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Is the home run barrage throughout baseball bad for the game?

Is it possible that we’ve reached the point where baseball features too many homers?

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MLB: New York Yankees at Minnesota Twins Photo by Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Renato Nuñez, Mitch Garver, Christian Walker, Danny Santana, and Roberto Pérez. None of them are really household names. But would you believe that all five are among the 84 members of MLB’s once-hallowed, probably-no-longer-too-relevant 20-home-run club this season?

While many fans find the home run to be the most exciting play in baseball, it’s almost impossible to say with a straight face that all the homers aren’t getting a little tiring at this point. 2019 is currently on pace to be the most significant power-hitting season in MLB history, leading 2017 by roughly .14 homers per team per game (1.40 to 1.26), and with over a month left to play there are only 729 homers needed to break the league-wide single-season record of 6,105, which was also set in 2017. The proliferation of homers has eroded the ability of a team to feel safe with any sort of lead, which certainly increases drama throughout the game, but the nightly shootouts perhaps get tiresome for fans who are investing at least three and often four hours a night into a game and (at least every once in a while) might want a sense of closure before the final out. For those who tend to appreciate dominant pitching more than a constant barrage of offense, the quality of play certainly does not feel like it’s at its highest right now, and combining the offensive explosion with a league-wide obsession with limiting starters’ innings and preventing them from going through the batting order a third time, the widely-beloved pitchers’ duel has been driven to the brink of extinction.

As you can see from the table below, the amount of players reaching the single-season home run milestones that were once considered real achievements (20, 30, 40) are beginning to reach staggering numbers. The 40-homer club may remain rather exclusive this year, but the amount of 20-homer hitters will be so great that there’s no way reaching that mark can possibly be considered that great of an accomplishment anymore. Taking nothing away from them as they’re enjoying career seasons, the five relative no-names listed above who have already joined the 20-homer club — the eighth-best player (via bWAR) on a historically bad team, a platoon catcher, a 28-year-old rookie, a utility player who began the season as a non-roster invitee, and a guy with a .211/.302/.371 career slash line — are proof enough that the relative value of a homer has been diminished and the standards for being a truly impactful power hitter have increased substantially. (Consider this: In addition to the 84 players who have already hit 20 homers this season, 16 more players enter play on Friday night sitting on 19 home runs.) The number of players having reached the 20, 30, and 40-homer marks are already so great this season that they closely compare to full-season totals in recent seasons:

Players with 20+ HR since 2015

SEASON Opening Day # of players with 20 or more HR # of players with 30 or more HR # of players with 40 or more HR
SEASON Opening Day # of players with 20 or more HR # of players with 30 or more HR # of players with 40 or more HR
2019 March 28* 84 18 4
2018 March 29 99 26 3
2017 April 2 117 41 5
2016 April 3 111 38 8
2015 April 5 64 20 9
*Mariners and Athletics played two-game Japan series on March 20-21
Breakdown of players with 20+ HR since 2015

And while the fact that MLB has gradually moved up Opening Day in recent years skews things a bit, this season blows recent previous ones out of the water even more when you compare the numbers entering play today to the ones through August 22 in prior years:

Players with 20+ HR since 2015 (Through 8/22)

SEASON Opening Day # of players with 20 or more HR # of players with 30 or more HR # of players with 40 or more HR
SEASON Opening Day # of players with 20 or more HR # of players with 30 or more HR # of players with 40 or more HR
2019 March 28* 84 18 4
2018 March 29 52 10 0
2017 April 2 64 10 1
2016 April 3 63 8 0
2015 April 5 32 9 0
*Mariners and Athletics played two-game Japan series on March 20-21
Players with 20+ HR since 2015 (through 8/22)

Why is all of this happening, then? It can’t just be hitters buying into modern offensive philosophies and seeking to adjust their launch angles to the optimal home-run-hitting point, can it? (Spoiler: It’s probably not.) Even the league admits that the ball has changed in recent years, and while the commissioner has continued to deny rumors that the league deliberately changed the ball in order to increase offense, it’s almost an open secret that the ball changed substantially at some point during the second half of this decade (perhaps as early as the summer of 2015, and perhaps as late as the beginning of the 2017 season), changed again in a way that caused offenses to take a step back around the league in 2018, and then reverted back to its offense-friendly form for the 2019 campaign.

