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Why are so many homers being hit this year?


Way back in June we were talking about how home runs were on pace to match that of the record-setting year for dingers: 2000. Since then the homers have kept flying and the record pace has continued: at the moment, teams are hitting 1.17 home runs per team, per game.

Benjamin Hoffman of the New York Times takes a look at that and tries to figure out why. The ultimate conclusion of the article is “well, who knows?” but given the column inches and primacy devoted to the possible causes, it seems like he’s favoring PEDs as the most likely culprit:

One possibility is that players have continued to skirt antidoping protocols, despite the league’s efforts to strengthen them in recent years. (None of the current players cited above, except for Ortiz, has been linked to performance-enhancing drugs.)

As demonstrated in many Olympic sports, which generally have the most stringent antidoping programs, athletes are often undeterred by drug-testing programs. They adapt to new protocols and find ways around them, like computer hackers evading antivirus programs.

He also talks about speculation, unconfirmed at this point, that the ball is juiced. He likewise talks to players who tend to believe that it’s the swing-for-the-fences approach taken by hitters these days, paired with hard-throwing pitchers who have come to believe that they can throw their heat by anyone.

I’m skeptical of the PED-as-culprit explanation. The home run “spike” is not a spike as much as it is a broad-based rise. As Hoffman notes, there are no real individual outliers — no 50-homer dudes — but, rather, just a ton of guys who are hitting a few more homers than they did before. Even at the height of the PED-era it was not thought that everyone was juicing. Indeed, the most pessimistic assumptions said that maybe half of the hitters were. Baseball’s drug testing regime in place now is certainly not perfect, but if there was a new PED epidemic now, as opposed to just the usual handful of cheaters, I feel like we’d notice it and I feel like we’d see at least some freakish outlier individual home run totals.

I think the juiced ball explanation has more going for it than the PED thing. Not everything going for it, obviously — no one has been able to verify that the ball is juiced via testing or observation — but the homer surge in 2016 sure looks a lot like it did in 1987, which many suspect was due to a juiced ball. While no one has determined that the balls are made with different materials, it doesn’t take radical, easily observable changes to change a ball’s flight characteristics. Even subtle changes in the manner in which balls are stored can make a ball fly a few extra feet and a few extra feet are the difference between an F-7 and a homer.

Ultimately, though, I think about this the same way I viewed the offensive surge of the 1990s-2000s and, for that matter, almost any notable change in a given phenomenon: the product of a combination of factors.

Everyone wanted to blame Jose Canseco and a bunch of needles for offensive levels going crazy from 1993-on, but few wanted to acknowledge that smaller ballparks with shorter porches and radically decreased foul territory came online then too. People didn’t want to note how the strike zone had shrunk, at least for guys not named Glavine and Maddux. People talked a lot about “Moneyball” and take-and-rake approaches and a preference for all-offense, no-defense players in their own right, but they rarely paired those observations up with the offensive surge. Rather, it was “the offense is all about steroids!” in one conversation and “Moneyball is ruining baseball!” in a separate conversation. In reality, though, it was all of a piece.

Just watching baseball today it’s clear that guys are sitting dead red more and swinging for the fences. A lot of this likely has to do with the surge in pitchers’ velocity over the years. If guys are routinely throwing 97, you can either (a) try to guess when he’s going to back off to a changeup; or (b) assume 97 is coming and do everything you can to mash it. I suspect (b) is a bit easier to do and that results in more homers and more strikeouts. When you add that to some possible minor changes in PED use or the composition of the ball and then acknowledge that, well, sometimes stuff just happens, 2016’s home run rates likely have many contributors, even if we can’t do an accurate accounting.

It’s always tempting to look for a single explanation for a given event. Most of the time there are multiple factors at play.

Nationals GM Rizzo won’t reveal length of Martinez’s new contract

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WASHINGTON — Dave Martinez spoke Saturday about managing the Washington Nationals for “many, many years” and over the “long term” and “quite some time,” thanks to his contract extension.

Sharing a table to a socially distanced degree with his manager on a video conference call to announce the new deal – each member of the duo sporting a 2019 World Series ring on his right hand – Nationals GM Mike Rizzo referred to the agreement’s “multiyear” nature, but repeatedly refused to reveal anything more specific in response to reporters’ questions.

“We don’t talk about terms as far as years, length and salaries and that type of thing. We’re comfortable with what we have and the consistency that we’re going to have down the road,” said Rizzo, who recently agreed to a three-year extension of his own. “That’s all we want to say about terms, because it’s private information and we don’t want you guys to know about it.”

When Martinez initially was hired by Rizzo in October 2017 – his first managing job at any level – the Nationals’ news release at the time announced that he was given a three-year contract with an option for a fourth year.

That 2021 option had not yet been picked up.

“The partnership that Davey and I have together, our communication styles are very similar. Our aspirations are similar, and kind of our mindset of how to obtain the goals that we want to obtain are similar. I think it’s a good match,” Rizzo said. “We couldn’t have hit on a more positive and enthusiastic leader in the clubhouse. I think you see it shine through even in the most trying times.”

The Nationals entered Saturday – Martinez’s 56th birthday – with a 23-34 record and in last place in the NL East, which Rizzo called “a disappointing season.” The team’s title defense was slowed by injuries and inconsistency during a 60-game season delayed and shortened by the coronavirus pandemic.

World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg threw just five innings because of a nerve issue in his pitching hand and players such as Starlin Castro, Sean Doolittle, Tanner Rainey, Adam Eaton and Carter Kieboom finished the year on the IL.

“This year, for me, we didn’t get it done. We had a lot of bumps in the road this year. But I really, fully believe, we’ve got the core guys here that we need to win another championship,” Martinez said. “I know Mike, myself, we’re going to spend hours and hours and hours trying to fill the void with guys we think can potentially help us in the future. And we’ll be back on the podium. I’m really confident about that.”

Rizzo was asked Saturday why the team announces contract lengths for players, as is common practice around the major leagues, but wouldn’t do so in this instance for Martinez.

“The reason is we don’t want anybody to know. That’s the reason,” Rizzo said, before asking the reporter: “How much do you make? How many years do you have?”

Moments later, as the back-and-forth continued, Rizzo said: “It’s kind of an individual thing with certain people. I don’t want you to know what I make or how many years I have. Davey doesn’t want you to know. And I think that it’s only fair … when people don’t want certain information out there, that we don’t give it.”

There were some calling for Martinez to lose his job last season when Washington got off to a 19-31 start. But Rizzo stood by his manager, and the team eventually turned things around, going 74-38 the rest of the way to reach the playoffs as an NL wild-card team.

The Nationals then beat the Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals to reach the World Series, where they beat the Houston Astros in Game 7.

Washington joined the 1914 Boston Braves as the only teams in major league history to win a World Series after being 12 games below .500 during a season.

“Everything from Day 1 to where he’s gotten to now, he’s grown so much. He’s really become one of my favorite managers of all,” three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer said after helping Washington win Saturday’s opener of a doubleheader against the New York Mets. “Davey really understands how to manage a clubhouse, manage a team. We saw it in the postseason. He knows how to push the right buttons when everything is on the line.”