In the 2017 MLB season, baseball fans witnessed the most home runs hit in a single season in the modern era. With 6,105 dingers tallied between April 2 and Nov. 1, the players shattered the previous season’s total by nearly 500 home runs. But that magnitude of an increase isn’t the first of its kind. The 2016 season saw roughly 700 more homers than the 2015 season, which recorded about 700 more home runs than its preceding season.
There are a lot of variables that come into play when discussing trends in baseball. The game has a unique way of naturally balancing itself out. Pitchers discover new methods of pitching that batters aren’t comfortable with, or they find a new technique to add a bit more heat to their fastball. At this point it becomes a pitching-dominant game. It isn’t until the hitters adapt to these new forms that we see the game shift back to a more hitting-dominant game.
Another element, one that the players can’t control, can have a significant impact on the game of baseball: Rule changes. In 2015 — the year we started seeing these massive increases in home run totals — the MLB’s “Pace of Play” rules were introduced. These rules limited the amount of time pitchers had between innings in an attempt to combat the increasing length of baseball games. While their intention is clear, perhaps the implementation resulted in the increase in home runs. Pitching at the MLB level is no easy task. For many pitchers the break between innings is tough — their arm gets cold or they can get off rhythm. Rushing a proper warm-up at the start of an inning, via the Pace of Play rules, can definitely have a negative effect on pitchers.
At the end of the 2017 season, pitchers like Justin Verlander and Yu Darvish made headlines — not for their performances but for their grievances over the baseballs the MLB provided.
“I think the main complaint is that the balls seem a little bit different in the postseason,” Verlander told USA Today. “And even from the postseason to the World Series balls. They’re a little slick. You just deal with it.”
At first, I was skeptical about this claim (and as a Tigers fan, when Verlander speaks, it’s the truth). Why would the MLB alter the balls for the postseason? It didn’t make sense. Then I watched a World Series with 22 home runs. That is ludicrous. Then, like wildfire, a slew of conspiracy theories overwhelmed the internet claiming that the MLB made the balls slicker to increase the home run count. At the time, I believed there was some weight to this claim. After all, historically, World Series ratings have been on the decline and home runs are fun to watch.
I partially believed this theory until a couple of days ago when I read an intriguing article from Prevent Illustrated’s Tom Verducci titled “Countdown to Liftoff: How Joey Gallo and Josh Donaldson Embody Baseball’s New Era.” The article focuses on a few select players who are beginning to break the norm and introduce a new approach when down in the count.
“Hitting concepts were once passed down like stories at the Thanksgiving table, generation to generation,” Verducci said. “These outsiders have instead used technology not just to educate themselves but also to disseminate their message, guiding the celebrated midcareer breakthroughs of J.D. Martinez, Justin Turner, Josh Donaldson and Jake Marisnick — to name just a few.”
I’ve experienced this phenomenon of passed-down techniques firsthand. Every coach I’ve ever played under has told me the same words when I faced a dreaded 1-2 count: “Choke up, shorten your swing, crowd the plate and put the ball in play.” I listened to those directions. Why? Since every coach was telling me the same thing, I assumed it was just how the game is played.
Completely flipping the traditional approach, the early adopters, Donaldson, Gallo and Martinez, are now doing away with the passive approach and instead opting for a more aggressive two-strike approach.
Someone else who has adopted this method is the Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner. Verducci quotes Turner’s frustration with the traditional method and decision to adopt a more aggressive approach from his teammate at the time, Marlon Byrd, saying, “‘Screw it. I’m going to start hitting the way [Byrd] told me.’ I go into Cleveland and I hit a home run off [Cody] Allen. Two days later, off [Danny] Salazar, I hit another homer. We go back home, and I hit some ropes off the wall in centerfield. I was feeling really good.”
Game 1 of the 2017 World Series was a thriller. The score was tied at 1 entering the sixth inning when Turner launched a 2-run bomb over the left field wall to ultimately grant the Dodgers the 3-1 win. But what separates this from any other game winning dinger is that Turner was down in the count 1-2. If you look at his swing, you can tell he wasn’t thinking “put the ball in play,” he was looking to send a missile to the outfield and he did just that.
All the aforementioned theories could be coincidence, perhaps even a perfect storm of variables that has led to this massive increase in home runs per year. But I think there is just too much that lines up to argue against this new hitting approach. With opening day just three days away, I am eager to enter the season as a spectator with an eye out for this new approach. If this proves to be the factor that has been the catalyst for this home run increase, it will be up to the pitchers to find a solution to restore the game of baseball to its balanced state.
Sam Arslanian is a freshman majoring in journalism. He is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Extra Innings,” runs Mondays.