Home Run Madness

Last night, Mike Schur, Brandon McCarthy and I were sending around texts about a few of the strange home runs hit lately. This one from Rafael Devers got the ball rolling — absolutely NOTHING about the swing looks like a home run.

Then, there was this crazy one from Aaron Judge — the only explanation for it is that, well, it’s Aaron Judge and he’s freakishly strong.

At this point, Mike brought up his favorite ridiculous home run of the last week or so — this grand slam from Javy Baez, one that MLB has the gall to call a “laser.” Look at where that pitch was. Look at that swing. Now look at where that ball landed.

We are reaching peak absurdity here, folks.

This is NOT about he baseball being juiced, not exactly. We’ll mention that later because, sure, it’s part of the story. But this is more about sorting out where we are in the baseball universe. Let’s begin by looking at just a few of the 2019 crazy home runs that look NOTHING like home runs coming off the bat.

Like this one: Corey Dickerson homers to right.

Or this absurdity by Joey Rickard.

How about this one from Matt Kemp? This makes no sense to me at all.

This is really a home run from Yolmer Sanchez? Really?

Troy Tulowitzki hit one home run in what looks to be a very short Yankees career. And it was this bit of lunacy.

Max Moroff?

Dee Gordon really has this kind of power?

I mean Dee Gordon?

Dee Gordon?

You see, I hope, what I’m getting at. Oh, look at you Jacob Nottingham. I see you Ben Gamel. This is ridiculous Dawel Lugo. And Max Stassi? Did Max Stassi really get a hold of that?*

*Most of the homers I’m choosing are opposite field homers … but only because of the visual. There are even more crazy pulled home runs but they somehow LOOK like home runs because a pulled-baseball always looks better.

If you have been one to notice that balls that don’t look anything like homers are flying out, you will at this point shout, “The baseballs!” Everybody shouts, “The baseballs!” And, the baseballs do seem to be flying ridiculous distances, it feels like there HAS to be something juicy about them.

But, I would argue, this is more than baseballs. This is a continuation of what began in the mid-1990s — and no, I’m not talking about PED use. It was so easy and tempting to write off the 1990s home run surge as a few rogue baseball players cheating the system and breaking the numbers foundation that baseball fans had come to cherish.

But the bigger thing that happened in that time is that across baseball everybody understood, once and for all, that working out and getting stronger makes you hit baseballs harder and farther. It’s so weird that it took so long for everybody to figure that out, but really, well into the 1990s, many in the game held on to that old chestnut that weight training was actually BAD for a hitter.

You would hear stuff like: “If you get too muscular, you lose your flexibility.”

“If you lift too many weights, you won’t be able to swing the bat as freely.”

“Muscles aren’t what help you hit home runs.”

(“Arnold Schwarzenegger couldn’t hit home runs” — I’ve heard real people say this).

All that stuff.

All of this was probably started by baseball players who didn’t want to work out.

But, as ridiculous as it seems now, the “working out is bad,” philosophy proved remarkably durable until the 1990s when muscles were in, chicks dug the long ball and baseballs flew out at record rates (and record distances). After that, nobody could argue the basic physics and players attacked the weight rooms.

And now — I don’t know how many players use PEDs these days, but I do know that EVERY player works out, EVERY player is much stronger, and EVERY player can hit quacky, ridiculous, you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me home runs now.

Alex Avila has hit three home runs like this one. Look where the right fielder is playing Adeiny Hechavarria on this one. This looks like a pop-up from Kyle Farmer.

This IS a pop-up from Jose Peraza.

Come on Oscar Mercado.

Eric Kratz?

This from Luke Weaver sailed almost 400 feet. Luke Weaver is a pitcher.

Remember when we thought Andrelton Simmons couldn’t hit at all?

Yes … the baseball. There has to be something with the baseball. I originally wrote here that super smart people have studied this but have not found a smoking gun — meaning they have not found a purposeful effort by baseball to change the baseball and make it fly more. But I am removing that because I think it was poorly worded and easily misunderstood.

Super smart people have written how the baseball definitelyis verydifferent — I somehow missed Meredith Wills’ excellent story explaining how this year’s baseballs are different — and I have no doubt that the baseballs themselves are a part of the home run insanity. I just don’t think that’s the whole story or the only thing we should be talking about.

We also KNOW baseball players are much stronger than they have ever been. They throw harder. They swing faster.

So what happens when all of this comes together? Batters miss more but when they connect — even if it LOOKS harmless — the ball goes.

We have talked about how the home run has taken over the game. Teams are now averaging 1.36 homers per game, which is far and away the most in baseball history. One way I like looking at it is to ask a question: If you go to the park, what are the chances you will see a home run hit by one of the teams?

Unsurprisingly, the chances are higher now than they have ever been.

Chances you go to a game and see a home run (a few random and not so random years):

2019: 92.3%
2018: 88.0%
2017: 91.6%
2009: 85.5%
2000: 88.0%
1987: 84.7%
1979: 77.6%
1969: 76.8%
1959: 79.6%

You could make a viable argument that this is good: Home runs are good, and so seeing one at virtually every game is good. Why wouldn’t you want more home runs?

But you could also argue this is not good, that the home run is being devalued. Part of what made the home run magical was that it was a pretty hard thing to do. If you saw a no-hitter once a week, then no-hitters would lose their meaning. If you see home runs every game, well, you follow that argument.

Either way, good or bad, seeing guys flipping home runs on pitches a foot out of the strike zone, hitting pop-flies that just kept going and going, muscling balls out of the park when a pitcher has thrown the ball down and away, all of it feels a bit off. And as extreme as it seems now, every sign is that it will only get more and more extreme.

Why? Look: The more of these Mike Freeman homers that you see, the more incentive there is for pitchers to miss bats. Hey, if even 31-year-old pinch-hitters can flare a ball 380-feet to the opposite field, then you are better off not taking any chances by allowing contact. So they get more strikeouts (strikeouts have gone up every single year since 2008), and then hitters counter by getting even stronger so that when they do make contact the ball goes out of the yard, which inspires pitchers to get more strikeouts, which inspires hitter to get even stronger.

It’s hard to see how the cycle breaks. Simple-sounding solutions like deadening the baseball would undoubtedly make things much, much worse, at least in the short term. Imagine baseball where pitchers were getting 9 whiffs per game AND players weren’t hitting all these home runs. You don’t have to imagine it — that’s basically what happened in 2014, and it was the worst offensive season in 40 years.

One idea that sounds interesting to make the ballparks bigger — go back to those days. It would be fun to see today’s remarkable outfielders go after long fly balls. It might bring the triple back into play, which would be awesome. But I’m sure there would be countless unintended consequences, and anyway, they’re not going to do that.

So, this is where we are. Every day, we see home runs that don’t feel at all like the home runs that many of us grew up with. But, you know, the game changes. Ground balls up the middle used to be singles, and now they’re mostly not (“Ban the shift,” the nostalgists shout). Batters used to worry about their strikeout totals, and now most of them accept the strikeout as a worthwhile price for the hard-hit balls (“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” the nostalgists shout). Pitchers almost never complete games and are usually pretty happy with a solid six innings (“Quality start?” the nostalgists shout. “That’s what we call a quality start these days?”).

And hits that looks pretty harmless off the bat now sail over fences. I don’t think of myself as a nostalgist; I’m one of those people who will love baseball no matter what happens. But I do find myself thinking that it’s not good for the game if the reaction after seeing a home run is not “WOW!” “HURRAY! ” or any of the interjections from the Schoolhouse Rock song but is instead, “Are you kidding me?” or, more directly, “Her?”