How MLB’s obsession with home runs is killing the game
Fans were whipped into a frenzy in 1998 when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa charged at Roger Maris’ single-season home run record. It was a thrilling nightly spectacle at the time, that we later came to realize wasn’t fully authentic. It was performance enhanced by drugs that we eventually realized was a significant league wide practice.
Fans and the media haven’t come to a consensus on the impact of that period in baseball’s history, but there have been lessons that baseball is generating policy from.
First, players need to be punished for their wrongdoing. Players are being suspended as many as 80 games and excluded from the playoffs for positive tests. Lock Hall of Famers like Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds aren’t being inducted.
A second lesson, and this is a lesson wrongly learned, is that baseball needs home runs to remain popular. The single season chase of Maris’ illustrious record wasn’t an isolated example of the shock and awe of home runs, but it brought it to a height that we hadn’t seen. Ironically, Barry Bonds eventual re-breaking of the record was a farce rather than an electrifying chase, that made a mockery of the era and became a symbol of the disgust fans would eventually feel about the steroid era.
The lessons they didn’t learn is that fan interest is partially based on a historical connection of today’s game to the game of our fathers and grandfathers and that enhancement of any kind tarnishes the game. It tarnishes the foundation that its popularity is built on. The hypocrisy of today’s game is that they are harshly punishing players for enhancing their performance with drugs at the same time that they are stimulating home runs by artificially enhancing the baseball.
The steroid era has tarnished both then and forever forward now. Fans will never know or trust that the game is 100% clean, that it is fully legitimate. Only the most naive of fans can say with absolute certainty that a player isn’t using a performance enhancer or that their accomplishments are fully authentic.
The dirty underbelly of unintended consequences from the steroid era is that it appears that baseballs brass have determined that in order for baseball to remain relevant with fans it needs home runs and it needs a lot of them. It appears, now that we are living in the “Juiced Ball Era,” that baseball is legalizing performance enhancement by shifting how they do it. They stand strong publicly with a no-tolerance drug policy with harsh punishments and public shaming, while changing the baseball so the end results are the same. Home runs and more home runs. Home runs from everyone. Baseball has always tweaked its game, with rules or changes in equipment or how they police the game, but we have never seen a change have an impact as significant as what we are seeing now.
If a change in the actual baseball has created the tipping point necessary to cause the changes we are seeing now, think about the possible, wide-ranging impact baseball has endorsed or unknowingly created.
Pace of Play and The Three True Outcome Dilemma
Games are longer today than they have ever been, but that isn’t really what the “pace of play” issue is. Whether a game is two hours and 18 minutes or two hours and 42 minutes matters to some small degree, but its the pace of those minutes that really matters.
We are watching a game whose time is primarily filled with walks, strikeouts and home runs - the three true outcomes, as it is called. Ben Linbergh wrote in a piece in March of 2018 in “The Ringer” (article here → https://www.theringer.com/mlb/2018/3/28/17171162/spring-training-home-run-strikeout-stats-three-true-outcomes-trend) that 2017 was the first time in history that 33.5 percent of the outcomes in baseball were either a strikeout, a home run or a walk. The problem is the lack of activity while the games are being played, not how long the game takes to finish.
A juiced ball and the emphasis on home runs in today’s game incentivizes batters to approach their at bats this way. Batters are incentivized to only swing at pitches they can drive for extra bases. Putting the ball in play, hitting pitches they can handle for singles, is being discouraged because those same hitters that used to do that are now routinely hitting 20-30 home runs per year by taking more pitches and being significantly more selective, even if it results in significantly more strikeouts. The emphasis on home runs and the enhancement of them with the new ball guarantees that more hitters approach at-bats like they are sluggers because even players with moderate power can hit 25 home runs in a season in today’s game. It hurts our connection to baseball’s history, but more importantly, it damages the games pace and turns off fans. Sports like soccer and lacrosse are growing in popularity among kids because their games are always moving even though, in the case of soccer, there isn’t much scoring. The pace of play is a significant factor part of what draws kids to the game.
One of the “it” terms of our current sabermetric obsessed community is launch angle. The term may or may not be new, but the theory behind it is not. Loft has always been a part of baseball vocabulary and a consideration of hitting fundamentals, but an elevated launch angle hasn’t always been a focus like it is today. If not for the emphasis on home runs and the enhancement that enables less powerful hitters to hit so many of them then we wouldn’t hear the almost unanimous commentary that you need a higher launch angle to be successful. If a player didn’t have the potential to hit home runs batting coaches wouldn’t instruct them to increase their launch angle. Can you see a hitting coach encouraging Vince Coleman to add loft to his swing? How does a higher launch angle help Billy Hamilton? Pop flies to the outfield isn’t an approach that leads to success and that’s what a “slap hitter” would amount to if they had a high launch angle but lacked the power to hit home runs. And yet, I argue, due to the enhancement of the home run and the juiced ball, that is what we have.
