MLB slugging back in style

Home runs fly at near-record pace

- Bob Nightengal­e USA TODAY Sports

There’s something strange happening in baseball, but despite all the sport’s technology and analytical department­s, no one can figure it out.

The baseballs have been checked, rechecked and checked again, and nothing funny has been detected.

The players are being checked and rechecked themselves, taking more drug tests than ever.

While an abnormally warm summer is expected, weather patterns and barometric pressure have been normal, scientists say.

Yet it’s as if we’ve gone back in time, with baseballs flying out of ballparks as though it were the golden days of the steroid era, back when Barry Bonds was hitting a record-setting 73 home runs and Sammy Sosa was hitting at least 50 a year for four consecutiv­e seasons.

Major League Baseball is on pace to produce the second-most home runs in history, trailing only the 2000 season. Teams are averaging 1.15 home runs per game this year, up 14% from a year ago and 34% from two years ago when baseball’s power was at a 20-year low.

Two years ago, there was one

40-homer hitter, Nelson Cruz, and 10 others who hit at least 30. Now, we might quadruple that number.

There are 49 players on pace to hit 30 or more home runs, with 12 already eclipsing the 20-homer mark one week before the All-Star break.

Two years ago, the Baltimore Orioles were the only team that hit 200 homers. Now, nearly half of the 30 teams are on pace to hit the mark, with the Orioles again leading the way with an eye-popping 128.

“It is strange, but I really don’t have any strong theories on it,” Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “We just went into a three-year stretch where everybody was complainin­g that nobody was scoring any runs, and now it’s the home run.

“All I know is that this industry has been in a mode for a while to reward the home run, and strikeouts and contact are not viewed as being important.”

Indeed, just while home runs are being hit at a record clip, the strikeout rate of eight per nine innings also is a record high. Five players have struck out at least 100 times, and 51 have struck out at least 70 times.

We’re on pace to have more than three times as many players strike out 140 or more times than we had in 2001.

This might be the height of the Three True Outcomes Era — home run, strikeout, walk.

“What’s most noticeable to me now is the lack of contact,” Counsell said. “And because there’s this lack of contact, you’re not going to string together a lot of hits to score runs, so you better hit the ball out of the ballpark.

“Since it’s harder to put the ball in play, with pitchers throwing harder with better stuff, the home run has become instant offense that doesn’t require sequential offense.”

Managers are constructi­ng their lineups differentl­y than ever. Gone are the days when the team’s best power hitter is automatica­lly hitting in the cleanup or third spots. Take a look around.

Jose Bautista, who hit 75 homers and drove in 217 runs for the Toronto Blue Jays over the 2014 and ’ 15 seasons, was their leadoff hitter before going on the disabled list. George Springer, who leads the Houston Astros with 19 homers and 50 RBI, is their everyday leadoff hitter. Kris Bryant, who leads the Chicago Cubs with 24 homers and 63 RBI, batted second Monday before leaving with an injury. Adam Jones, who has averaged 29 homers over the last five seasons, is the Orioles’ leadoff hitter. Matt Carpenter, who led the St. Louis Cardinals with 28 homers last season, also bats leadoff.

“Instead of saving that power hitter for the 3-4-5 spots, you’re putting him in the No. 1 or 2 spots to do some damage,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny says. “So over the long haul, with those guys getting more at-bats, that could sway some numbers.”

Or you can blame the power surge on all the power pitchers.

There are 35 pitchers alone who are averaging 97 mph on their fastball this season, leading to a record number of strikeouts, the highest walk rate in six years, and, yes, the staggering home run pace.

“You don’t see a lot of guys who are just picking at the corners, trying to nibble,” Oakland Athletics left-hander Rich Hill says. “You see guys going right after hitters. Hitters know that, and it makes the game fun.

“It’s your best against their best.”

There’s also the theory, too, that something funny is going on with the baseball. If the players aren’t juiced, it must be the baseballs.

“I don’t feel like the ball is any different,” San Francisco Giants reliever Javier Lopez says. “Somebody was bringing up that it may be wound tighter. I haven’t noticed that.”

Yet several pitchers and pitching coaches have talked about the baseballs having wider seams. Maybe it means something. Maybe it means absolutely nothing.

“The seams seem different, but I don’t know if they’re making them different or what,” Kansas City Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “I don’t know what it is. But I do know we’re giving up more home runs than we ever have. Balls are flying out all over the place.”

MLB insists there’s absolutely no difference in the way baseballs are made today. Everything is exactly the same. Well, except for the signature.

Those balls are autographe­d by Rob Manfred and not Bud Selig.

And statistics are viewed far differentl­y than they were a decade ago. O f the 12 hitters who entered July 4 with 20 or more home runs, none was hitting .300. And three had already struck out at least 90 times, with Chris Davis of Baltimore and Chris Carter of Milwaukee eclipsing 100 strikeouts.

Chicago White Sox third baseman Todd Frazier is tied for second in the major leagues with 23 home runs, to go along with 52 RBI, but is hitting .212 with 82 strikeouts and a .309 on-base percentage. These days, you don’t know if that means he’s having a crummy year or should be an All-Star.

“Perhaps 20 years ago it might be hard seeing the value in someone hitting .210 or something, but we’re certainly looking at different metrics in determinin­g how we look at a player now,” Brewers general manager David Stearns said.

“I can’t say I’ve spent any time looking at (the home run increase), but my initial inclinatio­n is that it’s just noise and it will even out the second half or next year. We’ll see.”

Then again, this could be remembered as the year of the slugger, in which case we say, “Welcome back, fellas.”

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 ?? DAVID RICHARD, USA TODAY SPORTS ?? The White Sox’s Todd Frazier has hit 23 home runs but is batting .212 with 82 strikeouts.
DAVID RICHARD, USA TODAY SPORTS The White Sox’s Todd Frazier has hit 23 home runs but is batting .212 with 82 strikeouts.

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