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 Ziegler, Jerry 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.