Off to a flying start

Jeff Passan
Cincinnati Reds' Brandon Phillips hits a grand slam during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers Thursday, April 20, 2006, in Milwaukee.
AP - Apr 20, 11:00 pm EDT
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MILWAUKEE – In a game involving the Cincinnati Reds, it is fair to expect a home run every 45 minutes or so. They seem to have a love affair with home runs. They hit bundles of home runs. They give up even more home runs. They live and die with the home run, and they ache because of it.

"Every time I look up, a ball is gone," said Reds outfielder Adam Dunn, who has hit eight himself. "My neck gets sore."

Paging the chiropractor. And a couple hundred of other specialists, too. With stadiums around baseball turning into launching pads unlike anything we've seen since the heart of the Steroid Era, whiplash might be the DL injury du jour this season.

Entering Monday's games, teams have hit 635 home runs for an average of 2.44 per game, a higher ratio than every April in history except 2000, when teams clubbed 935 for an average of 2.56. The Reds are at the forefront of the mess, hitting 33 home runs and allowing 34 over the team's first 19 games for an average of 3.53 per game. And with another 92 games left this month, there's plenty of room for more gaudy numbers and more trying to rationalize them.

Because, see, that's what folks around baseball like to do. Everything needs an explanation, whether it comes from a statistical analysis or cockamamie theory. Right now, floating hypotheses include increased use of undetectable performance-enhancing drugs, patterns in the weather that cause the ball to travel well and the same tight-woven-ball excuse that temporarily threw off the scent during the heavy steroid years.

"I like the juiced-ball theory," Dunn said, "because it makes me laugh the most.

"Seriously, it's just a cycle. Home runs come in cycles, and this is one of those home-run cycles. It evens out eventually, and there's no reason it won't this time."

Perhaps Dunn is correct. Perhaps we are gnashing our teeth and mashing our calculator buttons for naught. Or maybe there is something to this.

It had been 40 years since a team hit five home runs in one inning until Milwaukee did Saturday night against – of course – Cincinnati.

St. Louis first baseman Albert Pujols has 11 home runs in 60 at-bats, which extrapolates to about a 100-homer season. Three of them came in one game against – good guess – Cincinnati.

The Reds are the special type of team with big enough bats to break Seattle's single-season home run record of 264 and bad enough pitching to smash Detroit's record for homers allowed with 241 in 1996.

"That's how this team is built: hit home runs," Dunn said. "Doesn't matter how many runs we're down. Seems like we're always a couple of bloops and a blast away from being back in it."

Dunn said this with such nonchalance, such charm, that it's easy to forget how the lust for home runs irrevocably changed baseball.

Before steroids permeated the sport in the early 1990s, power hitting was stagnant. There were two 40-plus-homer hitters and around a dozen at the 30-homer plateau in 1991 and 1992. By 1996, there were 16 hitters with 40 or more home runs and another 27 with at least 30. The home run had turned into a caricature of itself.

Philadelphia Phillies' Ryan Howard (6) hits a two-run home run to left center against Florida Marlins pitcher Sergio Mitre in the third inning of their baseball game Sunday, April 23, 2006, in Philadelphia. Catching is Miguel Olivo. Howard also led off the second inning with a towering home run to center field. The 496-foot shot was the longest homer in the short history of Citizens Bank Park, which opened in 2004.The Phillies won, 4-2.
AP - Apr 23, 5:07 pm EDT
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Ballooning sluggers reached their muscled-up max in 2000, when teams averaged 2.56 homers per game in April and ended up at 2.34 per game. During that season, Barry Bonds was on his alleged steroid regimen. So too, allegedly, were Mark McGwire and countless other familiar names and faces.

And here we are again, noticing the similarities, faced with disturbing numbers and no easy answer.

The cynic will point out loopholes in the current performance-enhancing-drug-testing program – such as no test for Human Growth Hormone – and blame the home-run binge on doping.

Remember, the cynic was right last time.

No, there haven't been any positive steroid tests among major leaguers this year, at least none that have been announced, and there's no surplus of players with oversized jaws or back acne.

This could all be natural. White Sox designated hitter Jim Thome, injured last season, has nine. Tigers DH Chris Shelton, in Triple-A at this time last year, has broken out with nine. Oakland outfielder Nick Swisher and Tampa Bay third baseman Ty Wigginton, never before sources of power, each have eight.

And then there are the Reds, two homers ahead of second-place Detroit. Dunn, twice a 40-homer guy, is perched in his familiar spot near the top of the National League leaderboard. Austin Kearns has five, another four Reds have three and even Bronson Arroyo, a starting pitcher, has two.

"Pitchers are just making more mistakes," theorizes Brandon Phillips, the newest Red who hit a pair of home runs here last week. "There's a lot of guys who can hit home runs here. I'm trying to keep up."

That goes for all of baseball. Reds manager Jerry Narron enjoys saying that no lead is safe against his team, and comebacks from 5-0 and 6-2 deficits seem to support his rationale.

"We're home-run hitters, Dunn said. "That's the way our team was built."

To live by the longball and die by it.

Forty-five minutes at a time.

April power
A look at home runs per game in April since 1999.
Year HR in April Games played HR/game
1999 736 332 2.22
2000 935 365 2.56
2001 860 368 2.34
2002 729 382 1.90
2003 812 388 2.09
2004 717 331 2.17
2005 663 350 1.89
2006 635 260* 2.44
* – 92 games remaining in April
40/30 club
Since 1991, players have hit 30 or more home runs in a season 796 times. A look at the breakdown.
Year 40-HR hitters 30-HR hitters
1991 2 12
1992 2 10
1993 5 22
1995 4 21
1996 16 43
1997 11 31
1998 13 33
1999 13 44
2000 14 46
2001 12 40
2002 8 28
2003 10 29
2004 9 36
2005 9 27

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