Last season, there were 4,186 home runs hit in the major leagues, down from 4,661 in 2013. That’s the fewest since 4,081 in 1995.
PEORIA, Ariz. —
It sounds a little like a punch line in an obnoxious birthday card for someone moving past middle age. But in baseball circles, the phrase: “40 is the new 50” has nothing to do with age.
No, people who use that phrase are talking about home runs. You know, round-trippers, jacks, taters, four-baggers, bombs or even dingers.
The rise and fall of home runs
A look at the total home runs hit in baseball in various seasons:
4,186 > 2014
Nelson Cruz leads with 40 homers, the fewest since 1986 (Jesse Barfield led with 40).
5,042 > 2009
The last time baseball crested 5,000 in a year.
5,386 > 2006
MLB drug testing began in 2006.
4,081 > 1995
The “Refuse to Lose” Mariners were fourth in baseball in HRs (182).
2,698 > 1975
Eight teams didn’t blast more than 100 total homers.
2,730 > 1961
Roger Maris hit 61 homers, and Mickey Mantle had 54.
922 > 1927
Babe Ruth hit 60 homers, but only six players had 20 or more. Notable, though, is that there were only 16 teams.
Whatever slang word you want to use to describe the acting of hitting a baseball over the fence, you are using it less these days.
Simply put, power is decreasing with each year.
In 2014, Nelson Cruz led the major leagues with 40 home runs. In 2004, 40 homers would have been the 10th-most in baseball.
Power hitting — specifically home runs — had steadily decreased from its pinnacle in the early 2000s.
Last season, there were 4,186 home runs in the major leagues, down from 4,661 in 2013. That’s the fewest since 4,081 in 1995. The major-league-average slugging percentage of .386 was the lowest since 1992 (.377). There are other indicators of weakening power. It took 39.6 at-bats for every home run, the highest ratio over the past 20 seasons. Another indicator of power outage was the home-run/fly-ball ratio of 6.9 percent. Over the previous 20 seasons, it had not fallen below 7.0 percent. In that span, the lowest was 7.3 percent.
By comparison, the 2000 season featured 5,693 home runs with an MLB slugging percentage of .437. There was a home run hit in every 29.4 at-bats, and 8 percent of fly balls went for home runs.
So why is the power dissipating? There are a number of theories.
The first is the implementation of a drug-testing program, which began in 2003 and was later agreed upon by MLB and the player’s association as the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program in the spring of 2006.
After years of rampant steroid and human-growth-hormone usage, MLB began testing for performance-enhancing drugs, with a positive test resulting in a 50-game suspension for a first offense and a 100-game suspension for a second offense.
The effect wasn’t immediate. But the days of players resembling NFL linebackers seem to be gone.
Obviously, some players still will try to cheat the system. Cruz and 12 other players — including Alex Rodriguez, Jhonny Peralta and Jesus Montero — had to serve suspensions during the 2013 season for their connection to the BioGenesis performance-enhancing-drug scandal.
In 2006, there were 5,386 home runs, and only once since then have there been more than 5,000 in a season — 5,042 in 2009.
Former commissioner Bud Selig, who oversaw the program, believes drug-testing has cleaned up the game considerably.
“Every independent expert we have says we have the best program, not only in sports, but in America,” Selig said at last year’s All-Star Game. “I just met with a lot of the professional athletic trainers, and they say to me, ‘You can’t believe how good clubhouses are. You just can’t believe how good things are.’ ”
Beyond the drug policy, there has been a shift in the balance of power to pitchers. Good pitching usually beats good hitting, and the quality of pitchers seems to grow with each season, particularly with power arms in bullpens.
“When I played, our game plan was to get to middle relief, be patient with the starter, get his pitch count up,” said Mariners manager McClendon, who played eight seasons in the big leagues from 1987-94. “I don’t think that’s the case any more. You get to middle relief, and most of those guys are throwing 97 to 100 miles per hour. Now the plan is jump on that starter early and hold on. It’s changed quite a bit. I think it’s rare if a guy gets three at-bats off a starter in a game.”
According to Fangraphs, the average fastball velocity among major-league relievers has risen from 91.7 mph in 2007 to 93 mph in 2014.
It’s made life difficult for hitters. Former Mariners star Edgar Martinez could see those changes coming at the end of his career.
“Pitching is getting really tough,” he said. “I remember the last few years that I played. You’d have a good starter that would start the game and be out in the seventh inning, and every reliever was throwing 95, 96 and 97. In the earlier years, you’d maybe see 93 and that was considered hard. But now you’ll see three guys in a row throwing 97. The game has changed in the last 15 years. It’s a shift. Pitching has gotten a lot better.”
And those pitchers are benefiting from a lower strike zone, which many baseball analysts believe plays into the power outage.
Thanks to Pitch F/X tracking, Jon Roegele of The Hardball Times analyzed the data and found that the strike zone has increased from 436 square inches to 475 square inches.
Much of that increased area is in the bottom half of the strike zone. More lower strikes are being called, and pitchers are willing to use sinkers and split-fingered fastballs to stay in that area, knowing it’s hard to hit line drives or fly balls on those pitches.
Perhaps Cruz will not replicate the 40 home runs from last season, which helped him land a four-year, $57 million contract in the offseason from the Mariners.
But if 40 is the new 50 for power hitters, then surely 35 homers would seem pretty good.