarlo Stanton, it would be a needed jolt to their moribund lineup. But, even if Giants fans in the left field bleachers would feel a lot more love at the vast confines of AT&T with Stanton pumping out souvenirs, chances are his numbers would likely go down from the Ruthian heights (59 HRs) he’d reached in 2017. Consider the punishing effects AT&T has on power hitters. The Giants hit 128 home runs as a team in 2017, compared to the National League average of 196.
If Stanton’s home run numbers do come down, it would be a welcome development in a game on the verge of losing credibility and once again making a mockery of its time-honored record books.
But, we need more than baseball’s top slugger to change his team address to address what I consider to be a loathsome trend. We need baseball’s brass to recognize the harm that the home run culture is doing to the game.
The major league record 6,106 home runs hit in 2017, otherwise known as Baseball’s Bacchanalia, easily surpassed the previous record of 5,693, which was set in 2000, the height of the Steroid Era. The World Series of 2017 was a microcosm: The Astros and Dodgers combined to hit 27 home runs. Compared to that, the last two World Series that went seven games – in 2014 and 2016 – had a combined 23 home runs.
The power trend began midway through 2015 and accelerated in 2016, when major leaguers hit 5,610 home runs. This all came at a time when baseball was gnashing and gnawing over worries that the game was too slow and in jeopardy of losing audience share, with younger, less loyal sports fans tuning out as pitchers ruminated with catchers over the next pitch and infielders moved to the other side of the infield in yet another counter-intuitive, grating, analytics-driven shift.
Yes, we are coming off perhaps one of the most memorable World Series in recent history, which featured one of the most entertaining single games in Series history – the Astros’ 10-inning 13-12 win in over the Dodgers in Game 5. But, in that game, in that Series, and throughout the entire postseason, something was just a bit off. The delicate balance between pitchers and hitters teetered toward something unnatural, unrecognizable and unseemly. Home runs seemed cheap and, worse, they drowned out the more subtle aspects of the game. For instance, there was barely a thought given to base stealing. Remember the cat and mouse games between Luis Tiant and Joe Morgan in the 1975 Series, where the prospect of a stolen base held the nation in suspense? There were four stolen bases in the entire Series, none with any impact whatsoever.
We thought we’d left the artificial boosting of home runs behind when MLB banned performance enhancing drugs and instituted testing. But, with a simple tweak – manufacturing baseballs with lower seams, which allows balls to fly further upon contract, MLB has essentially put the same finger on the scales toward more offense as PEDs. But, if everyone is hitting home runs, how meaningful can they be? How much credence can we ascribe to the totals? Are the power numbers any more credible than those put up during the Steroid Era?
Baseball analysts have offered their own explanations for MLB’s power surge. Hitters are now being developed to swing for the fences. They are being instructed in the science of launch degrees and swing arc. They are letting loose, striking out at a record pace with impunity. Their approach, in other words, is single minded and steeped in the conventional wisdom of today’s analytics: a home run is a much more efficient way to score than any other.
But is all this enlightenment at the expense of the game itself? And, are the game’s owners and executives exacerbating the trends with artificial enhancements? What happened to the baseballs this year? Pitchers complained during the season that the seams were lower, only to watch warning track fly balls turn to home runs. To make things worse during the post season, the actual texture of the baseballs was slicker, preventing pitchers from gripping the balls properly and affecting certain pitches that otherwise had been effective weapons on the mound.
Major League ballplayers are not wont to complain publicly about conditions in the game; they are the best paid athletes in the world, so they understand the terrible optics of multi-millionaires whining. Still, midway through the World Series, the frustration hit a breaking point and the dam broke: pitchers and pitching coaches from both teams complained about the balls, saying they’d been manufactured to increase the long ball. At one point, Justin Verlander threw out three straight balls that had not met his satisfaction on the mound.
The numbers don’t lie.
A key test to the veracity of today’s home run figures lies in the number of previously mediocre players who had breakout years. Take Justin Smoak. For years, he’d toiled as a middling power hitter, averaging 16.5 home runs a year through six seasons with the Mariners and Blue Jays. A modern day, albeit rich-man’s, Don Mincher or Norm Siebern. Granted, Smoak hit 32 home runs over the previous two seasons in 596 at bats. But, he’d never hit more than 20 home runs in a single season while compiling a lifetime batting average of .223. Yet, here he was at age 30 earning his first all-star berth and finishing up with 38 home runs – nearly double his previous high – and even carrying a respectable .270 batting average.
