There Are Still a Lot of Home Runs

After MLB announced they were deadening the ball for 2021, we’ve spent a lot of time chasing the effects of those changes. Devan Fink has looked at what happened to the hits that used to be home runs and compared the total number of home runs per batted ball event in April. But while home run totals are comparatively lower over the short-term, it’s worth noting that there are still a historically high number of home runs in baseball. In fact, as of Wednesday morning, 3.48% of at-bats resulted in a home run, which is the fourth-highest rate in the majors since 1921:

It turns out that as a proportion of baseball’s offense, the home run is as prominent as it’s ever been. While 2019 is still the outlier for home runs as a proportion of total hits, with a whopping 16.2% of all hits being home runs, 2021 has the third highest proportion of teams offense coming in the form of a long ball. The explosion of home runs across the league in the last five seasons makes the steroid era pale in comparison:

Some of this is undoubtedly the result of an increase in the three true outcome (TTO) approach to baseball, a trend FanGraphs and others have explored extensively. The TTO approach steadily increased year over year from 2015-2020. In 2015, approximately 30.4% of plate appearances resulted in a walk, strikeout or home run. By 2020, that had risen to just over 36%. Interestingly, there is a slight drop off TTO at-bats in 2021, with all three outcomes seeing slight declines this season; home runs have fallen off the most:

Three True Outcomes as a Percent of Plate Appearances Since 2015
Season HR % BB % SO % TTO %
2015 2.74% 7.82% 19.87% 30.42%
2016 3.12% 8.32% 20.59% 32.03%
2017 3.38% 8.70% 21.15% 33.23%
2018 3.09% 8.63% 21.69% 33.41%
2019 3.72% 8.68% 22.37% 34.77%
2020 3.46% 9.16% 23.43% 36.06%
2021 3.19% 8.96% 23.40% 35.55%

And the trend towards TTO baseball is evident beyond the majors. Baseball America recently recounted that home runs and strikeouts are on the rise in college baseball and the minors, which gets at the idea that players’ approaches at the plate are shifting across the sport. A slightly different look at this change in approach can be seen by examining the individual players whose plate appearances result in an abnormally high number of TTO results. In a 2015 piece looking at TTO players, Craig Edwards included a qualified leaderboard showing 13 qualified players with a TTO % equal to or greater than 40.5%. As of Thursday night, there are 30 qualified major leaguers who walk, strikeout, or hit a home run 40.5% or more of the time:

Three True Outcome Leaderboard 2021
Name Team PA BB SO HR TTO TTO % BABIP wRC+ WAR
Joey Gallo TEX 267 51 84 11 146 54.68% .297 122 1.5
Fernando Tatis Jr. SDP 219 24 61 21 106 48.40% .283 168 2.7
Niko Goodrum DET 215 20 79 5 104 48.37% .315 70 -0.1
Javier Báez CHC 235 8 90 15 113 48.09% .308 98 1.2
Justin Upton LAA 239 29 70 14 113 47.28% .272 121 1.1
Brandon Lowe TBR 266 30 83 12 125 46.99% .250 97 1.0
Matt Chapman OAK 278 37 86 7 130 46.76% .308 101 1.2
Ian Happ CHC 213 28 63 8 99 46.48% .239 89 0.4
Shohei Ohtani LAA 254 25 72 19 116 45.67% .311 160 2.3
Yoán Moncada CHW 266 41 75 5 121 45.49% .400 134 2.6
Max Muncy LAD 244 46 50 14 110 45.08% .287 163 2.7
Aaron Judge NYY 264 35 68 15 118 44.70% .338 147 1.8
Kyle Schwarber WSN 239 24 69 13 106 44.35% .271 110 0.8
Nate Lowe TEX 285 38 78 9 125 43.86% .314 107 0.6
Michael A. Taylor KCR 219 14 77 5 96 43.84% .347 74 0.5
Austin Meadows TBR 279 34 72 15 121 43.37% .265 131 1.4
Andrew McCutchen PHI 259 39 62 11 112 43.24% .248 112 0.5
Willy Adames MIL 234 19 74 8 101 43.16% .301 92 0.9
Willson Contreras CHC 235 24 66 11 101 42.98% .289 110 1.2
Adam Duvall MIA 226 13 72 12 97 42.92% .242 85 0.2
Austin Riley ATL 255 25 72 12 109 42.75% .374 138 1.4
Eugenio Suárez CIN 270 21 80 14 115 42.59% .180 69 -0.1
Brandon Crawford SFG 222 25 54 15 94 42.34% .262 135 2.2
Ronald Acuña Jr. ATL 270 36 60 18 114 42.22% .318 168 3.4
Gregory Polanco PIT 209 18 64 6 88 42.11% .264 68 -0.2
Jared Walsh LAA 264 22 73 15 110 41.67% .351 145 1.8
Chris Taylor LAD 252 34 62 9 105 41.67% .336 140 2.0
Robbie Grossman DET 289 41 70 9 120 41.52% .303 117 1.3
Jorge Soler KCR 245 26 69 6 101 41.22% .241 75 -0.8
Jackie Bradley Jr. MIL 217 13 71 5 89 41.01% .205 39 -0.5
Qualified batters who walk, strikeout or hit a home run more than 40.5% of the time

