I would never presume to speak for the chicks of America, but one man’s opinion: I no longer dig the long ball.
Furthermore, I sense that I’m not alone in experiencing Dinger Fatigue. Remember when the Mariners homered in their first 20 games this season, and it seemed like this wondrous, unique achievement?
Well, not so much any more. Now we know that home-run records are getting cheaper by the dozen — which is one fewer than the number of blasts the Diamondbacks and Phillies combined to hit in one game in June, a new mark.
That’s just one of an ongoing, never-ending series of homer records that have been shattered this season. The Yankees homering in 30 straight games? The Mariners having a home run in every single game this year (by themselves or an opponent), extending the old record by 26 games and counting? The most homers, MLB-wide, ever hit in April, followed in May by the most home runs ever hit in any calendar month in history, followed in June by the highest home-run rate in history?
All that has happened this season, and too many other tater accolades to list here.
When the Mariners hit 264 home runs in 1997, it was a major league record that stood for 21 years until the Yankees broke it last season with 267. Well, this season, four teams (including the Mariners) are on pace to shatter the Yankees’ record from last season, and four other teams could get there with a bit of a surge. The Twins are on a 311-homer pace, which would mark a Bob Beamonesque escalation of the record.
And so it goes. Fourteen teams — nearly half — are headed toward their ballclub’s single-season home run record (and that total, too, could rise). More players are on pace to hit 30 and 40 home runs than ever before And the stat that ties it all together, courtesy of The Athletic’s Jayson Stark: MLB is on a pace for 6,591 homers this year, which not surprisingly would be the most in history — more than 1,000 ahead of last year (5,585), and roughly 2,400 more than were hit just five years ago (4,186).
There still is an intrinsic thrill in seeing a player put together the perfect swing that results in the ball being sent on a majestic arc out of the ballpark. It has always been the ultimate achievement in baseball, and one of the signature events in the entire sporting world.
But when they happen so frequently, and so universally, by the behemoths and the scrawny, by No. 4 hitters and No. 9 hitters, the accomplishment is greatly cheapened — and ultimately devalued. And when every baseball game is dominated, as I’ve talked about before, by home runs, strikeouts and walks — none of which result in the ball being put in play — it’s a huge, growing problem.
The last time we had such aberrational results, of course, was during the steroids era that began in the 1980s. I’m not naive enough to say categorically that no players are juicing, but with stringent testing now in place, I don’t think that’s the core of the problem.
No, virtually everyone agrees what is at the root of what Ken Rosenthal has dubbed “Bludgeon Ball.” It’s not the focus on “launch angle,” and it’s not the increased velocity of pitchers that are causing the ball to go farther in the other direction. Those are ancillary factors, but not the main one.
The culprit, quite clearly, is the baseball itself. All the proof you need is that the Class AAA minor leagues this year are using MLB baseballs for the first time, and their homer totals have increased precipitously across the board. Homers are up by a staggering 50 percent in the Pacific Coast League. In the lower minor leagues, with no change in baseballs, there is no change in home-run rate.
Justin Verlander caused a major stir at the All-Star Game last week when he accused MLB of intentionally doctoring the baseball in order to ramp up the power. He pointed out that MLB last year purchased Rawlings — the company that produces the balls.
“If any other $40 billion company bought out a $400 million company and the product changed dramatically,” Verlander told ESPN, “it’s not a guess as to what happened. We all know what happened. (Commissioner Rob) Manfred, the first time he came in, what’d he say? He said we want more offense. All of a sudden he comes in, the balls are juiced? It’s not coincidence. We’re not idiots.”
Verlander was essentially called into the principal’s office the next day, given a stern talking to by Manfred’s MLB lieutenants, Joe Torre and Jim Leyland. And Manfred, in his annual session with the Baseball Writers’ Association of America on Tuesday, vehemently denied (not for the first time), any intentionally doctoring of the ball.
I believe it’s likely nothing conspiratorial and sinister is taking place. Not like what happened in 2013 in the Japanese League when commissioner Ryozo Kato resigned after it was revealed the league had secretly switched to a livelier baseball for the 2013 season. That was the year that former Mariner Wladimir Balentien hit 60 homers to break Sadaharu Oh’s 49-year-old record of 55.
But something is going on, whether intentional or not. The consensus seems to be that because of improvements in the production process at Rawlings, the ball is more aerodynamically sound, with less drag. Specifically, the “pill” that is the core of the baseball is being centered with more precision, and that makes the ball travel farther. The seams, shown to be lower and tighter than before, are believed to be a big factor as well (and also leading to more pitchers’ blisters, but that’s another story).
Not being a physicist, I’m not qualified to address all that. But being a staunch lifetime baseball fan, I do feel qualified to say that MLB needs to fix it. Whatever it takes. Whenever the sport gets so out of proportion, the statistics threaten to become meaningless — and numbers have always been the historical foundation of baseball, the way we link generations and provide a semblance of continuity.
If and when the ball is returned to normalcy, you might even get a welcome bonus that goes beyond a return to home-run statistics that we can wrap our brain around. Namely, drives that have been clearing the fence would now stay in the yard, thus providing the much-needed bump in balls in play.
Right now, we have way too many balls flying out of play. Seeing a home run used to be the biggest thrill in a baseball game. Now it has become the biggest yawn.