“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” — Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park.
We have been moving to this point for years – 5,707 and counting.
Improvement in manufacturing made harder bats and tighter baseballs.
Improvements in humans made faster fastballs and more vicious swings.
Belief that chicks — and everyone else — dig the long ball led to smaller parks and, when the mood hit, the moving in of fences from where they were originally constructed.
Pay and prestige for power led to hitters eschewing a contact philosophy and a two-strike approach, and swinging as hard and as often as the rules allowed.
Math confirmed the value of home runs pretty much above all else, certainly above bunting and playing for a run at a time.
Shifts made it harder to string hits together to generate runs and made players more desirous of hitting over the shift, where no team could position players.
Sport science confirmed the proper swing path to create an ideal launch angle to get way over those shifts, and that tactic has become as popular as “Game of Thrones” – we now have a Game of Clones, with one uppercut swing after another.
Technology from video to pitching pattern breakdowns to electronic watches (wink to the Red Sox) has alerted batters like never before what is coming and when and where.
And, let’s not be naïve, chemists somewhere have cooked up strengthening concoctions that currently evade MLB’s testing for illegal performance enhancers.
We look for simple and solo reasons for 5,707 and counting. But this is not about one thing. It is about one plus one plus one plus one … and you get all the way to 5,707 homers and counting.
By the time you read this, 5,707 may be extinct, like the dinosaurs were supposed to be before Jurassic Park or 5,693. That was the old season home run record, set in 2000, threatened last year (5,610) and eradicated Tuesday, with two weeks still left in the season.
In a bit of irony fit for this season, Kansas City’s Alex Gordon hit the record shot at a time when he had the worst slugging percentage in the majors among qualifiers. It was a reminder that in 2017, everyone hits the ball over the fence.
Consider Scooter was once Rizzuto, who hit 38 homers in a career. This year it is Gennett, who hit four in a game and 26 so far in all — six more than his two previous years combined. There are five Mikes with at least 20 homers (Moustakas, Napoli, Trout, Conforto and Zunino), one Maikel (Franco), one Miguel (Sano) and the guy who leads the majors in homers used to go by Mike: Giancarlo Stanton.
I would drop the mike here and move on, but my question — like that of the fictitious Dr. Malcolm — is not could we get to the point where the ball goes out with this frequency, but should we have gotten here? Has all the one plus one plus one that has led to 5,707 and counting actually been good for the game?
The sport is still doing exceedingly well. But Commissioner Rob Manfred is concerned about the lack of balls in play on the field, and besides homers, this season also is going to set the record for strikeouts, while walks are the highest they have been in eight years. There is synergy in those three events.
The homer used to be the glamour occurrence in sports, and nothing diminished its status like the steroid age. But I wonder if it is taking another hit right now by being hit too often and by too many. MLB should never want the home run to become ho-hum.
Twenty homers used to designate valuable power. In 2017, 115 of the 235 players who have come to the plate at least 350 times have 20 homers. That is nearly half (48.9 percent) of the regularly used players in the game. I know chicks dig the long ball, but they also dig George Clooney. Would they in the same way if half the men on the planet looked like him?
There were actually 116 players with 20 homers, one shy of last year’s record (that is going to be obliterated, too). The 116th guy is Oakland’s Matt Olson, who was not even called up regularly until Aug. 8 and has just 202 plate appearances and 23 homers, including in five straight games through Tuesday.
That feels like a big story, but at some point fatigue sets in when Gary Sanchez is the fastest to X number of homers in his career, followed quickly by Aaron Judge and then Cody Bellinger and then Rhys Hoskins and now Olson.
Remember when you used to have to serve an apprenticeship to learn how to drive the ball with authority? Well, 15 rookies have topped 20 homers over the last two years, including a record nine this year, three more than ever before.
Ten players have more than 20 homers and a batting average of .220 or less – five more than any other season ever. There are 20 players with 20 homers and at least 150 strikeouts, and there are going to be at least 10 more (the record is 22 last year). It is one thing to have Adam Dunn. It is another to have a sport littered with them.
The game is at its best when the ball is in play, and we see the athletic genius and team coordination necessary to create runs and outs. For example, I believe we live in the greatest age for defensive center fielders ever, with Jackie Bradley Jr., Byron Buxton, Kevin Kiermaier, Kevin Pillar, etc., and the sport is just not as fun when all we do is watch them watch balls fly over the fence.
Now, my gut tells me evolution (no more dinosaur references) will counteract this. As recently as 2014, homers were at their lowest per game average since 1992. A combination of smart people and happenstance attacked the issue, and we are going to have roughly 2,000 more homers than three seasons ago. In front offices and clubhouses everywhere, there is an ongoing attempt to lower that number again.
Will some fences be moved back? Will pitchers who more regularly locate to power-deflating areas be valued over pure velocity? Will something be done to take the air out of the baseball?
Home runs are glorious, but less so if every Tom, Dick and Rhys is hitting them in bushels. Like even eating chocolate, too much of anything ultimately becomes unappetizing. I think we have reached that at 5,707 and counting.