“I don’t know what to make of it,” Royals Manager Ned Yost told reporters Tuesday. “There sure are a lot of home runs being hit.”
Whether it’s juiced balls, juiced bats, juiced players or juiced analytics that is behind the explosion in homers, the game has undergone a sudden and fundamental change over the past few seasons — with homers up 47 percent over 2014, when the leaguewide homer rate was at a 22-year low — that is either alarming or awesome, depending upon your viewpoint.
Lost amid the hoopla over the record-setting No. 5,694 — a number that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue the way 61 and 755 once did — were the homers hit Tuesday night by Yasmani Grandal and Ian Kinsler, who thus became the 109th and 110th players in baseball this season to reach the 20-homer plateau, one short of the record set a year ago.
It is here, in baseball’s bloated middle — as opposed to the top of the home run rankings, where there will always be a Giancarlo Stanton pushing 50 or even 60, or at the bottom, where a struggling veteran such as Gordon, among the worst everyday hitters in the game, was happy to get his eighth of the season — that the home run surge signals a tectonic shift in the way the game is played.
There are exactly 149 players across baseball this season with the requisite number of plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, and 110 players with 20-plus homers, which tells you all you need to know about what that last number means these days. The 20-homer club almost certainly will grow in the coming days, with six players sitting at 19, another 11 at 18 — including Philadelphia’s Rhys Hoskins, who made his major league debut on Aug. 10 — and 13 at 17.
Once upon a time, 20 homers in a season established you as a borderline all-star, or a surefire one if you were a catcher such as Grandal or a second baseman such as Kinsler. Nowadays, you need that many just to be league-average.
Think of someone like Dave Parker. One of the most feared hitters of the 1970s and ‘80s. A key member of two World Series champions. A No. 3 or 4 hitter in more than 70 percent of his career games. A seven-time all-star and the 1978 National League most valuable player.
Parker exceeded 20 homers in fewer than half of his 19 big league seasons, and averaged 22 per 162 games played.
All these years later, we have Scooter Gennett, the Cincinnati Reds second baseman, sitting on 26 homers — a number Parker exceeded only three times — in just 130 games, including four in a single game. At least from a statistical standpoint, 30 is the new 20: In 2014, only 57 hitters reached the 20-homer mark. This year, we are likely to see almost that many reach 30.
The cyclical nature of baseball, evidenced most recently in the late-1990s/early-2000s offensive spike that bottomed out in 2014 only to spike again in the years since, has led many to postulate that we’re merely at the high point of another cycle.
But that theory bumps up against the decidedly noncyclical rise of analytics in the game and, by extension, the increasing predilection among executives for power arms and power bats. More than ever — and by design — the game, at least starting around the sixth inning, is now a parade of fire-breathing relievers throwing 99 mph facing a parade of all-or-nothing hitters, who arrive in the majors with a solid knowledge of launch angles and exit velocities and who are perfectly willing to trade a handful of strikeouts for each homer.
“The only way you’re doing damage against some of these [hard-throwers] is to keep aiming for the fences, keep going for the home run,” Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer said in July. “ … That’s why they’re more willing to sell out for the home run, and they’re okay with their strikeouts.”
It seems just as likely, if not more so, that this is something other than a cycle, that this version of baseball is here to stay. It’s difficult to envision general managers and managers suddenly eschewing power for a bunch of soft-tossing finesse pitchers and slap-hitting singles hitters.
The question isn’t whether it will go back in the other direction, but how far it can go in the direction it’s already heading.