Focusing on individual players and home runs reveals yet another way home runs are more prevalent than at almost any time in baseball history – the sheer number of home runs hit by individual players in a given season. Since 1921 there have been 344 individual player seasons where a player has hit 40 or more home runs. I took those seasons and sorted them by year to get an idea of how common a 40-plus homer season has been at any point in the last 100 years of baseball seasons. And if you feel like a 40 home run season just isn’t the feat it used to be, well, you are right. In the 75 years between 1921-95, there were 157 individual player seasons with 40 or more home runs; in the last 25 years, there have been 187 such seasons. As you may expect, the number of players hitting 40 or more home runs in a season peaked during the steroid era, with a record-setting 16 players hitting 40-plus home runs in 1996 and 2000. That pace trailed off considerably after 11 players hit 40 or more home runs in 2006 before rocketing back to double digits in 2019. Because there is a lot of noise in the individual seasons here, I grouped them by decades to demonstrate the growth in the number of players hitting 40-plus home runs:

A couple of caveats about the above chart. First, the 1940s has the lowest number of 40-plus home run seasons due to the number of players impacted by World War II. There were zero 40-plus home run hitters between 1941 and 1945. Second, the 2010 decade data is not perfectly comparable to the other decades because of the shortened 2020 season. Projecting 40 home run seasons off of partial campaigns like 2020, or what we’ve seen so far in 2021, is imperfect. While we can take 2020’s totals and multiply them by 2.7 to get an idea of what may have happened over a full 162 games, that ignores how factors like April and May weather, which is less conducive to offense, may have impacted player totals. With those stipulations noted, it’s still remarkable that from a raw numbers standpoint, a record 17 players were “on pace” for 40 or more home runs in 2020. Adding those 17 players would have kept the 2010s in third for the most 40-plus home run hitters by decade, but would have bumped the decade’s total from the modest 47 it currently shows up to 64. That would still be substantially behind the 87 players who hit 40-plus home runs during the 2000s, but only slightly off the pace for the 1990s, when 70 players had individual seasons with 40-plus home runs. So far in 2021, “only” seven players are on pace for 40 or more home runs. If those numbers hold, 2021 would tie 1969 for the season with the 17th most 40-plus home run hitters in the last century, a far cry from a dead ball era:

Top Seasons for 40+ HR Players Since 1921
Year 40+HR
2020 (proj) 17
1996 16
2000 16
1998 13
1999 13
2001 12
1997 11
2006 11
2003 10
2019 10
2004 9
2005 9
2015 9
1961 8
2002 8
2016 8
1969 7
2021 (proj) 7
Five seasons tied at 6
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Offense has been hard to come by in 2021, with strike outs on pace to set yet another record and the league-wide batting average rivaling 1968’s the Year of the Pitcher. MLB’s pre-season announcement that they were deadening the baseball has led to a lot of smart work tracking those missing home runs. But as we look for them, it’s still helpful to zoom out a bit and recognize that even with the deadened ball we are witnessing one of the best environments for home runs in the history of the game.





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Pwn Shop
1 year ago

Wait is 2020 part of the 2010’s? I’d also like to add that there are more total baseball games played now (more teams) than in older seasons. Maybe could present the data as “Percentage of player seasons that reached 40 home runs” to account for all those variables.

fredsbankmember
1 year ago
Reply to  Pwn Shop

Depends on how you want to do your decade cutoffs- the “decade,” ten years, of the 2010s either runs from 2010-2019, ten individual years, or 2011-2020, ten individual years. We can say screw it and make it 11 years and count both the zero years, but then, 11 years isn’t a decade and we need a new word and new means of counting it.

Psychic... Powerless...
1 year ago
Reply to  fredsbank

Two separate things. A decade is a ten-year period regardless of when it starts (just as 4:32 to 5:32 is an hour) and 2020 is not part of the 2010s.

texag
1 year ago

Yeah, kinda weird to say “the 2010s” and not actually include 2010 in that data set.