Age of the Home Run

So a couple of days ago, in the second game of the World Series, eight home run were hit between the two teams.  That is an all time record for a World Series game.  I admit that surprised me; they’ve been playing the World Series for over a hundred years and there have been games in the regular season where one team hit eight homers (the Blue Jays once hit ten in a game) so I assumed at some point some World Series game would have been a homerfest, but there it is.  It does NOT surprise me that the record is of recent vintage, though, because there have never been more home runs being hit.

This year the average team hit 204 home runs.  Those are staggering totals, the highest ever.  By way of comparison, in 1992, when the Jays won their first World Series and it certainly did not feel like there was a lack of home runs, the average team hit about 115.  Baseballs are hurtling out of parks at record rates, and sure enough people are blaming the baseballs.  Houston pitcher Dallas Keuchel (that is a real name) has accused the authorities of “juicing” the baseballs to make fans happy with more homers.  Of course, many will say the players are all juiced.

It’s nonsense.  The reason there are more home runs is that players are trying to hit more home runs.

I know that sounds weird – wouldn’t players always try to hit home runs? – but no, not always.  Let me give you a little history lesson.

Baseball was a major professional sport before airplanes were invented; it’s very old.  Back in olden days, players hit very few home runs.  For about the first 40 years of major league baseball the home run record was 27, and it was common for a guy to lead the league by hitting 9 or something like that.  Frank Baker won four straight home run titles hitting 11, 10, 12 and 9, and he once hit two home runs in a World Series, and that so impressed people they actually called him “Home Run Baker” the rest of his life.

The reason people didn’t hit a lot of home runs is largely because they didn’t think it was worth trying.  It was assumed that if you tried to hit the ball in the air you would usually fail and just fly out a lot, so your objective was to hit line drives and try to get singles, doubles and triples.  The worst thing you could do was strike out; that was to be avoided at all costs.

Then a guy named Babe Ruth came along.  Ruth was a pitcher, and so nobody cared if he was a good hitter or not and did not bother to correct his love of trying to hit the ball over the fence even if he flied out or struck out.  And it worked – so well, they stopped him from pitching and put him in the outfield so he could hit more (and he was a great pitcher, so that was something.)  He set a new record with 29 homers.  And the next year he hit 54.  Then 59.  Later, 60.  He struck out a lot and flew out, but somehow it worked; he wasn’t getting out all the time, either; in fact, he got on base more than anyone else in baseball.  Babe Ruth has the eighth highest career batting averages in the history of baseball, and the second highest on base percentage ever.

He wasn’t a handsome fella, though.

So other people started trying to hit home runs and it worked pretty well for a lot of them.  But some did not.  It was kind of assumed that you had to be pretty strong for this to be a good tactic, which makes sense, and so you had a variety of hitters – guys who were home run hitters, guys who slapped at the ball and tried to get on base for the home run hitters, guys who stole bases, and so forth.  Hitting went up and down as players came and went and stadiums got bigger or smaller but the home run frequency didn’t change that much.

Anyways, about 40 years ago baseball players started making a lot of money.  They had always made a lot of money, actually, but now it was millions.  Huuuuuge bucks.  The contracts kept getting bigger.  Suddenly being a good baseball player could set you for life.  Competition got fiercer, and someone came up with the idea that it might be a good idea to lift some weights.

I know this is probably something a lot of you will not believe, but 50, 60 years ago, almost no professional baseball player would have dreamt of picking up a weight.  Or doing cardio.  Or saying the word “cardio.” It was assumed to be bad for you, if anything.  Natural selection was such that baseball players were in pretty good shape as compared to guys like me, but they didn’t train the way athletes do today.  When ballplayers showed up for spring training they were usually out of shape; that is quite literally why spring training exists.  They had to lose 10 pounds.  Training methods, such as they were, were ridiculously amateurish.

But as the competition got fiercer and understanding of conditioning, strength training and sports medicine increased, guys started saying “a little more muscle would be a good idea.”  You don’t have to be huge to hit home runs – Willie Mays was smaller than Jimmy Kimmel – but being strong helps.  At first such players were made fun of, but it worked, and of course now it’s just expected of you; a ballplayer that said “I won’t do this weight training and cardio stuff” would be thrown off a college team.

So players started getting stronger (and yes, they used steroids to help in that regard, especially in the late 90s.)  But then something else happened; math and computers.

At the same time people were saying “it would be a good idea to work out if you’re a baseball player” other people like Bill James were looking at baseball and asking “hey, are we right about baseball strategy?”  They finally had computers that’d fit on a desktop so you could run a lot of numbers.  And the answer was “Nope.”   I’m not gonna write 5000 words on sabermetric theory but let me sum it up for you:

  1. Teams score runs by getting on base and hitting home runs.  Slap hitting and bunting and stealing bases and other small ball stuff will usually be beaten by a team of big guys who draw walks and hit homers.
  2. If a guy takes a lot of pitches and is really selective about what he swings at, he can hit more home runs.  He’ll strike out more but that’s okay; he’ll walk more, too.  Getting on base via walk is almost as good as a single.  You can strike out 150 times and still be a great hitter if you hit homers and draw walks.

Then they came up with cheap video.

See, back in the day, if there was something wrong with the way you swung the bat, you needed a coach to see it and try to correct it.  And maybe he knew what he was talking about, but maybe not.  Now a decent high school squad will videotape players, and analyze the swings in slo-mo to perfect a player’s swing.  What’s the perfect swing?  A swing that absolutely maximizes the force you hit the ball with, with a slight uppercut, aimed at the lower half of the ball, so you hit a home run.

So baseball players in 2017

  1. Are stronger than ever,
  2. Are quite deliberately trying to hit home runs as often as possible to the exclusion of other hitting approaches, and
  3. Are in fact being selected to BE in the major leagues based on their ability to be strong and swing for home runs.
Like this guy!

If you don’t believe me, hell, watch tonight’s World Series game.  Really, really pay attention to how players swing.  Then watch a video of a game from the 60s or something; you can tell they’re not swinging the same way.  Most players have their bats way out before their bodies, trying to just hit the ball at all, rather than keeping the bat back, pulled around by the weight of their bodies, to hit it HARD.  I mean, not everyone; Reggie Jackson was swinging for the fences.  But a lot of players obviously aren’t even making an effort to nail the ball over the fence.  Now they all do.

Anyway, what’s interesting about all this is that pitching has also changed, and pitchers are better than ever; I don’t want to write another thousand words but the same forces of strength, sports medicine and training, video analysis, and truly understanding what strategies work in baseball have caused pitchers to generally

  1. Throw way harder,
  2. Avoid walking anyone if they can possibly help it, and
  3. Concentrate on trying to strike men out.

What’s happening, basically, is that baseball is getting one dimensional.  The series between Los Angeles and Houston has been fun because the games have been close, but there has been no variety at all in terms of how the teams are playing; they’re both just hitting home runs and striking out.  Almost all the runs scored so far have been on home runs.  There have been unusually few hits that WEREN’T home runs.

I’m not sure this is a great long term trend.  Baseball that’s nothing but homers and strikeouts would be sort of boring.  In my next baseball column I’ll explain what I think they need to do to fix this.

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