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MLB hitters are blasting homers at a record rate, and they’re just getting warmed up

Nelson Cruz launches one of 11 home runs hit by the Twins during an April 20 doubleheader at Baltimore. (Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

BALTIMORE — It’s not exactly true that the Baltimore Orioles’ pitching staff is single-handedly responsible for the staggering spike in home runs across Major League Baseball this season — but when you’re standing on the mound or sitting in the dugout at Camden Yards, watching another long flyball leave the yard, it’s natural sometimes for it to feel that way.

“I’ve never seen home runs given up like we do,” Orioles Manager Brandon Hyde marveled last week.

That’s because no one has ever seen home runs given up like the 2019 Orioles. Before this month, the major league record for homers allowed before the end of April was 50 by the 1996 Detroit Tigers. The Orioles zoomed past that record April 20 — when they gave up 11 long balls in a doubleheader sweep at the hands of the Minnesota Twins. Entering Friday, with five days left before the calendar turns to May, the Orioles’ total sat at 59.

But the Orioles are merely an extreme example of something taking place all across the game. Even in an era of unprecedented leaguewide home run power, the first month of the 2019 season stands out. Entering Friday, teams had combined to hit a record 979 homers — an average of 1.32 per team-game. That’s 116 more than teams hit in April 2017, a season that yielded a record 6,105 homers.

In other words, the 2019 home run rate is 5 percent higher than the highest rate in history (1.26 per team-game in 2017) and up 15 percent from last year, when the leaguewide rate dipped to 1.15.

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And what is truly scary is that the early part of the season normally produces the lowest rate of homers. What’s going to happen when the weather warms, typically resulting in balls carrying farther? At least in Baltimore, nobody seems to have any answers.

“I have no idea,” Orioles reliever Mychal Givens said. “But for me, it’s just really interesting how many balls are going out and how easily they’re going out.”

And it’s not just the Orioles. Weird things are happening all across the sport:

  • Teams combined to hit 48 homers on Opening Day, a record for the first day of a season.
  • The Seattle Mariners entered Friday on pace for 330 homers, which would obliterate the record of 267 set by the 2018 New York Yankees.
  • The New York Mets became the first team in more than 100 years to have three pitchers hit homers in the season’s first month: Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler went deep.
  • In a game this month, Class AAA International League rivals Lehigh Valley and Rochester combined to hit a whopping 15 homers in 10 innings. (Lehigh Valley won, 20-18.)

It is worth pointing out that all games in Class AAA this season are being played with MLB-issued baseballs, a change from previous years when a different, minor league ball was used across all levels. Has that made a difference? You be the judge. Across Class AAA entering Friday, batters were averaging 1.28 homers per team-game. And at Class AA — just one level down, but using the minor league ball — batters were averaging 0.73 homers per team-game.

You can probably see where this is going. That’s right — here we go with the juiced balls again.

“I’m amazed the question is even being asked. The ball is juiced,” said Orioles starter Alex Cobb, who entered Friday having given up five homers in 8⅓ innings stretching across two starts. “We’re in the entertainment industry, and if fans really do enjoy watching [home runs], then that’s what’s going to be done. And that’s fine. It’s just frustrating to have to answer the questions, as if it’s performance-based, when I’ve been working on my craft with a certain type of ball my entire big league career, and then all of a sudden it’s changed. It’s hard to talk about it because as pitchers, it just sounds like sour grapes.”

Cobb said he began noticing the change during the 2015 season, which is around the time the game’s home run rate began to climb — rising every year from 2014 to 2017 before dipping last year. He isn’t the only one who suspects a juiced ball is responsible for this year’s home run surge. A Baseball Prospectus study this month purported to show the ball has a lower drag coefficient in 2019 than in years past — and pointed out that even a 3 percent drop in drag can add about five feet to a flyball, resulting in a 10 to 15 percent rise in homers.

In response to questions about the home run rate and the juiced-ball theories, an MLB spokesman pointed to the study the league released in May 2018 in which a panel of 10 scientists and data specialists concluded the rise in homers is related to a “change in the aerodynamic properties” of the ball, specifically a “reduced drag for given launch conditions.”

The report, however, said there was no material change to the manufacturing process that would explain the reduced drag, and it did not reach a conclusion about how or why it had occurred. The home run surge, the report said, “is not due to either a livelier, ‘juiced’ ball, or any change in batter or pitcher behavior. It seems, instead, to have arisen from a decrease in the ball’s drag properties, which cause it to carry further than previously, given the same set of initial conditions — exit velocity, launch and spray angle, and spin. So there is indirect evidence that the ball has changed, but we don’t yet know how.”

All signs are pointing to this being a season-long story line — and, given the rise in homers that usually comes with the rise in temperatures, a summer-long explosion of long balls. And it won’t be limited to Camden Yards.

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