Though a league-wide shift towards an analytics-based offensive philosophy that decreased emphasis on making contact and increased the incentive to walk (and, as a result of that, strike out) decreased the amount of visible offense in recent years, it’s unclear exactly why MLB would’ve wanted to change the balls — or exactly how they did so. A clear point at which this issue could have been brought on, though, is when MLB purchased Rawlings — the company that produces all the balls — last summer, creating somewhat of a conflict-of-interest situation and essentially eliminating any need for transparency with regard to ball production. In fairness to the league, they didn’t exactly dance around this issue at the time of the deal — MLB executive vice president for strategy, technology, and innovation Chris Marinak said it would give the league an opportunity to provide “even more input and direction on the production” of the ball.

Of course, there’s been plenty of public discourse over the issue this year — and for that matter, since this controversy first became a prominent topic of conversation in 2017. Rich Hill, Johnny Cueto, Marcus Stroman, and David Price were among the pitchers who blamed altered balls for blisters they sustained during the 2017 season, and Justin Verlander tweeted in March of 2018 that he didn’t “like being lied to” regarding the changes made to the ball. Price, J.A. Happ, Jon Lester, and Zack Britton were among the pitchers to suggest to USA TODAY’s Bob Nightengale that the league was altering the balls in a piece published in May of this year. When confronted with questions about the ball in late June, commissioner Rob Manfred denied that the league was deliberately manipulating the ball but did acknowledge that there was less “drag” on the baseball than before (continuing to push a line that the league used when providing an excuse for why home run rates spiked so significantly in 2017 and claiming that Rawlings was simply “getting better at centering the pill” of the ball. And if you’ll recall, in the most high-profile incident of this genre to date, Verlander called the league out at All-Star Game media day, saying that there’s a “100 percent” chance the league is manipulating the balls in order to increase offense. That was followed by another denial from Manfred and Verlander getting “chewed out” by the Retired Manager Mafia (Jim Leyland, Joe Torre, and other unnamed MLB officials) in the All-Star Game clubhouse.

Besides the reasoning from the league about the pill being more centered than before, a couple works of journalism have given us a bit of insight about the changes to the ball: a 2018 piece in The Athletic about the laces on the ball being substantially thickened starting in 2016, and a 2018 Five Thirty Eight piece which found the cores of newer balls to be 40 percent less dense than their older counterparts. Overall, though, it’s hard to tell exactly what has changed so much — whether it’s purely in the composition of the ball, or something that’s causing pitchers to release the ball differently or hitters to strike it harder or more squarely — to cause this offensive explosion.

While it may feel different and change the way they grip the ball, it doesn’t appear as if the altered ball is coming out of pitchers’ hands too differently than it otherwise would. Utilizing these Statcast charts, which show the vertical and horizontal fastball and curveball movement compared to the average for qualifying pitchers from 2017-19, it appears that pitchers have gotten more rise on their fastballs and more drop on their curveballs during the two juiced-ball seasons, but the difference in movement compared with 2018 doesn’t appear so drastic that it would be responsible for a radical difference in offensive production:

Fastball movement, 2017
Fastball movement, 2018
Fastball movement, 2019
Curveball movement, 2017
Curveball movement, 2018
Curveball movement, 2019

Nine teams already have 200 or more homers this season, and all of them have at least 32 games remaining on the schedule. At least four (the Twins, Yankees, Dodgers, and Astros) are within realistic reach of the Yankees’ single-season record 267, which was set in 2018. Last year, 10 teams finished with 200 homers for the entire season (though in the previous juiced-ball season, 2017, 17 teams accomplished the feat). In retrospect, it’s bizarre to look at the team homer totals during the early and middle parts of this decade: As recently as 2015, only four teams hit 200 homers in a season, and in both 2013 and 2014, only the Orioles cracked the 200-homer mark. Before the figurative dam broke in ’17, the highest number of teams to hit at least 200 homers in a season this century was 12 in 2016, and there were only four seasons this century (2000, ’01, ’04, and ’16) where double-digit teams reached the 200-homer mark.

