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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2017 — No. 2: The Year of the Dinger

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We’re a few short days away from 2018 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2017. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

On the evening of September 19, Tigers outfielder Alex Presley hit a homer. Twelve minutes later Royals outfielder Alex Gordon hit a homer of his own. The former tied baseball’s single season, league-wide home run record — 5,693 — and the latter broke it. By the time the season ended, 6,105 home runs would be hit, shattering the old mark.

While seemingly everyone got in on the hit parade in 2017, Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton was the most prolific home run hitter of them all, smashing 59 bombs on his way to the NL MVP Award. Stanton’s home run total was the most in baseball since Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001. Stanton was also the quickest to hit 50 homers in a season since Bonds that year. His 18 homers in August tied a major league record for that month.

As mentioned multiple times in this countdown, Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger set rookie records for homers. J.D. Martinez of the Tigers and Diamondbacks hit 45 homers despite missing the first six weeks of the season. Khris Davis of the A’s quietly hit 43. Joe Gallo of the Rangers hit 41 despite batting a meager .209 on the year. Charlie Blackmon of the Rockies hit 37. Charlie Blackmon is a friggin’ leadoff hitter.

It wasn’t just the stars hitting bombs. Up and down rosters the sorts of players who, in the past, might’ve hit 20 were hitting 30 and the sorts of players who may have hit a dozen were hitting 20. Indeed, such an across-the-board increase in home runs had many people wondering if there was something else going on than mere slugging prowess. Given that there are more homers being hit now than at even the peak of the Steroid-Era — and given that, unlike then, there is drug testing in place — wouldn’t something have to be up?

Over the summer two different studies — one by Ben Lindbergh and Mitchell Lichtman for The Ringer, and another by FiveThirtyEight’s Rob Arthur — found evidence that baseballs were altered at some point around the middle of the 2015 season which coincided with home run numbers spiking in the middle of that year, quite suddenly. As mentioned earlier, a new record was set in 2016 and this year that mark was shattered.

In the wake of the home run barrage and those two reports, Commissioner Rob Manfred went on record in an effort to blame anything else but an altered baseball for the spike in home runs. Major League Baseball released a statement in early July claiming balls remain within established guidelines and that there is no evidence that the ball has been changed “in any way that would lead to a meaningful impact on on-field play.” Later in July, Manfred blamed bats. What he never did was acknowledge that the “established guidelines” for baseballs are so wide that a change in the height of seams could cause a ball to fly a good 15 farther without, technically, violating those guidelines. He likewise never mentioned that, unlike the studies on the balls, there is no evidence whatsoever that anything has changed with the bats.

It wasn’t just eggheads doing studies who think the ball has been altered, by the way. Several pitchers have developed blister issues in recent years, the sorts of which they never had in the past, and some of them are blaming the ball for that. Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel went on record to say that he thinks the balls are juiced. So did Justin Verlander, David Price, Dan Warthen, Brad ZieglerJerry Blevins, and Chris Archer.

Can we say, unequivocally, that something is amiss with the baseballs? I suppose not. Maybe it’s just a grand coincidence. All we know for sure is that the home run spike appeared all at once. If it disappears all at once — say, around the time the current stock of baseballs is exhausted and new ones come online — we’ll probably have our answer.

 

How long do you stay a fan of a team that left town?

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File this under “not a really deep thought, but there isn’t much going on this morning, so why not?”

I was catching up with the latest, and final, season of “The Americans” over the weekend. I will give no spoilers and ask that you do the same, but I want to talk about something that came up in the second episode.

The episode takes place in October 1987 and a character is listening to a Twins playoff game on the radio. He later talks about baseball and the Twins with some other characters. The context is not important, but the guy — probably in his mid-late 40s, living in the Washington D.C. area — makes a point to say that he has been a Twins fan since the beginning, and then says he was, in fact, a fan of the franchise back when they were still the Washington Senators.

