On January 25, 2015, Rob Manfred replaced Bud Selig as the commissioner of Major League Baseball. At the end of Selig’s tenure, run totals were plummeting due to new, run-limiting trends in the game (increased pitch velocities, expanded strike zones, and the rise of defensive shifts). Recognizing this trend was worrisome for the future of the game, Manfred announced his interest in “injecting additional offense in the game.” Through the first four months of 2015, run totals remained low as it was clear pitching and defense were increasingly gaining the upper hand. However, what would happen in the next three months was as sudden as it was suspicious. From July to October, home run rates climbed to steroid-era levels, leaving everybody speculating as to what accounted for the change. Theories ranging from unusually warm weather causing balls to carry further, an influx of young power hitters, and the use of a “juiced ball” swirled in clubhouses and the media. Most evidence supports the ‘juiced-ball theory.’ Regardless of the cause of this sharp uptick in home runs, it has become evident that increased home run rates are the only thing propping up run totals. Since the peripheral stats suggest that run totals are being artificially bolstered by a home run spike, we must ask ourselves: what does the future of the game look like once home run rates normalize?
To illustrate just how unusual the trends in home run rates have been since July of 2015, I will look at the sharp increase in home run/contact rate in relation to peripheral stats such as K%, Hard Contact %, FB% (Fly Ball Rate), and HR/FB% amongst batters. This analysis will show that the increase in home runs is not the result of a collective change in hitters approaches (which would be evidence that the power surge is sustainable), but rather the result of a more dubious practice such as the MLB juicing the baseball (a practice that will have to end once it is exposed).
First off, the league average K% has steadily climbed from 16.8% in 2006 to 21.1% in 2016. While on the surface, one could make the argument that this trend reflects a ‘swing-for-the-fences’ change in approach amongst MLB hitters, resulting in more swings and misses, but also more home runs. This theory fails to take into account that between 2006 and 2014, the increased K% did not result in significant changes in either FB% or HR/FB%. In other words, batters struck out more, but not because they were trying to hit more home runs. In fact, HR/FB% reached its second highest total (10.8%) in the past decade in 2006 when the K% was the lowest (18.5%). Similarly, the league average Hard Contact % (Hard%) and Line Drive % (LD%) has not fluctuated in any meaningful way since 2006, discounting the theory that the rise in home run rates can be attributed to a higher percentage of line drive home runs.
With popular theories revolving around a changing batting philosophy discounted, let’s take a look at some of the statistics that support the ‘juiced-ball’ claim. Starting in July of the 2015 MLB season, the MLB witnessed an unusual surge that boosted total runs per game from 4.07 in 2014 to 4.25 in 2015, marking the single largest spike since the steroid-era. More startling was that in the 2015 playoffs when run totals normally decline due to teams using only their best pitchers, teams averaged 4.36 runs per game, which was a higher total than teams averaged between April and July of that year. Overall, in 2015, the percentage increase in second-half HR/Contact relative to first-half HR / Contact was the highest it had been since 1950. This trend continued in 2016, proving that the second half of 2015 was not an aberration, but rather a trend. In 2016, increased home run rates resulted in 723 more home runs, good for a 17.3% increase from the previous season. The MLB had not seen a home run spike like this since 1996, a year in which career leadoff hitters witnessed their home runs total balloon along with their biceps (See: Ken Caminiti, Brady Anderson).
All in all, the statistics are undeniable. There is something going on in the MLB that is artificially propping up home run totals. While this trend raises suspicions, I do not view this trend negatively in and of itself. As home runs increase, so does the popularity of the sport. Unfortunately, this trend cannot exist in a vacuum. Therefore, considering that pitchers are gaining a competitive advantage as evidenced by an ever-increasing K%, I am worried that the MLB will have to continually take matters into their own hands to compensate for the growing relative superiority of the pitcher. On the other hand, if the MLB decides to take a hands-off approach, home run rates will normalize, run totals will drop, and the watchability of the game will suffer mightily.
With increasing strikeout rates, there are naturally fewer balls put into play and thus less defensive theatrics. When batters strikeout, the viewers don’t get to witness the defensive prowess of Brandon Crawford rocketing the ball across the diamond from deep in the hole or Billy Hamilton using his track star speed to snare a ball that was headed for the gap. In other words, strikeouts deprive the viewer of the third of the game that is most often featured on highlight reels by stifling the opportunity for defensive excellence. This is not to say there isn’t something inherently exciting about strikeouts as well. Surely, it is exciting to watch Max Scherzer fan 20 batters on any given night, but more often than not the increase in K% means trudging through 5 ⅓ innings of Jason Hammel as he whiffs nine with an 89 mph two-seamer. Strikeouts are entertaining when they result from a knee-buckling Clayton Kershaw curveball, a 101 mph Noah Syndergaard fastball buzzing a hitter’s hands, or even a pitcher like Kyle Hendricks display his mastery of changing speeds. However, strikeouts are painstakingly boring when they result from replacement level hitters flailing at mediocre changeups in the dirt. In other words, strikeouts are good for the game when they are the result of pitchers being good, and they are bad for the game when they result from hitters being bad.
Strikeouts also have a tendency to make games longer. In recent years, the MLB has implemented several changes of pace rules in order to appeal to the people who believe that baseball is too slow. While placing a timer on mound meetings and pitching changes has effectively sped up the pace of play, increased strikeout rates have slowed the game right back down. In 2006, the year where strikeouts began their ascent, the average pitches seen per plate appearance was 3.73. In each year since then, the number of pitches per plate appearance has risen with the increase in strikeout rates, reaching an all-time high of 3.87 in 2016. While this may not seem like a huge increase, consider that this jump occurred over the span of just a decade. If this trend continues, by 2050 there will be an average of 4.43 pitches seen per plate appearance or put in other terms, each game will be roughly 12% longer. Perhaps these negative trends do not seem as dire in the short term because home run rates are being kept afloat by whatever means necessary, but the outlook for the future of the game looks bleak when one considers the possibility of home runs regressing to the historical mean. In sum, keeping juicing that ball Commissioner Manfred, because the moment you stop, the game is in serious trouble.