Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 21, 2017

The Era Of The Dinger Has Arrived

Let’s return to the very first game of the longest season, all those months ago. In the bottom of the 2nd inning, before decidedly less than a full house at Tropicana Field, Tampa Bay’s Evan Longoria lined the second pitch he saw from the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka into the left field seats. It was the first home run of Major League Baseball’s 2017 campaign. It would not be the last. The Rays added another homer later in that first contest, and five more were hit that Sunday in the two games that followed, three in the contest between the Giants and the Diamondbacks, and a pair in the matchup between the Cardinals and the Cubs.

The long balls continued the next day, as almost all the other teams got into action (the Tigers and White Sox were rained out). There was the season’s first walkoff blast in Baltimore, a pair of leadoff homers that staked the Phillies and Astros to quick leads neither team would relinquish, and the fifth moonshot in as many Opening Days by Bryce Harper, to highlight but a few of the 26 balls soaring over fences on that first Monday of play.

April turned to May, and in time spring yielded to summer, and now the first day of autumn is at hand; just two weekends remain in the regular season. Through all of the games from that opening Sunday until this week, the surge in home run production has continued. Giancarlo Stanton of the Marlins leads the majors, stroking his 56th Wednesday night, helping Miami rout the Mets. The Yankees’ Aaron Judge hit his AL best 45th earlier the same day as New York rolled over the Twins. Stanton still has a shot at the non-steroid record of 61, and Judge might still overtake the rookie mark of 49, set by Mark McGwire in 1987.

But this season of home runs has not just been about a couple of sluggers chasing records. All up and down lineups for both contenders and also-rans, batters have been swinging for the fences and connecting with never before seen frequency.

During the 2000 regular season hitters racked up 5,693 home runs, the most in the history of the majors. The Great Game last expanded in 1998 with the addition of the Diamondbacks and Rays. With two more teams in the mix that was the first year that total home run production topped 5,000 and it remained above that threshold for nine straight seasons, including 2000’s high water mark. Of course most of those years were during a time when the swings of some number of sluggers were chemically enhanced. The record was set four years before MLB introduced mandatory testing for PEDs.

Whether because of stiffer drug testing or other factors, home run production dropped below 5,000 in 2007. From that season through 2015 the 5,000 homer barrier was breached only once, in 2009. Just three seasons ago, in 2014, total home runs fell to 4,186, the lowest number in two decades. From that trough the rise has been as dramatic as any towering drive by Stanton or Judge. There was an increase to 4,909 in 2015 and a further jump to 5,610 last season. Which bring us to Tuesday of this week, and its full slate of fifteen contests. As the games got underway a record was ready to fall.

The season long tally stood at 5,677 as play began. In Miami, the Mets’ Jose Reyes quickly added to the total by leading off the game against the Marlins with a drive to right. A short while later, on Florida’s other coast, Chicago’s Kyle Schwarber got the Cubs on the board with a 2nd inning solo shot in a game against Tampa Bay. The evening wore on and the home runs kept flying, as they have all season long, until finally Detroit’s Alex Presley hit the 5,693rd homer of 2017, the fourth of six balls hit out of Comerica Park on Tuesday.

A few minutes later and a couple hundred miles to the northeast, Kansas City’s Alex Gordon strode to the plate at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. It was the 8th inning of a late season game between two teams with losing records. The Blue Jays had a comfortable 5-1 lead, and Toronto manager John Gibbons had just gone to his bullpen, bringing in Ryan Tepera in relief of starter Marcus Stroman. Gordon, the Royals’ leadoff batter in the inning, gradually worked the count full before fouling off a 95 mile per hour fastball. Finally, on the seventh pitch of the at-bat, Blue Jay’s catcher Russell Martin set up inside, but Tepera’s cutter drifted back over the heart of the plate, and Gordon squared up. The ball sailed into right center, easily clearing the fence, and history was made.

Before the night was out another thirteen homers were hit, the last one a solo shot by the Angels’ Justin Upton, long after fans on the east coast had gone to bed. At the season-long rate of about 2.5 homers per game, the old record will be thoroughly shattered by the time the final regular season out is recorded next Sunday, with 2017 almost certainly becoming the first 6,000 homer year.

The dramatic power surge has left both fans and pundits searching for an explanation. Mindful of baseball’s problems at the turn of the century, questions about performance enhancers naturally come to mind. But while all our sports will always have those participants who believe they can get away with cheating, MLB’s testing program is sufficiently rigorous that the idea of wholesale abuse is highly improbable, if not outright laughable. Some players firmly believe that it’s not the hitters but the ball that is juiced, but commissioner Rob Manfred insists that no changes have been made in either the specifications or manufacturing process of the official Rawlings baseball.

The most likely answer lies in a fundamental shift in the approach to batting now taken by most players. Vastly more data is available to players now than at any time in the past, allowing hitters to develop swings that maximize launch angle and exit velocity. Modern metrics have largely eliminated the curse of the strikeout, once every hitter’s bane. Now the “K” is regarded as just another out, no worse than a flyball to the warning track. That frees up batters to swing away, and yes, along with home runs, total strikeouts are up as well.

The result is a shift to a power game, which has some traditionalists lamenting the demise of the old strategies of hit-and-runs, stolen bases, and the timely bunt. But the truth is that for all its timelessness, the Great Game is also always changing, and players, both at the plate and in the field, are always finding ways to adapt. These years may one day be known as the Home Run Era, but keep in mind that we’re but two years removed from Alex Gordon’s Royals winning the World Series while hitting just two homers, and one of those didn’t leave the park.

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