Back in the formative years of my youth, the long ball was king. In 1998, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa broke the then-thought-unbreakable record of 61 home runs, with Ken Griffey Jr. not far behind. The next year, they both did it again. In 2001, Barry Bonds hit seventy-fucking-three of ’em. It was exciting, actually. In the latter half of the 2010’s, more home runs are being hit than at the peak of the “steroid era”, but is that a good thing?
In 1968, after Bob Gibson and SIX other starters had earned run averages below 2.00 (2 runs allowed per 9 innings pitched), MLB lowered the pitching mound from 15 inches to 10 as well as tightening the strike zone area over the plate. It was a means to bolster offense and give the game a jolt of excitement it had been missing. The 1969 season saw every offensive statistic jump, some considerably.
A thing to note here is that more contact also meant more balls in play, which resulted in more guys grounding into double plays, as seen at the far right of the table above.
American League offense improved again in 1973 when the designated hitter position was born, eliminating the pitcher position from the lineup.
Offense seems to have always been MLB’s white whale, always chasing without knowing the danger of actually finding it.
You can find any number of articles about how baseball is dying, dating back nearly every year since the early 20th Century. The sport tries to correct itself often, and for the most part these are good for the game. Integration and expansion altered the game greatly in the middle of the last century.
The game grew in every phase. Records, long-thought to be unbreakable, crumbled on national TV. Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, and Randy Johnson all improved on the trails blazed by Walter Johnson, Warren Spahn, and Sandy Koufax. But pitching always felt like the enemy of the sport. While individual performances were hallmark moments of the game, the strength of the pitching class in full could wear down the excitement of the sport.
The most spectacular way to add offense isn’t to bring the fences in, its to put the ball past them. After the 1994 strike, baseball needed a lift. Cal Ripken Jr. playing his 2,131st consecutive game, a new record, helped. What the public wanted was dingers, and the superhumans of the steroid era were here to provide.
It’s blatantly obvious that players were juiced in the 90’s, and that’s fine. Its a product of the game allowing it. Once MLB clamped down on steroids in baseball after the turn of the century, they turned their back on those who had essentially saved baseball and opened the eyes of the young generation (yours truly, included).
Home run figures dwindled off, and single-season totals of 60 were rarely threatened. Between 2003 and 2015, only once had someone hit more than 55 homers- Ryan Howard with 58 in 2006. A high total was achievable, but it was not an accurate sample of the whole.
Flash forward to this season, where home runs are suspiciously frequent. Steroid testing is frequent and suspensions are harsh. Commissioner Rob Manfred has made a statement claiming the baseballs have not been doctored in anyway to increase offense, even if strikeouts per game have increased by nearly 2 per game since 2010.
The fact is, four of the five highest home runs per game averages in history have come in the last four years, with 2000 being the lone outlier.
Notice in the above chart that while home runs in the recent years are at or above the 2000 season, nearly every other statistic is lower- except walks and strikeouts.
Baseball has three true outcomes, plays where the ball is not put in play in any manner that a defensive player could impact the play. This means that in any pitch that ends in a walk, strikeout, or home run, the defense can just hang out. Despite these being the most thrilling aspects of the pitcher – batter duel, in high supply, they become less interesting.
It is evident that the composition of the baseballs has changed, and that would be fine if MLB just came out and said as such. And don’t get me wrong, seeing a home run when you’re at a game is still one of the most electrifying moments in sports. But has the league made them somehow less of a jaw-dropping moment than they were before?
Its almost as if the home run has lost its luster. When something is rare, it’s special. Even when Sammy Sosa was hitting 60 every season, it felt like something truly exceptional. We don’t see those giant season figures anymore, but the floor has risen to the ceiling quite a bit.
More players will hit 20+ home runs than in any season in MLB history. Add 30+ and 40+ to that as well. While it seems incredibly unlikely Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, or Cody Bellinger will hit more than 60, the league as a whole will hit nearly one and a half home runs per game, a staggering figure compared to any of the last 149 years.
Much like pitching in the 1960’s, batters today are at a critical level of production in glamour stats. The difference is that pitchers now are also averaging 3 more strikeouts a game than they were before the mound drop of 1968. Lowering the mound or squeezing the strike zone will only bolster the long ball.
The risk at hand is correcting this, and doing so in a way that stabilizes both strikeouts and home runs on the whole. Loosening the laces, changing the composition of the ball’s core, and even pushing the mound back six inches to a full 61 feet from home plate could, in theory, accomplish this. Putting baseballs in play is the goal. This will speed the game up and give us more defensive magic that is slowly eroding from the game.
Baseball is not dying, not even close. It just needs to change its diet a little bit.