In case you are unaware, the original Washington Senators moved to Minnesota following the 1960 season and became the Twins. At the same time an expansion team, also called the Senators, was placed in D.C. to replace them. That franchise would stay in D.C. for 11 seasons before moving to Texas in 1972 to become the Rangers.

In light if that, am I the only one who has a hard time buying that such a man actually existed? How would the character, who was a kid when the original Senators moved, be a Twins fan some 26 years later?

There were relatively few televised baseball games back then. Just a game of the week and some out of town coverage of local teams. There was obviously no internet. Outside of the 1965 World Series, it’d be a shock if more than a couple of Twins games were broadcast to the D.C. area during the rest of the guy’s childhood. Maybe he kept up with the Senators players like Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison via box scores, baseball cards and The Sporting News, but I couldn’t imagine a D.C. guy raised on the Senators keeping up with the Twins through the 1970s and 1980s. Would he not become a new Senators fan or, eventually, a Rangers fan? Maybe, like so many people on the D.C. area, he picked up the Orioles as his team due to their 1960s-70s dominance? Any number of things could happen, but I’m struggling to imagine the existence of a Senators guy who becomes a hardcore Twins fans up to and including 1987.

All of that got me thinking about other relocated teams.

The Dodgers are the most famous example, of course, with the narrative being that Dodgers fans in Brooklyn felt betrayed by Walter O’Malley and thus turned their back on the club, later adopting the Mets as their rooting interest. The betrayal narrative is less pronounced with the Giants, but that’s the same general story with them too. I mean, there’s a reason the Mets picked orange and blue as their colors. They wanted to, and largely did, co-opt the old NL New York fans.

I’m sure a lot more Dodgers and Giants fans continued to follow their teams in California than would let on, given that many of the same players starred out there in the ensuing years, but that likely died out as those players retired. Bob Aspromonte was the last Brooklyn Dodger to play in the bigs, retiring after the 1971 season. Willie Mays played through 1973. I assume NL fans in New York kept some nice thoughts for them — particularly because the Mets picked both of them up for the tail end of their careers — but I can’t see those guys rooting for, say, Steve Garvey and John Montefusco in 1979.

Others:

  • There likely aren’t many St. Louis Browns fans left — they last played in Missouri 65 years ago — but even if the ones they had in 1953 felt like rooting for the Cardinals was impossible, I bet most of their kids and grandkids became Cards fans;
  • The A’s fans in Philly — and later Kansas City — probably have a similar story. I mean, there’s a reason that franchise skipped town twice, so to expect undying love over the decades, with the Phillies and Royals around, is a bit much. The Philadelphia A’s glory years were like 90s years ago now anyway, and all of those fans are dead. The A’s modern glory years have all come in Oakland. No one in Philadelphia or Kansas City is looking to the California with an aching in their heart;
  • I could imagine someone’s grandfather in Milwaukee still thinking that the Braves are his team, but not many other people. The Braves won a World Series and two pennants in Milwaukee, but that was an awful long time ago and they moved to Atlanta before the A’s moved to Oakland. Don’t even get me started about Boston Braves fans. They all have to either be dead or have long since moved on. Following a team to a new city is a big ask, but following them to two new cities over 66 years seems pathological. UPDATE: OK, there are some pathological people out there.
  • I have some Nationals fan friends and they tell me that there is a small, weird contingent of Expos fans who root for Washington now. I get that since it wasn’t terribly long ago, but was Brad Wilkerson really a good enough reason to carry a torch? I’d like to talk to some of those people and ask them about their value system;
  • The only other team to move was the Seattle Pilots. They played one season in Seattle and no one would remember that if it wasn’t for Jim Bouton’s book, “Ball Four.” If you find someone claiming to be a Pilots fan in Seattle, you’ve found yourself a hipster peddling revisionist b.s.

Anyway, that’s a lot of words wasted on a couple of lines from a TV show, but as always, your thoughts are appreciated.