Home Run Rates in 1998 and 2012

They’re announcing the Hall of Fame results today, so a lot of people are talking about steroids right now. When people talk about steroids, they talk about home runs. And they talk about the integrity of the game, the disgrace of the “steroid era”, and what the muscle-bound cheaters did to the hallowed history books with their absurd power totals. 1998 is often held up as the pinnacle of the steroid era, where two PED users both broke the 61 home run barrier, and Mark McGwire was the first player to ever hit 70 home runs in a season. It was, obviously, the result of rampant steroid usage, you are going to be told.

To those who tell you that, please ask them to explain this simple fact.

Season PA Home Runs Contact Plays HR per Contact
1993 174,548 4,029 131,933 3.1%
1994 124,482 3,306 92,709 3.6%
1995 156,694 4,081 115,814 3.5%
1996 177,251 4,962 130,453 3.8%
1997 175,522 4,639 128,477 3.6%
1998 188,265 5,063 138,345 3.7%
1999 189,682 5,528 139,097 4.0%
2000 190,246 5,692 139,086 4.1%
2001 186,933 5,458 136,851 4.0%
2002 186,615 5,059 137,229 3.7%
2003 187,449 5,207 138,910 3.7%
2004 188,539 5,451 138,639 3.9%
2005 186,294 5,017 138,646 3.6%
2006 188,071 5,386 138,752 3.9%
2007 188,623 4,957 138,600 3.6%
2008 187,631 4,878 136,738 3.6%
2009 187,079 5,042 135,278 3.7%
2010 185,553 4,613 133,920 3.4%
2011 185,245 4,552 134,185 3.4%
2012 184,179 4,934 131,550 3.8%

Contact Plays are simply defined as a plate appearance that doesn’t end with a walk, strikeout, or hit batter. In other words, the batter hits the ball and it goes some distance.

Note: the rate of home runs per contacted ball was higher last year than it was in 1998. It was higher last year than it was during most of the years of the so-called “steroid era”.

The drastic decrease in home runs since the inception of PED testing is due mostly to the dramatic rise in strikeouts we’ve seen over the last five years. The league average strikeout rate hung at around 17% for most of the “steroid era”, but climbed to a record high 20% last year.

If you put forth the current run environment as an example of what baseball looks like without PEDs, please understand that you are arguing that PEDs caused hitters to be able to make contact more often, not hit the ball over the wall more often when they did make contact. That is what the facts demonstrate. We’re all entitled to our own opinions, but we aren’t entitled to our own facts. And the fact is, the rate of home runs on contacted balls was higher in 2012 than it was in 1998.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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9 years ago

Thanks Dave, also I could be wrong but 1987 was a really high number too right?

9 years ago
Reply to  Tomcat

1987 = 3.67

*pitchers included

9 years ago
Reply to  Choo

So much closer to 98 than 93 right?

Rex Manning Day
9 years ago
Reply to  Tomcat

Yup, 1987 was pretty spikey.

I pulled data from Baseball Reference and put together a chart of HR / Contact and Contact / PA since 1919. Here’s a picture: http://i49.tinypic.com/zybqjs.jpg

The very broad trendline is that Contact / PA has been falling since 1919 while HR / Contact has been rising. The more recent trendline is that HR / Contact shot up in 1993 and has roughly plateaued since then. The Contact rate dipped, plateaued, then got back to dipping in that period (and it’s currently the lowest it’s ever been).

That’s a pretty rough-and-ready look at the issue, but if nothing else I think it shows that chopping off home run data at 1993 is not going to provide you with a very complete view of things.