You have no doubt heard that Major League Baseball players set a record this year for most home runs hit in a season. Alex Gordon was the guy who hit the homer that broke the record set in 2000, an irony that we can save for another day.
The home run explosion started in mid-season 2015 — we can practically pinpoint the day. Let’s go with August 3, 2015. That day, the Giants and Braves hit eight home runs, the Rangers and Astros hit five, The Arizona Diamondbacks hit five, Yangervis Solarte hit two home runs, Scooter Gennett homered (before we knew he was a legend) and so on. That day didn’t particularly stand out at the time … but the home run thing has been on ever since.
The overwhelming number of homers has basically led to people asking WHY. Best I can tell, three theories have pushed their way to the top:
1. The baseballs are bouncier … harder … juicier … more aerodynamic … it’s about the baseballs.
2. The hitters — faced with an epidemic of strikeouts and defensive shifts scientifically designed to place a fielder where they like to hit the ball — determined the best (perhaps only) way to counter was to swing hard and hit the ball in the air and over fences. Thus the constant talk of “launch angles.”
3. Baseball players have again taken to powerful performance-enhancing drugs … drugs that are chemically advanced and undetectable by baseball’s testing. The New York Times dove head first into this one this week.
Each of the theories speaks to something in our human psyche. The juiced baseball theory makes sense because of the suddenness of this home run eruption. It seems logical that if it was anything else, the homer thing wouldn’t have just taken off in the middle of a season. It would have been hard to coordinate something to just blow up all at once like that.
The hitter strategy theory makes sense because it feeds our hunger for human ingenuity. We can all see that strikeouts are way up; records have been set every single year since 2008. That’s right. The strikeout record was set in 2008, broken in 2009, broken again in 2010, then ’11, then ’12, then ’13, and every year since then. What were hitters to do? They were facing more pitchers throwing harder and with nastier bite than at any time in the history of the game. And just putting the ball in play more seemed to be no answer because of shifting defenses. The strategy: Exit velocity + Launch angle = best chance for success.
And the drug theory speaks to the cynical side of us. They fooled us once before, back in the 1990s and 2000s, when we naively cheered the historic home run exploits of McGwire and Sosa and the rest. I really did not like the New York Times story for many reasons, but it spoke to the uncertainty many have about the authenticity of the games we watch. Home runs are way up. The last time home runs went way up, it led to congressional hearings, perjury charges and endless but not particularly fun Hall of Fame arguments.
But … for a moment, I don’t want to talk about the reasons behind this home run thing. I want to talk about the home run thing itself.
Start with this: The home run record was set in 2000. That year hitters mashed 5,693 home runs.
The home run number at this precise moment — Sunday morning, September 24, 2017 — is 5,876. So the record has not been just passed, it has been shattered. There are still almost 100 games left to play, which means you can expect another 200 or so homers — 6,000 is happening, and 6,100 is still very much in play. Sort of a Roger Maris like thing multiplied by 100.
OK, but where are the home runs coming from.
Well, first, let’s ask a trivia question. Think about this: In which year — 2000 or 2017 (so far) — did more players hit home runs? What is your gut reaction?
I’ll tell you my immediate response before giving you the answer: I thought for sure it would be 2017. Well, for one thing, more home runs have been hit in 2017 so it makes sense that more players have hit home runs. But, even more to the point, the home runs thing seems much more evenly spread out, right? That’s why more people in and around baseball are coming up with universal theories — the ball is different, hitters, in general, are taking a different strategy, launch angle data has changed the way batters swing, etc. — rather than coming up with more individualized theories. It sure feels like EVERYONE is hitting home runs rather than just a few big-time sluggers. So I certainly would have guessed that more players in 2017 have hit home runs.
Of course, based on that paragraph, you now know that 2017 isn’t the right answer. And so maybe because you know that — or maybe you already had this in your mind — you have a theory about why more players hit home runs in 2000. Without downplaying the role of PEDs — do that and you get a flood of angry responses — everyone knows that wasn’t the only thing going on in 2000. The strike zone was smaller. The pitchers were not getting as many swings and misses. Coors Field was ridiculous. And that might explain why more players hit homers in 2000.
Only, that’s not right either. More hitters did not hit home runs in 2000.
What we have here is an astonishing fact.
Exactly 517 different players hit home runs in 2000. And so far in 2017, exactly 517 different players have hit home runs.
That’s remarkable, right? Well, even if it isn’t remarkable it is fun … this provides a wonderful opportunity to figure out the nature of these two seasons. If the same number of hitters homered, how do 2000 and 2017 compare? Where were those home runs concentrated? How is this home run barrage different that home run barrage?
