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Long Live the Long Ball

By: Andy Cooper

Gone are the days of offenses dominating the major leagues. We’ve moved from the high-scoring, PED-fueled era of the early 2000s to a game that’s more focused on power pitching, specialized bullpens and a shift (often quite literally) in defensive intelligence. After scoring reached an all-time high with more than 10 runs per game in 1999 and 2000, it settled well below 9.0 per since 2010 before finishing just a shade under that last year.

We’re back to just 8.48 runs per contest thus far in April, and pitchers are allowing a mere 8.16 hits per nine innings, which is the lowest average before the calendar has flipped to May since 1968 (all statistics through Monday unless otherwise noted). A major league record for strikeouts has been set every year since 2007, and with 21.8 percent of plate appearances ending with a K, that trend is easily on pace to continue as we approach the one-month mark.

Hits at a historic low, strikeouts at an all-time high and runs not exactly crossing the plate with ease. All signs that point to a massive power outage at the plate, right?

Not quite. Not at all, in fact.

Home runs in 2014 were hit as infrequently as they’d been since the mid-90s – 1.44 per game to be exact – but they’ve jumped a staggering amount since then. There were an average of 2.02 long balls in each contest in 2015 and 2.32 last year, which was the second-highest ever behind that historically roid-fueled 2000 season. With 2.26 per game in April, 2017 is well above last year’s 2.10 first-month pace.

There’s no shortage of theories as to why this is the case. Juiced baseballs? Some aren’t so sure. Smaller ballparks? Perhaps, though until Atlanta’s SunTrust Park opened this month, MLB hadn’t christened a new venue since Marlins Park in 2012 (though that stadium, Citi Field and Petco Park have recently brought their fences in). Something … less natural? Of the 14 major leaguers who have been suspended since 2015, half were pitchers. Only Marlon Byrd, who is currently suspended for 162 games, saw any significant power boost.

One theory is that more teams are aiming for the skies when they step into the batter’s box, so a trend toward swinging for the fences is bound to produce a home run increase. With shifting having exploded and defensive alignments more capable than ever of sucking up ground balls, what’s the point of trying to find a hole that might not exist?

“I know our hitting coach wants you to hit the ball in the air,” Cubs starter Jon Lester told The New York Times last season. “There’s no slug on the ground. Guys are willing to take their punch-outs to hit the ball in the air, and swing hard in case they hit it.”

Lester’s not just paying lip service to John Mallee, who since being put in charge of the Cubs’ hitters in 2015 has overseen a team that’s hit more fly balls than all but four major league teams (and sits in the same spot in terms of strikeouts in that time). While a lot of hitting coaches have been hesitant to bend to an analytical side of the sport few could imagine a decade ago, Mallee isn’t one of them. After just a year on the job, Mallee appeared at an American Baseball Coaches Association convention and delivered a presentation on swing analysis that essentially served as a manifesto to proper launch angle and exit velocity.

Take Jason Heyward. (We’re using him as an example, but that’s a sentence Cubs fans uttered on a daily basis last season in the first year of a deal that will pay him more than the GDP of a number of Pacific island nations until 2023.) His swing was broken in every way possible, leading to a .230 average, seven homers and notoriety as one of the worst offensive regulars in baseball even before factoring in his contract.

Heyward’s 87.2 mph average exit velocity last season was a 3.4 mph drop from his 2015 season in St. Louis, so he went to work with Mallee in the offseason on improving the bat angle and sequence of his swing. A lot of the video Mallee and Heyward studied went back much farther, to 2012, when Heyward hit a career-high 27 dingers with the Braves and seemed to be on the verge of being a 30-homer regular.

Heyward has cut eight to 10 inches off his swing path and moved his hands down the bat, and the results are encouraging. His exit velocity is up to 91.2, and he’s homered three times in his last four games through Monday.

It’s too early to tell if Heyward’s mechanical adjustments will make a long-term difference, just as it seems awfully unlikely the Brewers’ Eric Thames will set the single-season home run record.

But baseball’s most surprising April star is finding his return to life in the bigs awfully hospitable. Thames was a major league washout after spending parts of 2011 and 2012 with Toronto and Seattle, but he became a star in Korea by hitting a combined 124 homers from 2014-16. There aren’t many flamethrowers in the KBO, so Thames had to ramp up his relatively non-existent plate discipline in order to deal with the vast array of breaking pitches he’d see in nearly every at-bat.

“I had to really bear down in the strike zone and learn how to have plate discipline,” Thames told USA Today’s Bob Nightengale. “I would have to carry that here because they throw harder and the strike zone is bigger.”

So far, so good, now that he’s back playing in a league that’s throwing harder than ever. He’s hit 10 homers this month, seven of which have come with two strikes. Thames had as many homers against the Reds alone through Monday as any other player did overall.

Whether Thames ultimately proves to be a flash in the pan remains to be seen, but we can safely say that, barring injury, he’ll at least get to 20 homers. That’s the thing about the modern long ball. We may never see individual stretches of brute force like McGwire, Sosa, Bonds and A-Rod provided, but the distribution of power is wider than ever. In 2015, 64 players hit at least 20 homers. Last season, there were a major league-record 111 players who left the yard 20 times – nine more than that record-setting 2000. Think about that. If we assume there are 235 major league regulars among hitters, we’re getting close to half of those who are threats to hit 20 homers.

There’s no doubt park factors, swing mechanic data leading to better launch angles, and record-setting pitch speeds producing bigger exit velocities have played a role in homers again being on the rise. But more than anything, batters are trying to go deep as a simple survival skill. If there’s not enough pop from a certain position, there might be another Thames out there who can change the game with one swing.

Also, chicks dig the long ball.