An even better example: Logan Morrison had hit all of 84 home runs in his seven year career – 82 over the previous six seasons. Throwing out his first year, he’d averaged 13.6 home runs a season. He’d homered every 26.8 times at bat in that six-year span. But, suddenly, in 2017, Morrison, also at age 30, turned into a legit slugger, mashing out 38 home runs in 512 at bats. That’s one home run every 13.4 at bats. Do the math: he’d doubled his power surge overnight.
How about players who’d already established themselves as stars but not in the home run arena? Say, Francisco Lindor. He’d totaled 27 home runs over his first two seasons, but leaped to 33 in his third season.
Travis Shaw hit 29 home runs in the cozy confines of Fenway Park over his first two seasons but more than doubled that output in 2017 alone with 31 after moving over to the Milwaukee Brewers. Tampa Bay’s Steven Souza hit 16 home runs in 2015 and 17 in 2016, but launched himself into home run orbit with 30 in 2017. The Reds’ Scott Schebler hit 9 home runs in half a season in 2016 only to jump to 30 in 2017. Yasiel Puig hit 28 home runs last year, and sure, Dodgers fans have been waiting for him to break out after starting out with 19 in his rookie year. But he’d hit a plateau over the next three years with an average of 13 home runs, placing his career in serious jeopardy.
How about Zack Cozart? He was a light hitting infielder who’d averaged 1 home run every 40.1 at bats prior to 2017, a .246 lifetime hitter with a measly .360 slugging percentage. At age 32, apparently, he put it all together, not only increasing his batting average to .297, but slamming 24 home runs in 438 at bats, or one home run every 18.25 at bats, and putting together an eye-popping .548 slugging rate. I would have liked to be a fly on the wall of one of Cozart’s victims as he circled the bases on one of his 24 dingers.
Elvis Andrus’ 20 home runs stands out on his baseball card because it follows eight years of single digit home run years. He’d hit 35 home runs in 5,268 at bats, or one home run every 132.1 at bats. In 2017, Andrus hit a home run every 32.2 at bats. Something is indeed rotten in Denmark.
One can even be skeptical of the numbers posted by the loveable Aaron Judge, who won the hearts and minds of Yankees fans – who spent the summer celebrating the “jury box” in right field with fans dressed in robes and white powder wigs amid the rallying cry of “All Rise.” In three previous seasons in the minor leagues, Judge hit 17, 20 and 19 home runs. His talent and power are unquestionable. But, the big jump in home runs from the minor leagues to the majors only adds to the suspicion that MLB goosed the game. Unless the pitching in the Sally, Eastern and International leagues was that much more superior to that of the Majors.
Even Stanton’s home run totals depart from his history. No one argues that Stanton is as fine a physical specimen as there is, and that he can hit balls farther than most human beings on this planet. And, sure, a ballplayer can finally come into his own after taking years to figure it out. But Stanton had never hit 40 home runs, never mind 50. He’d hit 37 twice as his personal best, averaging just under 30 home runs over his seven year career. OK. Roger Maris hadn’t yet hit 40 or 50 home runs before scaling the mountains to reach 61 (he’d hit a league-leading 39 the year before his record-breaking season). That was a year of the home run, with many sluggers reaching heights they’d never see again. System wide, the main attribute of that season was the quality of pitching: It was the year of expansion, so the pitching was watered down.
I don’t believe the pitching is watered down in an era of pitchers who routinely throw 95 miles per hour. These career turnarounds for hitters would have raised an eyebrow or two during the Steroid Era. But, now that the game is purportedly clean and MLBs drug testing regime is acting as a deterrent for most ballplayers, the results defy an easy explanations but should inspire a healthy dose of skepticism.
Whatever the culprit – and I do believe there is a rational explanation (greed, a desire to generate excitement in the game) — these numbers serve to distort history. Just as the inflated home run figures of the Steroids Era, home runs riding easily through the air on balls with less friction are a fraud. We can bring proportionality back to the game if the owners and Commissioner Rob Manfred set aside their quick-buck natures and comport themselves as stewards of the game.
I’d like to see what Stanton can do – wherever he goes next season – without the aid of a juiced baseball.