Sea­son’s first half was homer derby

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - TYLER KEPNER Home runs con­tin­ues // S8

On Mon­day in Miami, as a pre­lude to the All-Star Game the next night, a pa­rade of ma­jor-lea­guers stepped to the plate, swung hard and tried to lift base­balls into the seats. Of­fi­cially, it’s known as the an­nual Home Run Derby. It may also have seemed re­dun­dant, be­cause it ba­si­cally de­scribes the en­tire first half of the sea­son.

“Guys are go­ing for it more, up and down the lineup,” said the San Francisco Giants’ Buster Posey, the start­ing catcher for the Na­tional League. “Even like your sec­ond base­men, guys that tra­di­tion­ally might just be han­dling the bat, now they’re let­ting it eat, let­ting it go. That’s the big­gest dif­fer­ence I see — guys are tak­ing some hacks.”

All that hack­ing is pro­duc­ing home runs at an un­prece­dented rate. Through Satur­day, baseball was on pace for 6,117 home runs this sea­son, which would shat­ter the record of 5,693 set in 2000, in the era be­fore steroid test­ing. Hit­ters swat­ted 1,101 home runs in June, the most for any month in baseball his­tory.

Whether this makes for a bet­ter brand of baseball is de­bat­able. The in­stant surge of ex­cite­ment from a homer can be off­set by the loss of nu­ance — and the rel­a­tive lack of ac­tion — that goes with an all-or-noth­ing ap­proach to the game.

“There’s just some­thing about home runs,” said Dick Wil­liams, the gen­eral man­ager of the Cincin­nati Reds, whose pitch­ing staff leads the ma­jors in home runs al­lowed. “It’s like, I wish they were harder to hit. They have too much of an im­pact on the game to be hap­pen­ing this fre­quently.”

It is pos­si­ble, of course, that this power boom is caused by chem­i­cals. But that would mean a wide­spread wave of cheat­ing is tak­ing place de­spite in­creas­ingly strin­gent drug test­ing. Many pitch­ers be­lieve the ball is harder than usual, with lower seams, though Ma­jor League Baseball in­sists that all test­ing shows the balls to meet nor­mal spec­i­fi­ca­tions.

More plau­si­ble, per­haps, is that the homers are an out­growth of baseball’s sta­tis­ti­cal rev­o­lu­tion and the log­i­cal con­cepts it has pop­u­lar­ized. Hit­ters un­der­stand that driv­ing the ball in the air, in­stead of on the ground, of­fers far more po­ten­tial for pro­duc­tion and fi­nan­cial re­ward. Tech­nol­ogy shows them pre­cisely how to an­gle their bats to turn fly balls into homers, and many have the skills to ap­ply what they know.

“We’re al­low­ing an­a­lyt­ics peo­ple to come in, and for years baseball peo­ple didn’t like an­a­lyt­ics peo­ple; they were a bunch of

nerds,” said Craig Wal­len­brock, a long­time hit­ting trainer and a for­mer scout who con­sults for the Los An­ge­les Dodgers. “That may or may not be true, but that has noth­ing to do with what they’re mea­sur­ing. They’re look­ing at launch an­gle, exit ve­loc­ity, work­ing with ac­tual facts about what hap­pens. It hasn’t changed the way we hit a baseball, but it’s changed our un­der­stand­ing of what’s go­ing on.”

The pace of the ad­just­ments has been sud­den, with the home run spike be­gin­ning in the sum­mer of 2015, the year that be­gan the so-called Stat­cast Era, when baseball be­gan mea­sur­ing — and pub­licly em­pha­siz­ing — the DNA within ev­ery ball in flight: the rate of spin for each pitch, the an­gle of the hit­ter’s bat upon con­tact, the speed at which ev­ery bat­ted ball trav­els.

Strike­out rates have risen ev­ery year for a decade; this year, the av­er­age to­tal of strike­outs per game is 16.489, up from last year’s record of 16.055. The av­er­age fast­ball ve­loc­ity has risen each year since 2008, ac­cord­ing to FanGraphs, and is now up to 93.6 m.p.h., as starters go fewer and fewer in­nings and teams turn to more and more hard-throw­ing re­liev­ers to fill the rest of the game. All of them are be­ing en­cour­aged to be more ag­gres­sive, which also be­comes a fac­tor in the home run surge.

“What has hap­pened is, be­cause of the in­crease in ve­loc­i­ties, you’re see­ing more pitch­ers pitch­ing up — more pitch­ing coaches and or­ga­ni­za­tions en­cour­ag­ing pitches thrown up at the top of the zone — where that was never the case be­fore,” said Colorado Rock­ies man­ager Bud Black, who pitched in the ma­jors from 1981 to 1995. “My gen­er­a­tion was down, down, down and away, and if there was a guy who would chase a high fast­ball, you would throw it up. But you never made it part of your game.”