Five teams have an OPS over .800 this season, and only two are under .700, with the Marlins pulling up the rear at .661. Last year, no team finished with an over-.800 OPS, and six finished under .700. This drastic increase in home runs has created a pathway to much greater offensive production in the major leagues, despite the league batting average sitting at .254 this season and having hovered around the mid-.250s for most of this decade, having dropped from the modern high-water mark of .271 in 1999. The league OPS, after all, is at .760 — the 12th-highest in major-league history.

While the league has to be excited about that boost in offense, the amount of quality pitching around the majors has taken a dip as a result. Only four teams have an ERA under 4.00, and seven are over 5.00. The Orioles are at a horrid 5.89 and last night set the record for home runs allowed in a season (259) with over a month left to play. 13 teams had ERAs under 4.00 last year, and the Orioles were the only one over 5.00, at a slightly less embarrassing 5.18.

While it might stray from the core issue (no pun intended) here — the fact that an adjustment in the ball, whether intentional or not, is changing how the game is played — there’s nothing better than this year’s bizarre Triple-A hitting statistics to illustrate the problem at hand. Of course, this is the first year that Triple-A clubs are using the same ball as major leaguers — a move that was supposedly made so that there would be a more natural adjustment from Triple-A and the majors. Instead, it’s caused one of the most laughable offensive outbreaks of all time, especially in the Pacific Coast League, where the combination of a (probably) juiced ball and ridiculous elevation at several parks on the western end of the country have caused an uptick in homers that is even more drastic than the one in the majors:

Triple-A hitters with 20+ HR since 2015

SEASON IL 20+ HR hitters IL 30+ HR hitters PCL 20+ HR hitters PCL 30+ HR hitters
SEASON IL 20+ HR hitters IL 30+ HR hitters PCL 20+ HR hitters PCL 30+ HR hitters
2019 24 1 35 6
2018 5 0 19 0
2017 6 2 20 6
2016 6 1 15 2
2015 3 0 14 0

In the PCL, there are two teams with an OPS over .900 and 13 of 16 over .800. The lowest in the league is a .762. Last year, the highest in the league was .841, only five teams were over .800, and the lowest in the league was a much more realistic .667.

In the International League, which has historically been rough on hitters, there are six teams with an OPS over .800. The lowest is a .745. Last year, the highest (!) OPS in the league was a .753, and five teams were under .700.

Predictably, this offensive surge has had a major negative effect on Triple-A pitching. In the PCL, no team has an ERA under 4.00, seven have ERAs between 5.00 and 6.00, and another five between 6.00 and 7.00, including Salt Lake at a league-worst 6.85 (though in fairness, Salt Lake’s was 6.02 last year, even without the major-league ball). Three teams in the PCL had an ERA under 4.00 last year, while only four had an ERA over 5.00, and only Salt Lake was above 6.00.

In the IL, no team this year has an ERA under 4.00, while four have ERAs between 5.00 and 6.00. Last year, nine teams finished with an ERA under 4.00, with five finishing above 4.00 and the highest being a 4.34 mark.

Of course, more offense in the minor leagues isn’t inherently bad. But in this case, it’s reached a comical level, and it’s created a trio of major problems: The confidence of minor-league pitchers is being destroyed, to the point where it almost makes more sense to send struggling big-league pitchers to Double-A to get their issues sorted out; it’s becoming extremely difficult for teams to tell which bad Triple-A pitching performances are actually bad and which are products of the environment, and likewise, it’s hard to know which spectacular hitting performances are legitimate and which are brought on by the ultra-hitter-friendly conditions.

Obviously, there’s a very real argument to be made that home runs are good for the game and that more offense is better, no matter the cause. With no concrete evidence to back this up, it feels like we live in a society that values prolific offenses and explosive playmakers over disciplined defense — and in the case of baseball, shutdown pitching — so maybe the (allegedly) juiced ball is for the best. In the end, it’ll just be up to the fans to decide whether there’s a breaking point here or if they’ll continue to relish home runs, no matter how incredibly common they become.