Home Runs Are Changing Baseball

Crack! Bryce Harper hits the ball. It’s heading for the fence, and it’s going, going, gone!
Home run!

That’s what you’re likely to hear nowadays at a baseball game. But back when the game was new, batters would bunt to move a runner over to the next base, or a player on first would steal a base, and then they’d come around to score on an RBI single. But why did this change happen? Is it that the players are getting slower? Are they getting more powerful? Or is it that the ball is different? Or is it a combination of all of them?

First of all to really get to know a problem one needs to know what happened. Over the past century, the major league averages have gone from 0.96 stolen bases per game and 0.13 home runs in 1917 to 0.52 stolen bases per game and 1.26 home runs per game in 2017. That difference is huge, and it keeps getting bigger each year.

A possible reason for all of this is that as home runs have risen and hitters have gotten bigger, coaches realized that the heavy hitters were nowhere near as fast as the players who stole bases—but they could hit the ball farther and harder. Because of this, coaches decided that it was too risky to try to steal. Instead they decided to keep runners on the bases, so more runs would score if a home run were hit.

With that strategy there was a lot less risk of getting out but more of a chance to score. And that has drastically changed the way people play baseball for years. A longtime manager told ESPN, “You change the pitchers, and you wait for somebody to hit a home run. You’re not doing nearly as much stuff as you used to. You don’t even think about doing some of that stuff.” (By “stuff” he meant sacrifice bunts and stealing, which have been becoming more and more scarce.)

The home run fever has even confused and dumbfounded physicists and engineers who were hired by Major League Baseball in an attempt to solve this seemingly unsolvable riddle. The team of scientists looked at all the home run data over the years and noticed that there was a sudden surge in power hitting in the second half of the 2015 season. After a lot of work, the team determined that there were no weather changes to help the flight of the ball—but, in fact, it was that the ball that had changed. They inspected game-used balls and fresh balls, and they even went to the Rawlings factory in Costa Rica where the balls are produced. After enormous amounts of research (and coffee) the team found that nothing significant had happened to the physical makeup of the ball. The stitches were the same, the core was still made of the same rubber and cork. The balls were still regulation major league balls. The study was, of course, inconclusive.

Now back to the game we were watching. The most likely thing to happen next would be a celebration by Harper and his teammates. Then the other team might switch pitchers in an attempt to “solve” its home run problem. But the truth is that the pitcher is not the whole problem, and no one knows how to solve it. Baseball is continuously evolving and fans are excited—though pitchers might be afraid—to see what the sport will become.

Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

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