That can lead to more strike­outs, but also more mis­takes that get ham­mered. Jon Lester, the vet­eran left-han­der for the Chicago Cubs, added that um­pires also seemed to be call­ing fewer strikes on low pitches this year.

“You’ve got to bring that ball up just a lit­tle bit, giv­ing them a bet­ter op­por­tu­nity to hit the ball,” Lester said.

One hit­ter who takes ad­van­tage is Lester’s team­mate, third base­man Kris Bryant, the Na­tional League Rookie of the Year in 2015 and the Most Valu­able Player last year. Bryant’s fa­ther, Mike, was a mi­nor lea­guer for the Bos­ton Red Sox and learned hit­ting from Ted Wil­liams. Mike Bryant now in­structs young hit­ters in Las Vegas, and helped mould Kris into a prodi­gious — and un­apolo­getic — fly­ball ma­chine.

“Keep it re­ally sim­ple: Hit it hard, hit it in the air,” Mike Bryant said. “We want them to swing ag­gres­sively, we want them to make a big move for­ward into the ball, trans­fer their weight for­ward. Swing up, don’t chop down. Bar­rel be­low the hands at con­tact, not above. ‘Don’t hit the top of the ball, don’t throw your hands, don’t stay back’ — all the phrases that you’ve heard for years and years are to­tally the wrong things to teach.”

A record 111 ma­jor-lea­guers bashed at least 20 home runs last sea­son, mak­ing power al­most a job re­quire­ment for a spot in the lineup. Ac­cord­ingly, more and more play­ers — Josh Don­ald­son, J.D. Martinez, Daniel Murphy, Justin Turner — have tai­lored their swings to change their style of hit­ting, of­ten through an in­tense off-sea­son over­haul with a pri­vate coach.

“The win­ter has to be the time for prac­tice mode, be­cause game mode’s got to be all about com­pe­ti­tion and not me­chan­ics,” said Wal­len­brock, the con­sul­tant, who has about 50 clients. “It’s got to be just au­to­matic. Guys in the past used to rest in the off-sea­son. The modern player thinks, ‘Hey, Oc­to­ber to Feb. 15, that’s the time I can work on my swing and break me­chan­ics down.’ Then dur­ing the sea­son, you can al­ways call that guy and put a Band-Aid on.”

Af­ter the 2013 sea­son, Martinez vis­ited Wal­len­brock in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, hop­ing to al­ter his swing path to hit more fly balls. Af­ter post­ing a .387 slug­ging per­cent­age over three years with the Hous­ton Astros, Martinez has not had a slug­ging per­cent­age be­low .535 in four years with the Detroit Tigers. He is poised to cash in as a free agent this win­ter.

“Young play­ers, who have a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of tech­nol­ogy and use it more, they’re see­ing what’s go­ing on,” Wal­len­brock said. “They say, ‘I need to up­per­cut.’ ”

Dave Hud­gens, the hit­ting coach for the Hous­ton Astros, frames the modern mind­set around pitch se­lec­tion: He wants hit­ters to swing only if they be­lieve they can hit the pitch for a homer. That works for the tal­ented Astros, who lead the ma­jors in slug­ging while also strik­ing out the least. For other teams, though, the down­side stands out more.

The Tampa Bay Rays are win­ning with a high-homer, high-strike­out of­fence, but the Oak­land Ath­let­ics are not. Darren Bush, the Oak­land hit­ting coach, cau­tioned that not ev­ery hit­ter can be like Kris Bryant and strive for fly balls.

“He thinks that way and it works for him. But other guys, if they try to think that way, they get real long in the back — a real slow swing — and guys just blow fast­balls by them,” Bush said. “There are guys try­ing to cre­ate that el­e­va­tion, and some guys are hav­ing a lot of suc­cess with it. A lot of guys aren’t, though. There’s a lot of guys in the mi­nor leagues try­ing to do that, too.”

Yet for those play­ers, and for jour­ney­men seek­ing a me­chan­i­cal makeover, it may be a risk worth tak­ing. It could be a mat­ter of sur­vival in a daily home run derby.

GETTY IM­AGES FILE PHOTO

New York Yan­kees’ Aaron Judge swings for the fence. Through Satur­day, Ma­jor League Baseball was on pace for 6,117 home runs this sea­son, which would shat­ter the record of 5,693 set in 2000.

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