The Demystification of the Dinger

We live in an era of home runs. You know that. It’s been discussed ad nauseam on your favorite team’s broadcast, on your Twitter feed, and by your favorite baseball writers. We’re going to talk about it some more now.

The cause for this spike is manifold. Players are swinging up and for the fences, as you may have heard. They’re better-conditioned and better-fed. We understand the science and kinetics of hitting better than ever. The ball is quite possibly juiced. It’s a perfect storm of dingeritis that’s led to a fascinating new world where it’s not just guys like Aaron Judge and Paul Goldschmidt who are in scoring position the very second they step into the box. Well over 100 batters have hit at least 10 home runs, and we’re not out of June yet. The list grows to more than 240 batters if you include those who have hit at least 5, which means they’ve got a fair shot of getting to double digits before the season is out.

So yeah, we’re going coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs here. Which leads to an interesting question: if this continues, if the ball really is juiced and if players are going to keep chasing fly balls when they’re in the box, if anyone can hit the ball out, doesn’t that make a home run less special? Doesn’t that make a home run less valuable? Doesn’t it alter projections for amateurs and prospects?

There’s two important lines of thought there, so we’ll tackle the inside-baseball stuff first. If you’re running a baseball team, you’re probably no longer getting worked up over a free agent with 20-homer power because of his power alone. Why dish out a two- or three-year deal for a veteran when there are kids in your minor-league system who can replicate that kind of power on the cheap? Power was one of the last remaining calling cards of free agents. Defense and speed can decrease with time, but veterans could get paid for their bats. Rookies and journeymen like Yonder Alonso are suddenly tapping into previously unrecognized reservoirs of power with wild success. Not everyone has a Cody Bellinger sitting around at Triple-A, but given the way the ball is flying around and the way hitters are structuring their swings, you may be able to scrounge up 15 bombs for a league-minimum salary.

We already saw some of this over the winter when players like Chris Carter had a hard time finding work. Power is coming even easier now. It’s becoming less of a defining tool. If everyone can hit 15-20 bombs, it then becomes a question of what else a player can do for you, and for how much. Can you field well? Can you play multiple positions? Do you walk a lot? Can you do all that for cheap?

There’s more to this than team-building and the squeezing out of veterans, too. There’s a fan’s side to this too, and it’s probably more important. We’re now witnessing home runs more often than ever. Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa aren’t running around out there anymore. The word “anabolic” isn’t in the papers all that often anymore. This is more dramatic than the steroid era. Maybe we’ll one day call this the “uppercut era,” the “juiced-ball era,” or the “three-true-outcomes era.” But this is clearly a different animal. Balls that have never really gone out before are going out. Is there a saturation point?

Baseball may not want to find out the answer to that question. The commissioner wanted more offense in the game, and damn if he doesn’t have it. But what’s the highlight quality of a 480-foot mortar launch if one’s happening every week? What happens to the thrill of the home run when they’re coming in bunches of bunches? It’s hard to imagine a future in which a crowd doesn’t go nuts for a homer. It’s the ultimate expression of strength in the game, the quality that most clearly separates the guys on the field from the people in the stands. But does it get less exciting if it’s regularly happening three or four times per game? It might.

The Mets and Dodgers played a series last week. It was a four-game set in Los Angeles, and the Mets got spanked. New York lost all four games, and the Dodgers set an all-time record for number of home runs hit by a team in a single series. The Mets hit their fair share of bombs, too. In fact, the league experienced the most homer-intensive week in its history. Because I’m in the New York media market, I get the Mets on TV, and I watched a heavy chunk of the series. After a certain point, all the home runs became more of a curiosity than a thrill. Sure, there were a few mighty blasts. Joc Pederson did bad things to this baseball, for instance.

Corey Seager hit three in one game. And of course, we got our regularly prescribed dose of Yasiel Puig controversy. The Dodgers are an incredibly powerful team, and the Mets have had horrid pitching this year. These were perfect conditions for a lot of homers to happen. But if this record-setting series is indicative of the surprising side of the new normal, rather than a humongous outlier, then we’ve lost something. The home run becomes less exciting if it’s constantly happening.

