This past week with just his 8th home run of the season, Kansas City’s Alex Gordon set a new single season home run record for all of Major League Baseball. It was the 5,694th home run, breaking the previous home run record set in the steroid-era 2000 season with a week and a half left for more. On the other side of the spectrum, Chris Sale struck out his 300th batter of the season. Strikeouts and home runs have always gone hand in hand, but this year we are seeing it on an even more extreme level. Do we celebrate these accomplishments, or does the sheer volume of these events cheapen them in some way? Let’s investigate.
First let’s talk about home runs. We have seen some pretty nice feats with the longball this season. From Scooter Gennett’s four home run game, to Giancarlo Stanton challenging Roger Maris’ 1961 record of 61 home runs, people are doing some amazing things. Let’s get a little context though here.
If everyone is hitting 20 home runs (another record this year – 112 and counting) how much do we care about it? In 1961 for example, there were a total of 2,730 home runs hit total with 97,032 at-bats. That’s about 3% of all plate appearances. This year with a week to go, we have the all time single season home run record surpassed at 5,845 in 158,098 plate appearances. That is up to 3.7%!
The rumors are rampant of a juiced baseball, but the problem is bigger than that. Yes, the home run is something fans love to see, but it is also something that slows down the game because to get it players strike out more often. Players hope to cash in on their high home run totals in new contracts before those home runs dry up.
It seems that in a sport obsessed these days with finding the inefficiencies and exploiting them there is someone out there saying, “Everyone is striking out or hitting a home run. How can we squeeze in some doubles to take advantage of this?”. I sure hope so. Meanwhile players hope to cash in on their high home run totals in new contracts before those home runs dry up.
Now on to what happens when those players swinging for the fences on 0-2 pitches with nobody on base miss. Four times in history pitchers have struck out 20 hitters in one game. In 1986, when Roger Clemens became the first person to strike out 20 hitters in a game, there were a total of 24,706 K’s that year.
In 1998, when Kerry Wood did it, there were a total of 31,893. When Max Scherzer did it last year in 2016, we were up to 38,892. This year no one has done that yet we are already at 38,230 a number that should easily surpass 43,000 by the time the year is done.
Strikeouts are also not exceptionally fun to watch as a fan unless maybe like myself you really enjoy the art of pitching. However, there is a big difference between watching Chris Sale go against Aaron Judge for example, than Miguel Gonzalez strike out Keon Brotxton.
Baseball prides itself on its history and immutability of its records. Steroids was the first challenge, a change the Hall of Fame had early on taken a stoic view of anyone associated with that era. Now, we see things lightening up a little bit perhaps. Perhaps the all time home run king Barry Bonds and the 3rd all time strikeout leader Roger Clemens – both associated with PED usage – will make it in the Hall of Fame after all?
Right now baseball seems to be okay with the home runs, but it will look funny next season if they make the ball “heavier” and home runs return to lower levels. After all, it was just in 2014 MLB hit 4,186 which was the lowest level since 1995. So for now we watch the balls fly out the park and the hitters swing and miss. We celebrate what it is but hope we don’t see another season of extremes in 2018.