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Friday, July 14, 2017

Major League Baseball’s Homer Surge – Bats in the Belfry?


When asked about the recent power surge by hitters this season, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred indicated that he believes that bats – baseball ones and not the vampire kind – are responsible. This was in response to the accusations of a “juiced ball” being used (the contention of MLB Players’ Association executive director Tony Clark), which always comes up as a reason in those years when balls are zipping out of the park like crazy. Since MLB is responsible for the manufacturing of those bats, it seems like an odd accusation from Manfred.

Besides, MLB has always been in love with the home run but acts like the school kid who has a crush on the little girl with freckles yet denies his feelings to his friends. Manfred (and all the commissioners who have come before him) knows this to be true but is in denial like all the rest, and now he is suggesting that it is baseball players’ bats that have caused this homer glut. Yeah, it’s the bats, Rob – bats in the belfry.

I have heard all these kinds of things before whenever there is a surge in home runs. Just think of the 1990s when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa looked like two Michelin men swatting all those homers. MLB knew the fans loved it and thus loved it too, even though it was obvious that these guys had done something way beyond hitting the gym every day to get more pumped up than Hans and Franz from SNLAccusations of juiced balls or enhanced bats were brought up, but the truth about steroids wouldn’t be addressed until much later.

In the past homer surges always aroused suspicions that the baseball itself was the culprit for a so many homers. One thing is for certain, when you see that ball hit today it seems as if it is out of the park faster than a kid who hears the three o’clock bell runs out of school. When a batter hits a ball to the warning track it bounces high over that outfield wall, lending credence to the juiced ball stories.

The history of the baseball has seen it change over the years since the ones made of melted shoe rubber in the 1840s; however, those many changes have taken us all the way from the so called “dead ball” era to the current extremely lively ball.

If you are looking for other reasons for copious home run balls, consider the prevailing conditions in the ballpark and its location (like Denver where hit balls seem as light as the air itself). Even when we were kids we knew hot weather seemed to make the ball go farther; it was just a given. Conversely, on extremely cold days like those that can be experienced in April and October, the ball sometimes seems weighed down and not going anywhere. It should all even out, right? Or does it?

Of course, despite the Manfred’s zany bats reference, the importance of baseball bats cannot be discounted either. Just like baseballs, the history of bats has seen many different designs over the years. Bats can be extremely diverse, but must adhere to the MLB rulebook standard – not more than 2.61 inches in diameter at the thickest part and not more than 42 inches in length. What Manfred is concerned about is the concept of bats manufactured to enhance the hitter’s prowess to the maximum. Those of us of a certain age can remember the “corked bat” incidents of not too long ago, so bats may be indeed part of the problem here.

What problem, you may ask? Did you watch the All-Star Home Run Derby – which is still infinitely more exciting to watch than the actual All-Star Game. New York Yankee Aaron Judge (admittedly a big guy) was banging them off the roof at Marlins Park in Miami like they were ping-pong balls. But he wasn’t the only one – many others were knocking that ball way out of the park (if there were no roof on that stadium some of those balls would have been hitting the International Space Station).

But, you say, come on, the balls are being soft pitched to these guys during the Home Run Derby. Okay, fair enough, but this is happening in regular season games across the sport. According to the ESPN, as of today 3,342 home runs have been hit (2.52 per game) this year. That puts MLB on pace to shatter the record of 5,693 home runs (2.34 per game) set in 2000, so the numbers indicate that something big is happening.

So, if you don’t like the idea of juiced balls or enhanced bats, we can turn to look at the players like Judge (who is like Paul Bunyan) and others who are larger and incredibly stronger than players from the past. The conditioning (some would say over-conditioning) has reached incredible levels, and it could just be that these players are in the best shape any generation of baseball players has ever been in. If you take that into account, perhaps we have another answer and maybe it is more palatable for those who keep scratching their heads as each homer leaves the ballpark like a comet.

Baseball fans love the home run as much or even more than MLB secretly does. Baseball’s love affair with the homer goes way back to Babe Ruth who became famous hitting them and made the game even bigger because of it. The home run will always be the big attraction, and right now it is bigger than ever.

Manfred can blame the bats and Clark can blame the balls, but the fans are not complaining, so as long as the customer is satisfied things will continue as they are going. The players themselves seem to be enjoying being sultans of swat, perhaps only to the chagrin of the pitchers who are stuck serving up these dingers.

The 2017 season will no doubt go down as the year of the homer, but all indications are that 2018 will be an even better year for the long ball. Bigger, stronger, faster players are just going to keep hitting more homers no matter what kinds of balls or bats they are using.

The day of the 100-homer season is just around the corner, and record after record will be shattered. We should all embrace this exciting new era rather than fear it. After all, aren’t records made to be broken?

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