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.