There’s a strange plot going on at MLB ballparks across the nation. No, there’s nothing in the water. Thank your lucky stars, Reggie Jackson, nobody’s putting you under mind control this time. And sorry, Jenry Mejia, there’s no grand conspiracy against you at the moment (at least, that we know of). No, this plot is much more sinister. Something (or someone) has caused the Home Run Derby to lose its significance! Why bother with a singular Home Run Derby, when the whole MLB season has become a Home Run Derby?
Whatever the reason, home runs are afoot (or afly?) and nobody seems to know why. Right now, the MLB is collectively on pace to hit 5,626 home runs by the end of this season, which would be the second-highest total ever, only behind 2000’s figure of 5,692. To get an idea of how weird this really is, take a look at the total number of home runs per year over the past 20 years.
Home runs have been trending downward since 2000, but for whatever reason, there’s been a huge spike in home runs over the past two years. It was a big jump in 2015, but the jump in 2016 is wholly unprecedented – STEAMER, the baseball projection algorithm that makes its home on Fangraphs, only predicted 4,670 home runs this season. This estimate would be off by almost 1,000 dingers if the current pace holds. So where did all of these long flies come from?
Theory 1: More Fireballers
A popular notion in baseball is that harder pitches tend to get sent for a ride more often. It makes sense – the harder it goes in, the harder it goes out, right? So then it follows that we should be seeing more home runs – 2015 and 2016 have been the fastest years in terms of pitch velocity of the PITCHf/x era, and pitch velocity has generally been on the rise. Case closed?
Not so fast. Harder pitches lead to fewer home runs, according to Statcast data and other sources. And comparing all of the available PITCHf/x data to home runs from 2007 to 2014, this idea is generally supported. The faster the pitches fly, the fewer the home runs.
But once 2015 and 2016 come into the mix, the whole trend gets bucked. Despite the pitches flying even faster than ever in 2015 and 2016, home runs still somehow increase at a rate not seen since the late 90s.
This home run phenomenon gets even more mysterious. Not only is it rising abnormally, it’s rising despite the fact that batters are facing the fastest pitches of the PITCHf/x era. In any case, velocity doesn’t get us any closer to an answer – it just makes the case more mysterious.
Theory 2: Steroids are Back in Style
Remember when I said that the home runs are rising “at a rate not seen since the late 90s”? Maybe this is where the answer lies. Take a look at the home run data from 1982 (when the steroid era was just beginning) to 2000 (when the steroid era peaked). Note that the 1994 and 1995 HR totals have been omitted as they are from strike-shortened years.
Wowza. It’d be difficult to explain away every single jump and fall in home runs here, but the general notion here is that steroids caused the number of home runs in the MLB to almost double (I would be remiss in neglecting to mention that the MLB also added four expansion teams over this time period, but steroids had a much bigger impact on the home run totals than they did).
So, are we seeing the rise of another steroid era? It’s the only thing in recent memory that caused leaps and bounds in the home run count comparable to this year.
The truth is that another steroid boom is unlikely. The MLB has one of the most rigorous drug testing programs in professional sports. Unless there’s some secret new drug on the market that’s being widely distributed, sneaks past all testing, and works just as well as HGH, it’s highly doubtful that the MLB would not be clued into such widespread cheating and throwing out suspensions left and right.
Theory 3: A Change in Plate Approach
Maybe there’s no external key to this mystery. Perhaps the answer is that we’re seeing a fundamental shift in the way baseball is played.
Home runs are not the only thing that’s been up this year. Hitters have been striking out at rates never seen before. As it stands, the MLB is projected to rack up 38,924 strikeouts this year. That staggering total would eclipse the previous record of 37,446 set in 2015 by almost 1,500. Tom Verducci at SI suggests that hitters this year are selling out for 3 outcomes – a home run, a strikeout, or a walk (walks are also on pace to rise significantly this year from last year). Hitters wait for a good pitch, then swing for the fences, praying they’ll make contact – and if they don’t, they strikeout.
Are more hitters actually swinging for more power and less contact this year? Looking at the numbers, one can see that hitters are making harder contact with the ball than any year since 2007, and more flyballs are leaving the yard than ever before. Verducci definitely has a strong argument. However, it’s worth noting that flyballs are being hit at a much lower rate than previous years, which means fewer hitters are lofting the ball in the manner that one would expect for people swinging for the fences every at bat. But overall, this theory holds water and makes sense.
Why are hitters taking this approach? Take a look at some of the biggest stars in baseball. In 2015, Chris Davis led all of the MLB with 47 home runs. He also had the dubious honor of leading the MLB in strikeouts, with 208 on the season. Nelson Cruz currently sits at 3rd in the MLB in HR with 23, but he’s also struck out 89 times to go with all those long balls. Trevor Story is second in the MLB in strikeouts, but nobody cares because the kid has a knack for knocking. They’re all stars because they can homer, even though they strike out far more often. More hitters are starting to take the strikeout risk and swing for the fences.
A changing dynamic in baseball is what’s most likely to blame for the increase in home runs. But I refuse to stop there…
Bonus Theory: Global Warming
What? Don’t give me that look. I’m being semi-serious here.
Studies have clearly shown that home runs increase with temperature. Temperatures have been on the rise since the 1980s. 2016 will likely be the hottest year on record. More home runs are just a symptom of rising global temperatures!
But is this what’s to blame for all the dingers? Probably not. Maybe a few more fly balls will go out in warmer weather than normally would in cooler temperatures, but certainly not 1,000 more. It’s still fun to think about, though.
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