Planning for the Future in Today’s Record Home-Run Environment

I was driving recently in Pittsburgh, in my decade-old Honda Accord, when an NPR radio interview captured my attention.

I can’t recall the names of the particular guests on this program (perhaps a reader can assist me in this effort), but they were discussing the expenses associated with building nuclear submarines, the expected life of a sub’s operation, and the concern that such costly projects could be made prematurely obsolete by advancements in technology.

Rich Smith of the Motley Fool confirms: nuclear subs are really expensive. Some estimates place the start-up costs for the construction of the first Ohio-class replacement sub of the Columbia class at $13 billion, or about 13 Jerry Worlds. Adds Smith:

After the first boat is built, subsequent subs should average closer to $7.7 billion each, according to the CBO. (The Navy thinks it can get them cheaper — $6.6 billion apiece, or $79 billion total.)

These Columbia-class subs are expected to remain in service for decades, from 2031 to 2085, writes Franz-Stefan Gady of The Diplomat.

The Navy is betting these ships can deter and operate stealthily for 50 years. That seems very optimistic. I’m not a naval expert, but I’m skeptical about the capacity to forecast the state of anything, let alone advanced martial practices and technologies, in the year 2085. It’s quite possible, I think, that the taxpaying citizens of the United States would be spending quite a bit of money on something that could be made obsolete well before 2085.

The subs are so expensive that the Navy might not be able to complete other projects without significant budget increase. There’s internal debate on how to spread current resources most effectively. I bring this up not to begin a discussion on military spending, but to illustrate how difficult it is to plan for the long term in any field, particularly in an age when technology is so disruptive, when capabilities and trends can change so quickly.

With that heavy topic in mind, let’s segue to something lighter but interesting: this year’s home-run surge.

On Tuesday night, Alex Gordon hit the 5,964th home run of the season, a single-season record for the sport. It’s been obvious for some time this year that, unless MLB introduced a sawdust-filled ball following the All-Star Game, that the record would be set this season. It broke a mark that had stood since 2000.

What’s interesting to this author is this: where do we go from here?

How should the league adapt? How do teams construct their rosters going forward? Is the home-run surge permanent? Does it represent a new baseline? Or is this an outlier of a season? What if MLB changes the ball and doesn’t tell anyone (including our friends Ben Lindbergh and Rob Arthur)?

Developing and executing player acquisition and development strategies can be expensive. It also requires some time to employ. As strikeouts surged in the wake of the 2014 World Series, there was this idea that the best way to combat it was by means of high-contact, line-drive hitters, like the sort that populated the roster of the Royals and Giants. It seemed like the best way forward might be to trade power for contact.

Well, here are the teams that have hit the 10 fewest home runs to date this season: the Marlins, Tigers, Padres, White Sox, Angels, Phillies, Red Sox, Braves, Pirates, and Giants. There’s likely just one playoff team in that group — and two winning teams overall. Six of those clubs are likely to finish fourth or worse in their respective division.

Pirates GM Neal Huntington thought that, when the college game established new rules regarding the composition of its bats — creating something of an instant dead-ball era in the process — that it would produce a different kind of hitter, one who would trickle up the professional ranks to create a new type of game at the major-league level. If you were a GM drafting a player in 2012 or 2013 and operating under the impression that the game might be trending towards contact and away from power, well, that hasn’t happened.

“We actually had this misdirected belief that when college baseball went to the less impactful bats that we would get back to good baseball,” Huntington said. “That guys would learn how to hit and how to use the whole field with authority, learn how to hit and run… and we would get back to where we were pre-steroid era. Unfortunately, guys doubled down and tried to launch even more.

“It’s an interesting time in the industry. Is it a new normal? It’s a normal now. I don’t know if it’s a new normal, but it’s a normal now.”

We’ve seen the game only become more extreme. The game has never been this extreme.

As Jeff Sullivan noted last week, it’s a difficult game for modern-day scouts to evaluate. How does one assess power when everyone has power?

The following is useful chart from Jeff’s post. While home runs are mostly up at the major-league level, they’re creeping up elsewhere, too:

If that’s true, then scouting is made more difficult. And if scouting is made more difficult, what then of macro-level planning?