The Impact of Home Run Enhancement
We are seeing both slap hitters and powerful sluggers benefit from the artificial enhancement of today’s game and it is damaging the legitimacy of them all. Players like Ozzie Albies and Francisco Lindor are hitting home runs in totals that they were never projected to be able to achieve as prospects. Players like Cody Bellinger and Aaron Judge were power hitters in the minors that have had their home run totals exponentially enhanced by their promotion to the major leagues. Throughout history, with some notable exceptions, rookies have had a ceiling of just how good they could be in their first season due to how difficult the transition from minor league baseball to major league baseball is. Now, we are seeing more and more players hitting more home runs as rookies than they ever did as minor leaguers.
Gleyber Torres hit a career high 11 home runs in 125 games at High-A in 2016 and seven in 55 games at Double-A and Triple-A in 2017. In 2018, he has already hit 11 home runs in 42 games with the New York Yankees. Nobody disagrees that Aaron Judge has immense raw power, but he had never hit more than 20 home runs in a minor league season. In his first full major league season he launched 52, more than double any previous season. Francisco Lindor never hit more than 11 minor league home runs in a season prior to his major league promotion in 2015, when we saw 4,909 home runs league wide, Lindor hit 12. In 2017, when we saw a historic record 6,105 home runs league wide, Lindor hit 33 and he already has 14 in only 63 games in 2018. Ozzie Albies never hit more than nine home runs in a minor league season and that was in 2017, when he hit nine in 97 minor league games and six in only 57 games with the Atlanta Braves. In 2018, he already has 15 in 65 games played.
I would never argue that Cody Bellinger and Aaron Judge don’t have power or that Ozzie Albies and Francisco Lindor were going to be bad players. I think if you polled scouts they would unanimously agree that these four prospects had extremely bright major league futures. However, I think they would follow up a statement like that by saying, “but I didn’t expect THIS many home runs.” That’s the essence of what is wrong with baseball enhancing home run totals through the baseball or any other change to the game. The ball is contributing significantly to the enhancement of a players statistical performance rather than his raw physical ability. The result is still the same.
If major league baseball decided to significantly shrink all of its ballparks by bringing the fences in en masse, I suspect fans and the media would cry bloody murder. Baseball, and the media, chose to ignore that steroids had infected it’s game until they could no longer turn away. It appears that we have caught on to the juiced ball quicker than we did the juiced players, but I would argue that the enhancement of home runs through the “juicing” of the ball is more insidious. Organizations building smaller ballparks or major league baseball raising or lowering the mound, adding the designated hitter or enforcing rules are tweaks that have an impact on the margins, but they don’t fundamentally change the game itself. It would appear that steroids, and now the juiced ball, has. That kind of change threatens the legitimacy of the game, its future popularity and fans interest in it.
Enhancements Impact On Baseballs Fundamentals and Foundation
Players approach to at-bats has resulted in significantly more “three true outcome” at-bats, the physical way in which players change their swing to create more loft, the types of players that organizations draft and develop through their minor league systems and more fundamentally, how we compare players of today to players of yesteryear are changing the fabric and the foundation of baseball. Without its history and it’s legacies, baseball is a less popular game and a less rich experience for fans. Grandfathers, fathers and sons debating their generations best players and memorializing them in the process contributes to the enjoyment of how we experience a baseball game. By enhancing the game the way it has been recently and emphasizing home runs at all costs, major league baseball is doing damage that is far more fundamentally destructive than any short term gains that increased scoring or home runs could achieve.
Steroids were a violation of fan trust and contributed to changes in the fundamentals of the game and its growth from the bottom of the minor leagues to the top of the major league game, but the juiced ball could be worse. The juiced ball is legal and sanctioned by the decision makers at the highest levels of the game with the goal of permanently prioritizing home runs as an essential element of the game itself.
Major League Baseball doesn’t get it. Barry Bonds passing Hank Aaron as the all-time homerun leader and Mark McGwire, eventually eclipsed by Barry Bonds, passing Roger Maris as the single season home run champion are two of the worst events to ever happen to baseball rather than what could have been two of the greatest, most revered accomplishments in any sport. An asterisk can’t change that, but a legitimate 62 home run season could. If fans know the ball is juiced or the fix is somehow in, it can’t. Major League baseball is learning the wrong lessons and responding with the wrong changes and the long-term damage may be irreversible if they don’t learn the right ones soon. Baseball needs to significantly reduce the “three true outcome” trend and a juiced ball is making that impossible.
You can Follow Chris Mitchell on Twitter @CJMitch73, listen to his Sports Podcasts at —-> http://www.blogtalkradio.com/bosconation and talk sports on Facebook in the group “A Podcast To Be Named Later.” He also contributes Fantasy Sports content as a Staff Writer for RotoExperts.com.