The home run that made baseball history was pretty workaday, as they go. Sure, it was a big moment in the game, breaking a seventh-inning tie to give the Orioles a 5-2 lead over the Dodgers. But this game didn’t really matter to either team, and Jonathan Villar’s homer—the 6,106th homer hit in MLB this season, breaking the old record with lots of games left—couldn’t help but be pedestrian. By a strict definition, the more home runs there are, the less rare and special each one is. And so Villar’s knock—the bat for which is headed to Cooperstown—was, for a time, the most unspecial home run ever hit. Until that title was usurped by each of the next 19 home runs that were hit over the rest of the night.
There have been 6,125 home runs hit in 2019, and the number’s meaningful only when you use it for comparisons. Like, for example, before the previous record was set in 2017, no year had seen more than 5,693 dingers (2000). And there are still 18 days of games left to go. According to ESPN Stats and Research, there have been 661 more home runs hit through Sept. 11 than in any other previous season.
If the raw numbers are overwhelming and incomprehensible like some Lovecraft horror’s non-Euclidean geometry, what’s been more noticeable is how the power surge has manifested at the team levels, and over shorter periods.
- The single-season home run record for a team was broken. On August 31.
- The single-season record for home runs given up by a team was broken. On August 22.
- Sixteen—most!—MLB teams are on pace to set franchise records in home runs.
- Twenty-three teams are on pace to his 200 homers as a club, shattering the old record of 17.
- May saw the most home runs hit across MLB in any calendar month ever. Until that mark was broken in June. And set again in August.
- The Yankees set the record for home runs by a club in a calendar month by hitting 74 in August. No team had ever hit more than 58 in a month.
- This season saw clubs set all-time MLB records for most consecutive games with a homer to start a season (Mariners, 20), and most consecutive games with a homer (Yankees, 31).
It is no longer a question as to what’s caused this. Are players juicing? Sure, probably lots of them. But PEDs aren’t necessary or sufficient to explain these insane numbers. It’s the ball, it’s all the ball, and nothing but the ball.
The seams on the 2019 MLB baseball are shallower, giving hitters the dual benefit of making it harder for pitchers to handle, and of flying farther when it’s hit. You can, like Justin Verlander, entertain the conspiracy theory that the league is doing this on purpose to increase offense—funny how MLB purchased a stake in Rawlings just last year, in order to have “input and direction” on baseballs’ manufacturer—but it ultimately doesn’t matter. The ball is different, and the effects are staggering.
The single best proof of the ball’s role in the home run spike isn’t found at the major-league level. Instead, it’s at Triple-A, which this season switched to using the MLB ball.
That’s an increase of 57 percent. At every other level of the minors, where they still use the old ball, home runs are either steady or down.
So, it’s the ball. Which leaves two other questions. Do you like this? And does MLB? The sport has been significantly, if not quite fundamentally, changed by a tiny equipment adjustment. Either MLB is going to make more tweaks to moderate these changes, or this—me doing a blog of an Orioles highlight in the midst of kickass wild card races—is just the new normal.