I wrote about this general idea — the difficulty in planning in the face of shifts in the game — earlier this year with regard to the strike zone, how an automated zone would help teams, and players, plan going forward. Teams and pitchers and batters would better know if the low strike was going to be there or if it isn’t. If the lower strike really is evaporating, then so is the value of framing and the sinker.

The home-run surge is tricky. How much of the spike is due to the ball? There’s compelling evidence and research that it’s quite a bit, though Dr. Alan Nathan presented findings at Saber Seminar in August that suggested the 2016 and 2017 balls aren’t playing all that differently from each other. Since 2015, however, the ball is playing some kind of role.

How much of it is the air-ball revolution and the product of batters using data and unconventional techniques to get the ball in the air? (If it’s not a significant factor, I’ve wasted much of my first nine months at FanGraphs.)

I suspect that the home run, to some degree, is here to stay regardless of how the ball plays. Eight of the top 10 home-run years have come in the 21st century. All 10 have been produced since 1999.

Batters are bigger, stronger, and in better condition. Ballparks are shrinking. Fans like home runs. Fans buy tickets and watch broadcasts. To what degree, though, is the current level of power here to stay? Or increase? Or down-tick slightly in the short term? By just changing the seam height or interior elements of the ball, there could be dramatic effects.

So how should teams draft, develop, and teach? What types of major-league players should teams covet? Do teams still seek quality hitters first with the idea they can develop power later? If a club makes a big bet on a philosophy and the game tends the other way, that could be problematic. In a sport where it takes multiple years for draft picks to reach the majors, where development is so time-consuming and expensive, changing developmental practices can be akin to turning around an aircraft carrier. Are we at the front end of a home-run surge? Or will the game (and ball) play differently in 2018 and beyond?

In today’s game, I’d always want home runs and power to be a part of my acquisition-and-development portfolio, but perhaps it is wise to diversify when there could be dramatic year-to-year fluctuations. Plan wisely, MLB clubs.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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4 years ago

The big question is how will pitching adapt, and it inevitably will. Perhaps the return of the breaking ball to prominence, throwing the split finger at higher velocity, adapting pitcher training to impart higher spin rates. It’s like the evolution of armor and cannons.

4 years ago

Good point. I think they already are starting/trying to adjust. Here are league walk rates per game from 2014 to 2017: 2.88, 2.90, 3.11, 3.26.

That’s as the strikeout rate per game has similarly increased: 7.70, 7.71, 8.03, 8.25.

It looks to me like pitchers are adjusting by throwing fewer strikes, or at least trying to. Some hitters swing at those balls and miss, while others let them go and walk. I think pitchers are mostly willing to give up more walks in an attempt to keep the ball off the center of the plate. And that’s with intentional walks being down significantly from 10 years ago (0.27) to this year (0.20).

They may not be doing a great job of it so far, since the home run per game rate has increased dramatically in that time: 0.86, 1.01, 1.16, 1.26.

Just as batters have gotten away from this old-timey notion that strikeouts are for losers, I think pitchers are getting away from the old-timey notion that walks are for losers. I expect the number of walks to keep going up until either home runs or strikeouts stabilize.

4 years ago
Reply to  dl80

problem with walks is that eventually you have to make a pitch. Also, walking guys builds up your pitch count quicker and quicker.

4 years ago
Reply to  stever20

True, but I’m talking more about pitchers throwing right to or off the edge of the plate more than they used to. Or perhaps, erring on the side of off the edge rather than on the edge, if they don’t have perfect control.

I don’t think they care about pitch counts that much, since pitchers are not going to go more than 5-6 innings much longer no matter how many pitches they’ve thrown.

4 years ago
Reply to  dl80

right but I think there’s a limit on how careful pitchers can be. Eventually you have to throw strikes.

Also think that there’s less guys getting thrown out on base, so there’s more PA’s where guys are on base. This year is the 3rd lowest CS % ever behind only 2007 and 2012. Got the chance to have fewer than 1000 CS since baseball expanded to 24 teams in 1969(yes, to even include the strike years).