The home run is the most exciting play in baseball. Whether it’s leading off a game or walking one off, there’s nothing quite like watching a man and a 34+ oz bat drive a little, leather ball 400 feet in a split second. But in 2019, things are getting a bit ridiculous when it comes to the long ball.
Yes, I know, the regular season is just about over and this topic has already been heavily discussed, so why write about it now? Well, for starters, the Minnesota Twins not only clinched the American League Central Division Title, they set a record for the most home runs in a season: 300. The most by a team in a single season, and there’s still time for more (No. 301 was hit later that same game).
The previous record of 267 longballs was set just a season ago by the New York Yankees, who are also prepared to eclipse the 300 mark. The MLB total is going to surpass the previous record by 500 home runs and no one seems to have the answer for the increase. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred continues to refute any claims that the ball has been altered to benefit home run totals, until recently.
In a recent interview with Forbes, Manfred addressed the increasing home run totals throughout the league, stating a more predictable baseball would be beneficial.
“We have reconvened the group of scientists that worked with us before [on the initial study],” Manfred said. “We’ve asked them to take a fresh look at everything that is occurring with the baseball. We expect to get this new report shortly after the World Series.”
“The only thing I’m prepared to say at this point and time is I do think that we need to see if we can make some changes that gives us a more predictable, consistent performance from the baseball,” Manfred added.
Manfred has seemingly taken a new stance on the issue since the All-Star Break. Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander made some very abrupt comments on the state of the baseball after being named the American League starter for the midsummer classic. He even went as far as to call the baseballs a joke.
“Yes. 100 percent,” Verlander told ESPN in July, as quoted in a USA Today article. “They’ve been using juiced balls in the Home Run Derby forever. They know how to do it.”
Verlander had allowed 26 home runs at that point in the season, just four shy of the Cy Young winner’s career high. Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle also noticed the baseballs were a little more slick than previously, joining Verlander’s criticisms stemming from spring training in 2018.
“It’s not coincidence,” Verlander said, and was quoted in the same article. “I find it really hard to believe that Major League Baseball owns Rawlings and just coincidentally the balls become juiced.”
Back in 2018, Major League Baseball paid nearly $400 million to buy Rawlings, the official baseball and helmet supplier of the league. While the league believed the acquisition protects the integrity of the game, the move has raised more questions than answers and the statistics back it up.
USA Today’s Bob Nightengale looked at this issue at the beginning of May, when the numbers suggested a historic trend of home runs. Three teams at the time were on pace to eclipse 300 long balls, with the Twins being the one to do it, but Nightengale went as far as the Triple-A numbers. In the first year the minor league affiliates were to use the same baseballs as the MLB, home run numbers spiked a dramatic 47.1 % while the ball was leaving the park at nearly double the rate of the previous season (2.56 per game compared to 1.74).
And of course, the totals in the MLB coincide with the Triple-A findings. Mets’ rookie first baseman Pete Alonso crushed 51 home runs this season and is the second rookie (!!) in the last three seasons to surpass the half-century mark after Yankees’ outfield Aaron Judge set the rookie record at 52 in 2017. The Mets, as a team, have surpassed previous franchise home run records and have five players with 20 or more home runs. They’re not the only team like this either.
Joc didn't think he got all of it.
He got all of it. pic.twitter.com/QZMJPVv0zD
— Subscribe to Cut4 on YouTube!!!! (@Cut4) September 25, 2019
Here’s a list of teams with four or more players with 20+ home runs: Twins (8), Yankees (7), Astros (7), Red Sox (6), Cubs (6), Brewers (5), Braves (4), Dodgers (4) and Indians (4). That’s a lot of long balls and a lot of players reaching career highs. Could there be a resurgence of players using PEDs? Sure. That’s not totally out of the question as Nightengale reported earlier this year, but that can not explain everything.
The bottom line is, baseballs are leaving ballparks at unprecedented rates and it is not good for the game. Pitchers, even the most dominant, are left wondering what they’re doing wrong as what seem to be routine fly balls fly over the wall. Did you see Joc Pederson leave the batter’s box frustrated over what he thought was a pop out that just happened to sail over the fence? Just about anything in the air these days has a chance and it doesn’t matter who’s at the plate.
Home runs used to be rare enough that seeing one was a spectacle. Now they’re so common you almost expect to see a handful a game. Sure they’re fun for the casual fan and maybe it’s MLB’s way of getting more people through the turnstiles. But for a baseball purist, as I like to consider myself to be, the juiced/enhanced/whatever-you-want-to-call-them baseballs are taking away from the game.
Launch angle and an all-or-nothing mentality has increased home runs as well as strikeouts while pure hitters have gone by the wayside. What happened to enjoying all facets of the game? Small ball, situational hitting and, of course, the pure power hitters. There’s a time and a place for everything in baseball and the home run does not have to be an every at-bat occurrence.
For myself and fans everywhere, as I know I’m not the only one, we just want the MLB to be consistent. If they changed the baseball, which the evidence says they may have, be honest about it (but also change it back). Own up to it. It’ll go in the history books the way the Steroid Era will, a part of baseball’s history. But for MLB, there’s no need to alter a game that was perfect the way it was.