What “too many homers” really means

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It’s not a bad thing really, it’s just too much of a good thing

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit 91 home runs in Monday’s Home Run Derby. That’s a pretty wild number even for an event like that. It didn’t feel any less amazing than a few years ago, and the sound off the kid’s bat alone was reason to watch. It was an absurd evening all in all, a circus show on baseball’s biggest stage.

Yet I couldn’t help thinking about how this spectacle is going to lose a bit of its luster over time, because the home run is simply becoming the way runs are scored these days. Maybe that’s good, maybe it’s bad, it’s hard to say, but it’s something that’s hard to get away from.

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By run expectancy, the value of the home run has actually dropped this season. It’s a weird thing to actually think, but it’s facts. It’s not by a lot, from 1.38 runs on average to 1.37, because of the volume of solo shots, but seeing that happen is strange, isn’t it? The homer is actually less valuable? A run still counts the same, but the offenses in general lean so hard on the dinger that it’s almost all we can expect to drive runs across the place. A rally isn’t killed by the bases-clearing home run (it never really was), it’s just part of the constant, steady chipping away at a lead.

We’ve seen three of the five highest season home run totals ever since 2016, joining the juice-ridden 2000 and ‘01 seasons on the chart. the highest mark ever was 2017 at 6105 dingers across baseball. We’ve seen 3691 so far this year, already the 26th most since 1950 for an entire season. If you prorate it out to the same number of games as 2017 you end up with more than 6,730 homers, which is just absurd. That’s 2.7 home runs a game.

A lot of things happen in a baseball game, so the ball leaving the park less than three times doesn’t seem like a huge deal. This is supposed to be the momentous event as the pinnacle of offensive play, so seeing it 3 times a day is a little much. Adding to that the creeping number of solo shots, and suddenly, there’s a lot more jogging around the bases while we watch.

This isn’t exactly the end of the world. One is able to marvel at the flight of the ball, of the damage the hitter did both to it and to the pitcher’s psyche, but the rise in bases-empty home runs naturally means less three-run shots and the corresponding rising action and tension. That’s where pure, raw drama and the incredible meta-game of pitcher vs. batter, vs. time and vs. himself happens.

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If everyone is hitting a home run (and I understand that’s a raw overreaction, but bear with it) then suddenly there’s less swells in the tension, it’s just a bunch of small blips that don’t do much to excite, like season 6 of Dexter instead of the one with John Lithgow. If we’re here for entertainment, this doesn’t sound like it.

The good news is, the batters are at least trying to make action happen. On Twitter this week Mike Petriello was asked how often hitters swing in each at-bat. After some number crunching with the Aaron Robison, he found something very interesting:

 Mike Petriello/Aaron Robison, Baseball Savant

Basically, we are at the highest rate of swings per at-bat since the numbers were trackable in 2008. This is good news. It’s good because swinging means more chances to make contact, which even in the worst case means something to watch in the field. It also means more swinging strikeouts, which are the more fun of the two to see, usually.

At the end of the day, that’s what this is all about, and that’s why people from every side of baseball’s continuing conversation, from John Smoltz to Jay Jaffe to my dad, are just kind of over the whole home run thing. The comparison to the spike in three-pointers being on the rise in the NBA is kind of wrong because with the three-pointer, you have that long, slow arc as it approaches the net to wonder if it will go down or not, and the ending splash is so, so sweet. For the most part, you know a homer off the bat. That’s what made it so special when it wasn’t so common.

Justin Verlander is probably right that they do need to change the ball. Not to a point where it’s 1884 again, but changing whatever has been done to the seams to reduce drag. Baseball has transitioned very harshly toward taking advantage of it—and likely would continue to even if we reverted to the ball of, say, 2013—so there’d be a bit of an ugly switch back for the less homer-inclined among us, but at least it would give the fan in the stands a bit more to see, and give the fielder a bit more to do.

The Fly Ball Revolution is out of the bag and never going back, because balls in the air are still better than grounders. It’s simple fact—there’s more room in the outfield. Even if making a change just means more wall-scrapers and warning-track outs though, at least it’s a small bit of tension. It’s wrong to say that people like the homer less these days, and it’s still the great feat of baseball that we all pray for to fix our team’s problems. That doesn’t mean it should be mundane. We crave excellence and greatness, and when that becomes routine, we are being robbed of something.

Merritt Rohlfing does a bunch of baseball analyzing and opining at Let’s Go Tribe and here at Beyond the Box Score. Shoot him an email, merritt.rohlfing@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter @MerrillLunch

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