With countless home run records shattered this season, talks of the baseball being “juiced” carry more traction than ever before
In 2017, Major League Baseball set a record for home runs hit in a single season, with 6,105. At the time it seemed incomprehensible, but that record is set to be shattered just two years later.
Throughout the steroid era in the 90s and early 2000s, MLB home run numbers were exceptionally high compared to previous decades. Instead of the norm of 1,500 to 2,000 home runs a year, the league began hitting up to 4,500 or sometimes even above 5,000 dingers per season.
Although the steroid era never had an official end, following the league’s decision to start implementing PED tests in 2003, home run numbers began steadily declining year by year. In fact, in 2014 the number reached 4,186, the lowest it had been since 1995.
This brings up the question: how is it possible to witness over 6,000 home runs in a single season despite the steroid era being over? There is no way that an upgraded batting technique or plate mentality could lead to such a major spike in home runs hit within the span of two years.
As of August 31, the MLB has seen a total of 5,800 home runs hit this season. With a month left in the regular season, Neil Greenberg from The Washington Post predicts the league is expected to hit at least 6,483, and could potentially reach over 6,800 dingers by the end of September. This means between the years of 2014 and 2019, there could potentially be an increase of more than 2,500 home runs in a season.
Whether you feel that home runs make the league more exciting or not, these numbers are absolutely bonkers, and there has to be a reason for this surge. There was an independent study done by the MLB in May that determined the balls being used have decreased drag, which ultimately leads to the ball having less air resistance, giving them the potential to be hit harder and further. However, the study did not find anything in terms of the league using intentional supplements to increase the “pop” of the baseball.
Several pitchers and coaches, particularly Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander, have criticized the league and commissioner Rob Manfred, stating the MLB has purposely juiced the balls to further develop TV viewership and merchandise sales.
“Major League Baseball’s turning this game into a joke,” Verlander said. “They own Rawlings, and you’ve got Manfred up here saying it might be the way they center the pill…We all know what happened. Manfred the first time he came in, what’d he say? He said we want more offense. All of a sudden he comes in, the balls are juiced? It’s not a coincidence. We’re not idiots.”
There are two sides of the debate, despite the study that discredits Verlander’s claim. First, baseball viewership and ticket sales have actually declined over the past few seasons. According to Forbes, MLB’s attendance for the 2018 season dropped below 70 million for the first time since 2004. With this downward trend of consumption, it wouldn’t make sense for the league to continue making home runs the main byproduct of their sport.
Another case that can be made is that all pitchers at the professional level have an even playing field. Pitchers such as Dodgers’ ace Hyun Jin-Ryu, the Nationals’ Max Scherzer, the Rays’ Charlie Morton and so on are having great seasons in which home runs given up is not a drastic issue. So, what does this tell you? It is capable to pitch in this era without giving up 30 home runs throughout the year. If juicing is the issue like Verlander believes, then it is the pitcher’s job to learn and adapt to contemporary baseball tendencies.
Nevertheless, Verlander’s frustrations are warranted. Day after day there is seemingly a new record or accomplishment that is completely absorbed by the long ball. Here are just a few examples:
The New York Yankees set the record for home runs hit in a single month by one team with 74 in the month of August. The league witnessed 37 consecutive days with at least one multi-HR performance; the previous record was 20. Mets rookie Pete Alonso beat the NL rookie home run record with 40; he currently has 43. As of right now 27 players have hit more than 30 homers, and eight players are currently listed at 29.
Then, just days ago, the Minnesota Twins shattered the record for most home runs hit in a single season with 268. The record was previously held by the New York Yankees, who set it just last year. There is still a month left of regular season baseball.
Home runs are clearly the biggest run producing asset used by clubs league-wide, and the 2019 season has only proved this claim even further. Whether the league will address this massive statistical spike is yet to be determined.