The Year of the Home Run Reaches October

After a record-setting regular season, the MLB playoffs figure to host offensive fireworks and long-ball fatigue.

Geoff Burke / USA TODAY Sports / Reuters

This Major League Baseball regular season has been, by virtually unanimous agreement, the Year of the Home Run. There were 6,776 hit across the majors this year, clearing the previous record by 671. Fourteen teams set new franchise marks for homers. Four of those—the Minnesota Twins, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the New York Yankees, and the Houston Astros—bested the previous record total for any one team. During one summer stretch, 37 straight days passed with at least one player hitting two home runs in a game; in the middle of that period, one or another player hit three home runs for four straight days.

Other numbers abound. The 48 Opening Day home runs hit back in March were, no surprise, an MLB record. Likewise the eight slugged by the Cincinnati Reds rookie Aristides Aquino in his first 12 big-league games in August. That the 6,106th home run of the season, the one that eclipsed the previous single-season mark, was hit by the Baltimore Orioles infielder Jonathan Villar lent the year a bit of characteristic baseball whimsy; the 54–108 Orioles ended up surrendering 305 homers this year, another record. Thirteen of those were given up to the New York Yankees infielder Gleyber Torres. It was the most home runs a player has hit against a team in one season in the divisional era.

A decade of experimentation—defensive shifts, bullpen revolutions, the rise of launch angle and exit velocity, a new and curiously far-flying ball—has culminated in a foundational change: What was formerly a climax has become the sport’s basic unit. The home run figures to define the postseason to come (Milwaukee and Washington open the playoffs with Tuesday night’s National League wild-card game) as fully as it did the regular season that just ended, to be the backdrop of every swing, pitch, and managerial decision. Its ubiquity also makes it the latest subject of the sport’s broader self-interrogation. Do all these homers sacrifice nuance and tension for cheap thrills? Do they make baseball better or worse?

There have been Years of the Home Run before. The New York Times has employed the phrase in reference to 1961, when the Yankees’ Roger Maris hit a then-record 61 homers; to 1996, when players set a new record with 4,962; and to 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased down Maris’s individual record. ESPN applied the term to 2017, when the Yankees’ Aaron Judge hit a rookie-record 52 homers (broken this season, no surprise, by the Mets’ Pete Alonso) and the Miami Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton slugged 59 in an MVP campaign. This summer, the outlet had to recycle its headline.

Past upticks in home-run totals have largely centered on select tiers of players. This season, though, has been marked by an across-the-sport increase. Ten-homer players have hit 20; All-Stars have set career highs. Unlike in the performance-enhancing-drug era of the 1990s and 2000s, marked by the most notorious home-run spike in history, the causes of the present-day surge don’t depend on individual appetites for rule-skirting. Analytics support the idea that swinging for the fences is a hitter’s best option, and a smoother, harder baseball has ratcheted up fly-ball distances. “While PEDs allowed the best home-run hitters in the league to turn into dinger-mashing supermen, the tide of the juiced ball is lifting all boats,” The Ringer’s Michael Baumann wrote in August.

The trend has effects beyond a simple jump in long balls. Home runs and strikeouts tend to correlate. High-velocity pitchers feel that the best way to beat sluggers is to not let them put the ball in play; hitters feel a need to maximize the results of those few times when they catch up to a 98-mile-per-hour fastball. “A lot more hitters are selling out for home runs, so strikeouts are up, home runs are up,” the Cleveland manager Terry Francona told The Washington Post in July. “It’s kind of all or nothing at times.” It is also randomizing; a hitter who prioritizes contact and batting average over homer totals offers more game-to-game consistency than one for whom a couple of home runs in a week redeem a slew of strikeouts. In the coming weeks, the already fluky environment of postseason baseball may well turn even more so, its outcomes dependent on which team’s interchangeable mashers get hot for the right few days.

The home-run booms of yesteryear brought about straightforward excitement, at least in the moment; the year-long McGwire-Sosa duel is widely credited with jolting baseball out of a poststrike malaise. This one, though, has been met with fatigue and skepticism. “It’s a fucking joke,” the Houston Astros pitcher and Cy Young candidate Justin Verlander said of the hitter-friendly baseball during the All-Star break. “Major League Baseball’s turning this game into a joke.” In April, the Orioles pitcher Alex Cobb told The Washington Post, “I’ve been working on my craft with a certain type of ball my entire big-league career, and then all of a sudden it’s changed. It’s hard to talk about it because as pitchers, it just sounds like sour grapes.” Even beneficiaries of the increase look askance at it. After the Dodgers broke the National League record for home runs in early September, the manager Dave Roberts puzzled over the accomplishment: “More times than not, I don’t think the ball has a chance to go out and it ends up being a homer.”

Fans’ tastes are varied, and some surely enjoy baseball’s newfound video-game aspect. Many, though, have expressed distaste for a version of the sport that has seen much of its variety—triples, double plays, infield singles, timely throws from short—cede the stage to repetitive displays of homer and strikeout. Commissioner Rob Manfred, whose professional focus has been shaping the game to fit the contemporary fan’s taste, recognizes the sentiment. “There is no desire on the part of ownership to increase the number of home runs in the game,” Manfred said after Verlander made his comments during the All-Star break. “To the contrary, they’re concerned about how many we have.”

As playoff matchups solidified last week, Manfred spoke with Forbes about the peak home-run era. “I do think that we need to see if we can make some changes that gives us a more predictable, consistent performance from the baseball,” he said. MLB-appointed scientists have started looking into the ball; Manfred says their findings will be announced shortly after the World Series.

It is possible that a tamped-down ball, if it arrives next season, will prove a corrective, restoring some measure of the game’s long-standing proportions. It is also possible that the trend will last, that it owes more to hitters’ adjustments than to flukes in equipment. In the meantime, players and fans prepare for an even more concentrated version of the phenomenon: the Postseason of the Home Run. This year’s champion will likely be decided the way so many of this season’s games were—by which team can pile up its own homers and find ways to mitigate the opponent’s. It’s a new sport, spectacular and simple. “My goal is to try to miss as many bats as I can,” Verlander said after a mid-July win, his first outing in more than a month without giving up at least one home run. “That’s what the game’s turned into.”