Where Did All the Home Runs Go?
OK, look, the season just started. And we’re coming off a weird and infuriating offseason with a shortened spring training. It’s obviously too early to make any hard judgments about what’s going on in baseball right now.
But … what the heck is going on?
On Sunday, 28 of the 30 teams played — the Tigers-Royals game was rained out. And in the 14 games played, there were exactly 15 home runs hit.
Steven Vogt, Oakland vs. Toronto
Pete Alonso, Mets vs. Arizona
Adolis Garcia, Texas vs. Angels
Michael Brantley, Houston vs. Seattle
Ty France, Seattle vs. Houston
Thairo Estrada, San Francisco vs. Cleveland
Brandon Belt, San Francisco vs. Cleveland
Gavin Sheets, White Sox vs. Tampa Bay
Wilson Contreras, Cubs vs. Colorado
Seiya Suzuki, Cubs vs. Colorado
Ryan McMahon, Colorado vs. Cubs
Marcell Ozuna, Atlanta vs. San Diego
Bryce Harper, Philadelphia vs. Miami
Kyle Schwarber, Philadelphia vs. Miami
Albert Pujols, St. Louis vs. Milwaukee
That’s all. Fifteen home runs in 14 games, according to young baseball statistician and author Jeremy Frank, is the fewest since 2014, when baseball was very different from the past few seasons. And it’s the fewest for an April day since 1993, which is like 500 years ago in baseball terms.
So what’s the problem? I mean, we all know that the home run thing got out of control, particularly in 2019, when apparently even I hit 27 homers*, and you can say that maybe it’s a good thing to see some balance restored to the game. I’ve long believed that home runs are better as uncommon events; when everyone’s doing it all the time, the homer loses so much of its specialness.
*I just found this out by going to my Baseball-Reference page. Who knew?
So what’s the problem?
Well, the problem is that if this is a real trend — teams are averaging fewer than one home run per game, and that hasn’t happened since the aforementioned 2014 season — hitters are basically helpless. Home runs (since 2014) have masked the absolute cratering of offense in baseball. Batting averages, hits, triples, these are all at historic lows. Strikeouts, as everybody knows, are at historic highs.
And while the deluge of home runs may have become repetitive, they’re just about the only thing that has kept baseball from going back to 1968, when so few runs scored that the powers-that-be in baseball freaked out and just started changing stuff — OK, uh, let’s lower the mound, and uh, make the strike zone smaller, and, uh, maybe the pitcher shouldn’t hit anymore? And, uh, let’s crack down on those spitballs. Right? And, um, maybe we should call more balks? And, any other ideas out there?
In 1968, batters hit .237 — the lowest batting average on record.
This year — and again, it’s SUPER early, so let’s not jump to any conclusions — batters are hitting .233. That is not out of line from the last few seasons. Last year, batters hit .244, which was the lowest average since, you guessed it, 1968.
And the 11-point difference between this year and last year mostly comes down to the fact that batters are hitting many fewer home runs than they did last year.
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Here’s why I think the trend — if it is a trend — is particularly scary: We can very clearly and vividly point to why it’s happening: Relief pitching. Let me show you this super-worrisome statistic:
Innings 1-3: Batters are hitting .243/.321/.391.
That’s not great. But …
Innings 4-6: Batters are hitting .230/.310/.367.
That’s worse, isn’t it? And …
Innings 7-9: Batters are hitting .223/.305/.371.
That’s a reflection of how much the game has changed — your best bet to score runs in 2022, by far, is to get to the starter in the first three innings. This is baseball turned entirely upside down from where it was for 100 years. Starters are the weak link now. Relievers used to be failed starters. Now starters are just bridges to get to the parade of 98-mph throwing relievers.
The Blue Jays-A’s game is a good example. You would expect Toronto to be one of the best hitting teams in baseball. You would expect Oakland to be one of the worst pitching teams in baseball. Well, the Blue Jays scored one run in each of the first three innings off Oakland starter Adam Oller, a 27-year-old righty who pitched Independent Ball for the Windy City ThunderBolts (correct spelling) in 2019, then pitched for the Sydney Blue Sox in the Australian Baseball League the last couple of years. And they scored an unearned run off reliever Ryan Castellini after shortstop Kevin Smith threw the ball away.
And that was IT. The A’s hardly have the league’s deepest bullpen, but the Blue Jays could not even manage a hit off Sam Moll, Jacob Lemoine and Zach Jackson, three totally real people I did not make up. Of course, I could have made the names up, it wouldn’t have mattered, I could have told you the three relievers were Steve McDichael, Anatoli Snorin and Dwigt Rortugal* and you probably would not have known the difference.
*These last three names, as I’m sure you know, come from the 1994 Super Nintendo “Fighting Baseball” game.
The A’s scored two of their three runs off starter Alek Manoah, who pitched six innings — a startlingly long start by 2022 standards. Only 40 of the 284 starts so far this season have gone six innings, an absurd 14%. An applying student is more likely to be accepted to Cornell than you are to go to a game and see your team’s starting pitcher go six innings.
Then after Manoah left, the A’s managed to scratch out only one run off relievers Mike Truk, Kevin Nogilny and Scott Dorque. No, I’m sorry, those are Super Nintendo made-up names again; it was actually Bobson Dugnutt, Jeromy Gride and Todd Bonzalez. No, those are also made-up Super Nintendo names. Stop that!
The actual pitchers were Tim Mayza, Adam Cimber and Jordan Romano.
Félix Bautista, Dillon Tate and Jorge Lopez shut down the Yankees.
Trevor Williams, Chasen Shreve, Drew Smith and Edwin Diaz shut down Arizona.
Paul Sewald, Drew Steckenrider, Andres Munoz and Diego Castillo shut down Houston.
Ryan Brasier, Jake Diekman and Austin Davis shut down Minnesota.
Steven Wilson, Luis Garcia and Taylor Rogers shut down Atlanta.
Wil Crowe, Heath Hembree and David Bednar shut down Washington.
And so it goes.
Yes, it’s true, the season is barely 10 days old, and the weather will get better, and things surely will stabilize, and all of that. But — and Joe Sheehan has been ringing this bell for quite a while now — batters truly have few weapons to deploy against this new wave of pitching.
After the fourth inning, day after day, every at-bat, they’re facing fresh pitchers with fiery fastballs and ungodly sliders and various other wicked swing-and-miss out-pitches. After the sixth inning, relievers are striking out more than 28% of the batters they’re facing. In the ninth inning, batters are hitting .211 and slugging .343.
And I don’t really see how this is going to change. With the expanded rosters, teams are now regularly carrying 15 pitchers, and basically, any of them on any given day can be Bob Gibson if only asked to pitch one inning.
The home run has become the batter’s great equalizer. That’s why for the last few years, you’ve gotten an earful of talk about launch angles and exit velocities. Everybody knows that you’re probably not going to put together a two-walk, five-hit rally against a pitcher nowadays (and even if you did, a new Robocop pitcher with a blazing fastball would be put in, probably after the second hit).
So you take your chances and swing for the fences and, in the words of the Judge in “The Natural,” “wreck things with an unexpected blow.”
But if home runs are down — and I’m not saying they are, it’s too early to tell — I’m just not sure what Plan B is.