First thing that is easy to forget: There was no single crazy home run hitter in 2000. This year, of course, Giancarlo Stanton has 57 home runs, and Aaron Judge, after his two-homer game on Sunday, is up to 48. I think a lot of us had written off Judge as the league MVP because of his extended slump; Jose Altuve seemed to have the award all but wrapped up. Now, it’s a race again.
In any case, only one player in 2000 hit 50 home runs — and that was Sammy Sosa, and he hit EXACTLY 50. It’s odd that 2000 turned out to be the biggest home run year ever because it was the one year when no individual went home run crazy. In 1998, of course, McGwire hit 70 home runs, Sosa hit 66, Ken Griffey hit 56, heck Greg Vaughn hit 50. The next year, Sosa and McGwire again topped 60 homers. In 2001, of course, Barry Bonds hit 73 homers, but Sosa hit 64, Luis Gonzalez hit 57 (!), Alex Rodriguez hit 52. And in 2001, A-Rod hit 57 and Jim Thome hit 52.
But in 2000, Sosa led baseball with 50 homers (something he did not do in any of the three years he hit 60-plus homers). So if there was no outrageous
In any case, with no insane home runs years to talk about — where were those home runs bunched up in 2000?
Answer: Between 40 and 49.
That year, 16 different players hit at least 40 home runs. That is quite the record — in 1996, 17 different players hit 40-plus homers — but it’s close enough and it’s WAY more than this year. So far this year, only four players — Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, the fantastically underappreciated J.D. Martinez, and the recently added Khris Davis (who is NOT Chris Davis)– have hit 40 homers. There is a pileup between 37-39 — Bellinger, Smoke, Gallo, Cruz, Encarnacion etc. — so there might be a couple more added. But let’s focus on the moment.
In 2000, 698 of the homers — roughly 12% of the homers hit that year — came from those extreme power hitters. This year, only three percent of the homers have come from those 40-plus homer hitters.
What does that mean? Well, again, let me just throw the information out there and you can decide what it means
In 2000, 31 different players hit between 30 and 39 homers for about 18% of the home run total. It’s almost exactly the same this year — 30 different players are in the 30 homer club making up a little more than 17% of the home run total
I’m going to skip the 20-homer club for just a minute.
In 2000, 115 players hit between 10 and 19 homers, this year it’s 122. Slight advantage this year.
In 2000, 300 different players hit between 0 and 9 homers. This year 281 players have done it. Slight advantage for 2000.
So, to recap — there were more big home run hitters in 2000 and the rest is rougly the same … well, except for those hitters who have between 20 and 29 home runs.
In 2000, 55 players hit between 20 and 29 homers. That’s a lot historically.
But it is NOTHING compared to now. This year, EIGHTY different players are in the 20-homer club, and that’s a record. Those players are making up almost one-third of all the home runs hit in 2017. And that’s the difference between now and then. That year, 2000, was defined by the mega-sluggers, the Sosas, the Bonds, the Glauses, the Bagwells.
And this year’s home run madness is driven by mid-range power hitters, the Zack Cozarts, the Tim Beckhams, the Justin Bours, the Will Myerses and the Matt Davidsons.
Take a look just at the No. 23. In 2000, only two players hit 23 home runs, Dante Bichette and Albert Belle. That is actually a perfect illustration of what 23 home runs used to mean. Bill James talks about how baseball numbers place a mental image in your mind — you just instinctively KNOW the difference between a .290 hitter and a .278 hitter. You can visualize them both in your mind. Well, 23 homers offer the image of a once-dangerous slugger nearing the end; think Will Clark in 1998, Gary Gaetti in 1996, Willie McCovey in 1975, Willie Mays in 1968 and so on.
This year, SEVEN players have hit 23 home runs, and this does include Albert Pujols, who certainly fits the above profile. But it also includes Mookie Betts, Daniel Murphy, Mark Trumbo, Mike Zunino, Carlos Santana and the aforementioned Zack Cozart. There are a lot of different stories in that group.
THIRTEEN different players have hit 22 home runs this year from Javy Baez to Trevor Story, and that’s a record number.
This is true up and down the line. An astonishing 110 different players have hit between 17 and 29 home runs this season, and that doesn’t just beat the old record, it destroys the old record (the record of 86 was set last year). This is what’s happening — everyone not named Dee Gordon, Billy Hamilton or Jose Peraza has become a home run hitter. In years past, yes, the sluggers slugged, but there was still a small place in the game for players who didn’t hit for power but maybe could steal some bases or play great defense or hit for a high average or SOMETHING. Now, even if you can do those things, you have to hit some homers.
In 1980, 29 everyday players — players who qualified for the batting title — hit five or fewer homers.
In 1990, again, 29 everyday players hit five or fewer homers.
In 2000, after the homer explosion, just ten everyday players hit five or fewer homers.
This year there are three. And if Jose Peraza manages a homer in the last week, it will be two.