The home run is the king of baseball. Is that a good thing?
Here in the Year of the Home Run, where the ball, which may or may not be juiced, flew as it never before has, nobody really cared, and this says something about baseball, and it says something about baseball fans, and it especially says something about the home run. Baseball loves the home run. Hitters love it. Managers love it. Executives love it. Owners love it. Everybody but pitchers love it, and even they respect it. The home run engenders that sort of response. Fans didn’t stop tuning in, coming to games or consuming baseball on account of the home run zenith, and no signs of active opposition to it appear to be burbling anywhere. Which brings us to the home run itself. Three years ago, it looked like an endangered species. Today, it is the undisputed king of baseball.
This, with the record-setting 5,694th home run this season struck Tuesday night, leaves the sport trying to answer an existential question for which it does not yet know the proper response: Is the home run’s hostile takeover of baseball a good thing for the sport? Once the domain of power hitters, the home run now belongs to hitters, regardless of type. It is oddly egalitarian, something that’s still difficult to square with the wonder of the play itself.
Home runs are inherently unique. They launch at different angles, exit the bat at different velocities, spin differently, run into distinctive wind patterns and struggle the great struggle against gravity, which doesn’t ever let go. They want to fly as far as they can, and when they do, people crane their necks and ask themselves whether a ball is supposed to travel that far and hope the answer is no, because it doing so makes the moment that much better.
The home run doesn’t merely own baseball. It remains the apex of sporting plays. It is the golazo, only anyone can do it. It is the 3-pointer, only far more difficult. It is the Hail Mary, only with more skill than luck. It takes immense talent but not so much that its infrequence defines its importance. And 2017 reinforced a lesson believed by those who remember the 2000 season, the previous record holder, for the romp it was and not the epoch of delinquency and misconduct that became its legacy: The law of supply and demand does not apply to the home run, at least not yet, and maybe not ever.
This season, two dozen teams are scoring at least 40 percent of their runs on home runs. A decade ago, that number was three. In 2000, it was six. A quarter century ago? Zero. The game’s evolution can be considered, quite reasonably, a devolution – a contempt for the game’s tradition, and some of what made it so beautiful, for the statistically optimal play. There is a great parallel with the NBA, the prevalence of the 3-pointer and the death of the mid-range jumper, actually. At the altar of the baseball gods, the strikeout was offered and the single sacrificed.
Everyone benefited. This is not like 2000, when a record 47 players hit at least 30 home runs. The lack of concentration is why so many theories targeted the ball: it’s the one constant from player to player. Now 231 hitters have whacked at least 10 home runs. That breaks the previous record by 14 hitters, and it’ll only grow over the next two weeks. The 108th, 109th and 110th players this season hit their 20th home runs Tuesday night. That’s one shy of the mark set last year, and the record will be smashed, with another 18 at 18. One of those is Rhys Hoskins. He debuted Aug. 10.
A nugget of hilarity/splendor/entropy may well exist for all 5,700-plus home runs hit this season, like one from Cincinnati on Tuesday. Five home runs were hit – one of three games on the night with at least that many. One was from Dexter Fowler, the Cardinals’ leadoff hitter who tied a career best with his 17th. And another from Yadier Molina, who hit his 18th after combining for 19 the last three seasons. Plus one from Paul DeJong, a rookie who hit his 23rd in 376 at-bats – one every 16.35 at-bats. Henry Aaron’s career home run rate was one every 16.38 at-bats. Zack Cozart also hit his 23rd home run. He’s a shortstop whose on-base and slugging percentages combined three years ago are barely higher than his slugging percentage alone this year (.568 to .564). And the final one came from Scooter Gennett, who earlier this season became the unlikeliest player ever to hit four home runs in a game. He entered this season with 35 home runs in 1,526 at-bats. Tuesday’s marked his 26th in 419.
In this Year of the Home Run, of course the record-breaking 5,694th soared off the bat of Alex Gordon, the player with the single lowest slugging percentage of a hitter who qualifies for the batting title. Chances are the baseball world looks back on 2017 as the world history will: a giant troll, something too absurdist to have been thought real. It took a decent percentage of an industry injecting itself with substances meant to translate to better production to goose the per-team, per-game home run rate in 2000 to 1.17. Now it’s at 1.26, a staggering number seeing as in 2014 it had dipped to 0.86, depressing run scoring throughout the game.
Baseball, not surprisingly, survived that, too, which reminds that home runs aren’t some sort of imperative to the game’s appeal. They’ll forever matter on the field, because the home run is the only guaranteed way to score a run, and whether it’s the balls or hitters learning the delight of launch angles or something we simply don’t yet recognize, this way of life is easy for baseball teams to embrace.
The difficulty comes in processing it all. If this brand of baseball isn’t real, then what in the numbers is there to believe? The paradox of baseball in 2017 is that even though hitters who hit lots of home runs can be bad, the mere act of hitting a home run remains the single best thing a baseball player can do. How, then, when everyone is taught to hit home runs, when everyone wants to hit home runs, can teams differentiate between a hitter whose underlying performance may transcend whatever is causing the spike vs. those direct beneficiaries of it?
It’s a problem that will flare in free agency this offseason and in the lead-up to 2018, when the question will be whether home runs can ever reach a position of oversaturation. Power on both sides of the ball keeps growing, to the point of baseball threatening to become a game of extremes. Already, in many ways, it has, and the chant that accompanies this tectonic shift isn’t so much an invocation as it is a question.
The King is dead. Long live The King?