PLAYERS HITTING HUGE NUMBER OF HOMERS
Players slug spectacular number of homers This has many in the game questioning what’s really going on
MIAMI» Aaron Judge was greeted like a rock star at Monday’s All-Star Game media session. Reporters elbowed for position and cameramen climbed atop stepladders for a better view as the New York Yankees’ rookie outfielder arrived at the podium.
Judge, 25, has swatted 30 home runs, already surpassing the Yankees’ rookie record of 29 set by the great Joe DiMaggio in 1936.
Judge doesn’t just hit home runs, he launches rockets. According to Statcast, his average home run travels 413 feet and has an average exit velocity of 111 mph. His 495foot moonshot at Yankee Stadium this season ranks as his longest homer, at least so far.
The 6-foot-7, 282-pound Judge has come to symbolize the 2017 baseball season. It’s all about power.
Powerful men, plus powerful swings, plus powerful pitchers equal home runs being hit at a record pace. Mounting strikeouts are the ugly byproduct.
There are a variety of theories about what’s going on, ranging from juiced baseballs to the all-ornothing approach of hitters. But whatever the reason, or reasons, it’s clear that major-league hitters are blasting away like never before.
Even the best pitchers have to adjust, and grin and bear it.
“The way I’ve been looking at it, the ball is flying for whatever reason,” said Washington righthander Max Scherzer, who starts for the National League in Tuesday night’s All-Star Game. “I’ve
given up a lot of homers over the past year and a half. That’s really been something that’s been a thorn in my side. I’ve had to become a better pitcher, locate better. Because of the home run spike, I’ve dialed it in even more to try to make my location better to try to prevent them.”
Major-leaguers are on pace to launch 6,117 home runs this season, obliterating the single-season record of 5,693 hit in 2000, a season considered to be at the height of the steroid era. There were 1,107 dingers hit in June alone, the most in a single month in history.
Strikeout rates have risen every year for the last 10 years. This year, the average total of strikeouts per game is 16.489, up from last year’s record of 16.055.
“To me, it’s pretty easy to explain,” said Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz, the lead baseball analyst for Fox Sports. “When you get rewarded for one style of play — namely home runs — what do you think more players are going to gravitate to? And when you don’t discount for strikeouts, nobody is going to change. I think the game has become very stagnant in that way.”
Other theories abound. For example, many pitchers believe that the baseballs are harder, slicker and wound tighter, and so the balls are traveling farther than ever before. How else to explain that pitcher Jon Gray recently hit a 467-foot homer at Coors Field, the longest by a Rockies player this season until Charlie Blackmon hit a 477-foot home on Sunday at Coors.
“I don’t have proof or anything, but there has been some talk since the all-star break last year that there have been more home runs since then, and that balls are flying farther,” Rockies veteran reliever Mike Dunn said. “I’ve heard this — and so this is speculation too — that (juicing balls) can be done, because they make the Home Run Derby balls harder so that there are more home runs.
“I have heard that from a lot of players in the past. So can it be done? Yeah. Can it be done without us knowing about it? Yeah.”
Commissioner Rob Manfred, however, has repeatedly discounted the idea that the baseballs have been altered to increase home run totals.
Still, a number of pitchers believe that the seams on a baseball are flatter than before, making it more difficult to make pitches break the way a pitcher wants them to.
“There is a lot of speculation, but I don’t see a big difference,” Rockies reliever Jake McGee said. “But I do know that we still have some balls in the ball bag from a few years ago, and it seems like the seams are bigger. But for us it’s kind of hard to tell, because when you play at Coors (Field) and the weather starts heating up, the balls start flying.”
Washington all-star pitcher Stephen Strasburg said the deluge of homers has become a hot topic.
“We have this discussion in the clubhouse all of the time, and some guys say it’s climate change,” Strasburg joked. “But some guys say the ball is juiced and some guys say batters are attacking more and trying to get the ball in the air more.
“It could be a combination of it all. Who really knows? Of course, only time will tell. We could go into the second half of this season and the homers will fall off. But I’ve just come to grips with the fact that I’m going to give up homers. So if I give up solo homers, I’m OK with that.”
Of course, it’s possible that the power surge is chemically enhanced. But that would mean that a lot of players are cheating by taking performance-enhancing drugs, despite Major League Baseball’s stringent drug testing.
“I don’t know the reason for sure, but I can tell you that guys are bigger and stronger and guys are throwing harder,” St. Louis all-star catcher Yadier Molina said. “I think you put those two together and you get more home runs.”
According to FanGraphs, the average fastball velocity has risen each year since 2008 and is now up to 93.6 miles per hour.
“I think part of what has happened is that pitchers aren’t as well developed as in the past,” Smoltz said. “They have great arms and they have great stuff, but they make a lot of mistakes. And mistakes are going to get hit.
“Plus, hitters are learning how to elevate the baseball. They are bigger and stronger.”
Rockies three-time all-star third baseman Nolan Arenado joked that “maybe the pitchers’ arms are juiced,” but he does think that sluggers are taking a different approach to hitting.
“Guys are swinging for it more now,” said Arenado, who has hit a combined 83 homers from 2015-17, including 17 at the all-star break this season. “Guys are working on their (launch) angles so much now, trying to lift the ball in the air. It think that’s part of it. Plus guys are throwing so hard now, you don’t have to create your own power so much anymore.”
Rookie Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees slugs away Monday night en route to winning the Home Run Derby at Marlins Park in Miami.