What Bellinger and Judge are doing right now remains otherworldly and insane. This isn’t to take away from them. They’re the best sluggers in the league right now, and they’re rookies. They deserve all of the accolades that are currently being and will be heaped on them. But given that we’ve seen no indication that the league will go back to the previous ball, there’s no reason for hitters to stop swinging for the fences now that the league has made it so easy for them to be richly rewarded for doing so. It’s still not a good idea for the Ben Revere-types of the world to gun for fly balls, but if the ball goes out so easily, why not try to put it in the air? It’s a sound strategy, and it would almost be illogical not to do so. More hitters may very well start to take that approach, because the ball can be so easily abused now. That would result in even more homers.

Baseball has a habit of self-correcting through strategy, rule changes, and other alterations. At some point, somehow, the home-run rate will likely come back down. The dinger will become rarer, at least for a time. When that all happens is anyone’s guess. This current offensive environment could carry on for years and years, and the longer it goes on, the less special the home run becomes.

I fully realize that I’ve become the very thing I hate. I’m Anakin Skywalker, groaning about how the game was better back in my day. Nobody likes that guy. But my concern is not for myself in a self-aggrandizing assertion that I Know Better, but that the best part of baseball will become ordinary and boring. It’s not in the fan’s best interest for that to happen, which means it’s not in the game’s best interest.

Perhaps my concerns are overblown, and the un-juiced ball will be reintroduced. Maybe that’s the self-correction I spoke of earlier. But until then, every ballpark is now a launching pad. Everyone’s a power threat.

When every park is a hitter’s park, none of them are. When everyone’s hitting homers, nobody is, except for the mightiest of mashers. We lose something in that kind of game. We lose the childlike wonder we feel as we watch a man hit all the way over a wall with a wooden club, because it’s already happened two times today, and happened two times the day before.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve suddenly become a grouch. I’d like to think I have a few years left before that happens. I don’t protest the sudden influx of homers because I feel that there’s something noble about manufactured runs or because I feel that it leads to a streaky offense. I’m just worried that it will be harder to feel that special jubilance, that things won’t be as precious. It would be a shame.

Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.

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5 years ago

I was thinking about this while reading Ben Lindbergh’s article and listening to Effectively Wild talk about it. Largely I agree with Ben that this isn’t so big a deal.

But I think part of the reaction of folks like Verducci and Stellini here isn’t just due to the changing outcomes which aren’t that enormous overall. Its also a reaction to a change in what players and teams care about and emphasize.

Verducci bemoaned the demise of stolen bases or strategy even though they’re not really any less common. What is less common is players talking about or focusing on them. Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton are outliers for being focused on it, even if leaguewide sb rates are similar.

I’m still not alarmed, because I think that leaguewide focus is more about better analysis which is what sabermetrics are all about.

During the last big outlier year of the batter in 1987 you still had whole teams like the Vince Coleman Cardinals focused on speed. Whole teams don’t vary their emphasis like that now because they have better information.

You won’t likely ever see baseball again where winning strategies for teams have so much in season variance. I think thats what really bothers alarmists.

Travis Lmember
5 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

Agreed! Not only do I not think it’s that big of .a deal (E.W. said that 1 in 20 PA that put a ball in play in 1996 is now a TTO), but by complaining, you’re missing the meta game at play.

Baseball has a significant red queen effect, which is one of the most interesting storylines from where I sit. First shifting — one team starts to do it, gets a perceived advantage, then another team does it.

Now it’s homers and pitchers trying for strikeouts. As teams migrate to that strategy, another opportunity for exploiting the skew will arise. (Remember the Royals W.S. win, when everyone thought the game was moving to valuing contact-first players? That was a false start, but I think part of this concept I state here.)

5 years ago
Reply to  Travis L

Yep, exactly this.

Home runs are simple so all teams can get it right away. More complex analysis like defense may not be so readily adopted because of less agreement on the analysis.

I’m not sure this will be popular though. “The NFL is a copycat league” is widely said and always disparaging.

baseball bettormember
5 years ago
Reply to  Travis L

I actually think with pitching it’s more of a focus now on keeping the ball down low in the zone and getting GB is the new thing.