Baseball has become a power game for hitters and pitchers alike. Major League Baseball’s record home-run pace comes at a time when rosters are packed with hard throwers.
The relationship between those things is something MLB will have to ponder when deciding whether to adjust the ball to reduce homers. How deep a scoring reduction is MLB willing to risk?
Through Sunday, MLB teams were averaging 4.85 runs per team per game, up from 4.45 last season, 4.65 in 2017 and 4.48 in 2018.
Before that, scoring had been in decline in the post-PED era. Runs topped five per team per game three times from 1996 to 2000, with a high of 5.14 in 2000. Before that, the average hadn’t topped five since 5.19 in 1936. A decline to 4.07 runs per team per game in 2014 after 4.17 the season before brought fears the game was becoming too low-scoring.
The scoring surge since has been fueled by homers. An average of 1.4 homers per team per game is the highest in MLB history, topping 1.26 in 2017. The 1.15 average last season represented a drop, but it still ranks fifth all-time, with 1.17 in 2000 standing third and 1.16 in 2016 fourth.
At the same time, batting averages have dropped. The MLB average in 2000 was .270. It’s .253 this season, after .248, .255 and .255 the previous three seasons.
Homers have driven in 8,599 of MLB’s 19,002 runs this season (45.25 percent). The Cubs have driven in 49.84 percent of their 638 runs with 203 homers; the White Sox have driven in 42.15 percent of their 548 runs with 140 homers.
When scoring spiked in 2000, teams drove in 36.01 percent of their runs with homers. With a 9.24 percent difference between that and the 2019 figure, teams at the height of the PED era were a lot less homer-reliant than they are today.
The state of modern pitching is a factor. Quick-strike offenses have risen, accepting increased strikeouts as the downside of increased homers. Relying on multiple hitters to string together singles and doubles has become less common.
There always have been hard throwers in baseball, but they were outliers. Bob Feller and Nolan Ryan were said to have exceeded 100 mph. Modern pitch tracking wasn’t available, but Bob Gibson was said to throw in the mid-90s. The fastest clocking for Sandy Koufax was 93.2 mph.
Hard throwers are common today. Statcast data at baseballsavant.com lists 272 pitchers throwing four-seam fastballs at 93.2 mph or faster, with 118 at 95 mph or faster. There are 172 throwing sinkers at least 93.2 mph, with 66 at 95-plus. The Padres’ Andres Munoz (100.1, 101.1) and the Cardinals’ Jordan Hicks (100.9, 101.1) top 100 on both their four-seamer and their sinker, and the Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman joins them at 100.1 on his sinker.
With the depth of hard throwers, could dialing back on homers take MLB back to the lower scoring of 2013-14? It’s something for owners to mull as they consider short-circuiting the offensive side of the game.