© 2021 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

MLB Players Just Shy Of 6,000 Home Runs In Record Season


The long ball is back. Major League Baseball players have hit just shy of 6,000 home runs this year, and that's a record. Miami's Giancarlo Stanton and the Yankees' Aaron Judge are the star sluggers of this season, going into tonight's games with 57 and 50 home runs respectively. But more than a hundred major leaguers have hit more than 20 home runs this year. That's a record number. And 20 home runs used to be a respectable sum. We should note this is also a record-breaking season for strikeouts. And joining me to talk about this is Jonah Keri of CBS Sports. Welcome back to the program.

JONAH KERI: Thank you for having me, Robert.

SIEGEL: How did we get here? Has it been a gradual climb up in the number of home runs each season?

KERI: It has, but it's accelerated over the last couple years. And there's nothing too mysterious about it. There have been studies done by Ben Lindbergh at The Ringer as well as Rob Arthur at FiveThirtyEight that determined the ball is juiced. You've got an ability to manipulate how lively the ball can be. And right now those tests have shown that the ball is flying about seven feet further on average than in the past. Now, it's seven, you say to yourself. Well, 400, hit the ball out into centerfield and so forth.

But seven could make a difference. A lot of what you call wall-scraper home runs are going out this season in addition to some colossal blasts. So now you're in a situation where a lot of people are hitting home runs. Not just the big strong sluggers that you would expect, but some fellows who've never hit home runs before in their lives are suddenly hitting 15, 20, 25 home runs.

SIEGEL: And you're saying that it's because of, say, how tightly wound or stitched the baseball is?

KERI: So there's two things going on. Number one is what you would call the center of restitution, which is referred to as core. So that basically is how lively the ball is, one. And then two, the seams are lower - so as you said, more tightly stitched. And that creates a couple of issues. There's less drag on the ball as it goes through the air. And even more so - and in my mind maybe even more nefarious, honestly - is that some pitchers have complained that they are getting blister problems for the first time in their career as a result of these lower seams because the grip is very different. Now, that part has not been proven, but if it's true that is a pretty big turn in terms of baseball.

SIEGEL: But given the number of strikeouts and given all the talk about the launch angle of the baseball as it leaves the bat, it seems that more baseball players are going up to the plate trying to hit a home run.

KERI: Well, that's certainly true. But it has to do with incentives. You know, if you hit a bunch of home runs and you strike out, there's nothing that's going to get you fired from your job for that. And Aaron Judge is a classic example of this. Aaron Judge has more than 50 home runs. He's going to win the AL Rookie of the Year, maybe MVP. He struck out more than 200 times this year. Only six players ever in the history of baseball, including Judge, have done that. And we don't say, Aaron Judge, tisk-tisk (ph), all those strikeouts. We say, Aaron Judge, what an exciting player.

SIEGEL: The idea that this is caused by baseballs that are juiced is a less disturbing explanation than that it's caused by players who are juiced. Is there any suggestion that perhaps performance-enhancing drugs are back in the game?

KERI: One thing I try to do is deal in evidence. We know based on these studies that the baseball is juiced, so we can say that with confidence. Whether or not players are taking performance-enhancing drugs is just difficult to ascertain. We don't have recent failed tests or anything like that to prove it. It doesn't necessarily mean that an absence of evidence suggests that nothing is going on. It's just that we don't know. And so for me to cast aspersions in that way would just be irresponsible.

SIEGEL: Is all of the interest in the long ball unfair to a player like Jose Altuve of Houston who's going to win a batting title? He's all of 5'6". He's hit over 20 home runs this year. But he's a great player, but not a player who's ever going to hit 50 home runs.

KERI: Well, I think Altuve's going to get attention. He might win the AL MVP award despite him not hitting 50 home runs. That great-all-around game does play. And I'll tell you something. This could show up in terms of contracts because you're going to get a bunch of power hitters who are going to go out on the open market this year and might not get as much money as they expected. A lot of these big, strong sluggers who don't have a complete game necessarily - they're not fast, they don't necessarily hit for a high average, they're basically just sluggers - are not getting their just due.

And I would submit to you that if Jose Altuve went out on the open market right now he would get an unbelievable amount of money because he's athletic, he steals bases, he plays good defense, he hits for a high average and, yes, he has some power. Whereas if you look at some other sluggers that have gone out on the open market and will this offseason, it's a supply and demand issue. If everybody's hitting home runs, why bother spending a lot for home runs?

SIEGEL: Jonah Keri of CBS Sports, thanks for talking with us.

KERI: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.