The feats have come with startling regularity. On Sept. 12, the Minnesota Twins became the first team ever to homer in each of the first seven innings of a game. On June 24, three Oakland Athletics rookies — Franklin Barreto, Jaycob Brugman and Matt Olson — became the first trio of teammates in more than a century to each hit their first major league homers in the same game.
And 108 players have hit at least 20 home runs, close to last season’s record of 111.
“I still think hitting 20 home runs is a big feat, to be honest with you,” said the Yankees’ Todd Frazier, who has 26. “I don’t care if there’s a lot of guys doing it, it’s awesome. It’s pretty neat, man, from a hitter’s standpoint. We love home runs.”
The trend has been well-documented: More and more hitters are tailoring their swings to hit fly balls, which have a much better chance to go for extra bases than ground balls. More slugging means more run production, which helps the player’s team — and, usually, his earning power.
The spike in home runs has happened relatively quickly. Baseball last expanded in 1998, and starting that year there were at least 5,000 home runs every year for nine seasons. But in the next nine seasons, through 2015, only one featured at least 5,000 homers.
The low point in the last two decades was 2014, when just 4,186 home runs were hit. The total climbed to 4,909 in 2015, then 5,610 last year, making for a curious trend line. An undetected, large-scale increase in performance-enhancing drug use could still be an explanation for the current surge in home runs, but the stricter testing and penalties in place would argue against that notion.
“If you want to use the 2000 analogy, we know what was going on there,” said the broadcaster Al Leiter, an All-Star left-hander for the Mets in 2000 who neutralized power hitters with inside cutters, keeping opponents from extending their arms at the plate.
“The assumption now is that steroid testing is legit, and it’s working, so a lot of it has to do with approach,” Leiter added. “You don’t see two-strike approaches anymore. Guys don’t care if they strike out, and it’s basically turn and burn. It used to be turn and burn for three or four guys in the lineup. Now it’s seven.”
Leiter, who calls games for the YES Network and works as an analyst for the MLB Network, said too many players who should be hitting eight to 10 homers per season were now hitting 15 to 20. Bert Blyleven, the Hall of Fame pitcher and Twins broadcaster, echoed Leiter, saying that even bottom-of-the-order hitters are willing to risk strikeouts for the chance to go deep.
But, Blyleven added, the problem really starts on the mound.
“I would have to say the bottom line is the lack of quality pitching,” he said. “We see a lot of it. A lot of guys come up so quick, all they do is throw as hard as they can. I don’t care how hard they throw, if the ball’s right there, these guys are going to hit it.”
As for the balls themselves, Major League Baseball has said repeatedly that extensive testing has shown them to conform to normal specifications. But if the balls are wound tighter — even within an acceptable range — they could be harder, with lower seams, and less prone to resistance when airborne.
“Theories abound,” said Twins Manager Paul Molitor, a Hall of Famer who had 3,319 hits but just one season with at least 20 home runs. “Baseball, bats, velocity — in some ways it’s tougher, but in some ways it provides some of the power — and I’m not sure which one has the most merit. I do see that the ball seems to soar, from people that are hitting it farther than maybe they did a year ago, and they kind of look like the same person. For me, there’s something in there.”
Whatever the cause, there is little doubt that modern hitters have noticed the rapid transformation of some of their peers. Hitters like Martinez, Josh Donaldson, Daniel Murphy and Justin Turner have all made a dedicated effort in recent years to hit more balls in the air. Data on launch angles and exit velocity is readily available to show the precise bat path needed to hit a ball hard and far.
Rhys Hoskins, a rookie for the Philadelphia Phillies, recently belted his 18th home run in just his 34th career game — by far the fastest anyone has ever reached 18 homers. When Hoskins was in the low minors, he added a leg kick as a timing mechanism that helped him hit balls far over the infield. At 6 feet 4 inches and 225 pounds, he said, he will not leg out many infield hits.
“There’s not a lot of hits on the ground here, especially for a guy like me,” Hoskins said recently. “So I think, to maximize success, you’ve got to hit the ball in the gaps.”
In the gaps is a good start. Over the gaps and the fences is where the game has gone, at an unprecedented pace. But is it good for the sport?
“Well, people do like home runs, because that’s exciting,” Leiter said. “But I don’t know how exciting it is to watch a combined 18 to 20 strikeouts a game between the two teams, and there’s four home runs and nine combined hits. I don’t know how exciting that is.”
An all-or-nothing game becomes largely a feat of strength, often at the expense of daring baserunning, acrobatic fielding and a faster pace of action. Leiter has boundless enthusiasm for his sport; at 51, he is far from an old crank pining for days gone by. But the home run binge has left him somewhat resigned to the sport’s new reality.
“Trust me, I’m a fan of the game,” Leiter said. “But I don’t know how, if and ever, it’s going to change.”