Play­ers slug spec­tac­u­lar num­ber of homers This has many in the game ques­tion­ing what’s re­ally go­ing on

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Pa­trick Saun­ders

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.”

Mike Ehrmann, Getty Im­ages

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.

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