What Explains the MLB’s Vertiginous Rise in Home Runs?

After logging its fewest homers ever in 2014, the MLB is now on pace to shatter its home run record this year. Some theorists claim the uptick is no accident.

While baseball purists will enjoy a regular-season game whether it is a pitcher’s duel or a high octane run-fest, a casual fan will always choose to watch a high scoring game over a low scoring game. In 2014, the MLB recorded its lowest home run total since 1992, with only one player (Nelson Cruz) reaching the forty home run mark. Of course, a lack of home runs is bad for the MLB, as losing a casual fanbase would cripple the only American professional baseball league.

However, since 2014, each season has conveniently seen an increase in total home runs, and this current season is on pace to shatter the all-time record set in 2000. The sudden increase in power across the MLB has left fans, and players, scratching their heads. There are many theories as to why so many baseballs are flying over the fence in comparison to just a few years ago, and some rely on more speculation than others.

Pitch Velocity/Exit Velocity

One of the more commonly accepted reasons for the uptick in home runs is the overall increase in pitch velocity across the league. On paper it makes sense, the faster a pitch is thrown, the faster it will travel off of the bat, right?

Actually, the home run totals over the past fifteen seasons suggest that there may not a direct correlation between pitch velocity and raw power numbers. While average pitch velocity has increased steadily since 2000, the total number of home runs has fluctuated from year to year, contradicting the popular belief that the two go hand-in-hand.

Of the fifty longest home runs of the current season, only five came off of pitches that were thrown over 95 m.p.h, and according to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker, the average distance of an MLB long ball has also remained virtually unchanged in the past decade.

In terms of exit velocity, or how fast the ball travels after the batter makes contact, the league average is actually lower than it was in 2015, and many of the examples of the highest exit velocities of this season did not even result in home runs. With that being said, it is impossible to attribute the MLB’s historic home run pace to either of these measurements.

Plate Strategy/Batter Mentality

Even during the height of the steroid era, there were still plenty of teams that relied on “small-ball” to produce runs. Going back just two seasons, the Kansas City Royals demolished the Mets in the World Series through the simple act of putting the ball in play at every single bat. A patient, sound mentality has been all but eradicated from today’s game. In its place, came an “all-or-nothing” attitude at the plate, which has led to more strikeouts, but also more home runs.

In the June issue of “Sports Illustrated,” Tom Verducci revealed how players and managers felt about the new mindset that has taken over the game. Reds Manager Bryan Price told SI, “It used to be that managing a game, you would think about what pitching matchups you wanted based on maybe who could get you a ground ball or a double play, if you needed one. Now what you find yourself doing is defending the home run. Who can get the swing and miss?”

The “all-or-nothing” mentality is not limited to baseball; the NBA has seen an exponential increase in three-point attempts in recent years, completely abandoning mid-range and post action. The NFL is almost entirely made up of spread offenses, ditching the ground-and-pound approach that dominated the league for decades. With the analytical aspect of professional sports taking over like a wildfire, each sport will continue to evolve in order to reach peak efficiency.

While the home-run-or-bust mentality, combined with the advanced training, extra rest and improved equipment, have all led to an increase in power in recent years, it does not explain the meteoric rise in home run production during the last few years in the MLB. To suggest that simply changing strategy has made today’s hitters more powerful than players who were literally cheating (the 2000 MLB season) is naïve, to say the least.

Alterations to the Actual Baseball

Time to put the tinfoil hats on, folks. The power surge throughout MLB has come at a convenient time, some would say too convenient. As previously mentioned, 2014 was the worst season for home runs in over two decades. Outside of the baseball purists who will watch regardless, everyone wants to see runs coming across the plate, and the MLB knows it. During a time in which football still reigns supreme in the United States, and basketball is spreading rapidly toward becoming a truly global game, baseball has seen its time as “America’s pastime” slowly fade away.

What could possibly save baseball from the drought in both popularity and power? Well, with all of the negative press that the MLB has received for performance enhancing drugs, it would be impossible to loosen sanctions on players that prevent them from using things like steroids, HGH and other PEDs. So, instead of changing the players in hopes of returning to relevance, the MLB may have decided to change the baseball itself.

In a piece written for “The Ringer,” Ben Lindbergh and Michael Lichtman unveil information that may explain the root cause of the MLB’s sudden power trip.  Lindbergh and Lichtman attribute the increase in distance of most fly-balls in the MLB to changes that were made to the baseballs at some point during the 2015 season. After performing multiple tests on baseballs that were used in MLB games at different point of the 2015 season, they found that baseballs used after the All-Star Break of 2015 traveled just over seven feet further than the baseballs that were used before the All-Star Break. While a distance like seven feet may seem relatively insignificant, the proper context could explain the massive jump in home run production.

Consider that most fly-balls that were previously being caught on the warning-track are now flying out of the stadium, and line drives that would normally have hit the wall are now reaching the bleachers. When combined with the fact that more players are focusing on hitting the ball in the air, it creates a perfect storm for more home runs.

If it turns out to be true that the baseballs have been altered, it is not to say that the MLB is wrong for making a change; in fact, it may have been one of the smartest decisions the league has ever made. Without a doubt, baseball is more popular than it was just three years ago, which is reflected in the increased viewership of events like the Home Run Derby, which received its highest ratings since 2009, according to “USA Today.”

While the outpouring of power has been astonishing to watch, sometimes it feels like too much.

This is not to say whether the league will set the home run record or not, but how soon they can set it. If the MLB can figure out a way to strike a balance somewhere slightly below this unrealistic pace, baseball could climb its way back to the top of the American sports mountain.

Patrick Murtha, Eastern Connecticut State University

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Patrick Murtha

Eastern Connecticut State University
New Media Studies

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