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Home runs being hit at a pace not seen since 2000

Chicago White Sox v Boston Red Sox

BOSTON, MA - JUNE 20: David Ortiz #34 of the Boston Red Sox at bat against the Chicago White Sox during the first inning at Fenway Park on June 20, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

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2,598 home runs have been hit already this season, putting the league on pace for over 5,500. The only two times the league has combined for 5,500 or more home runs in a season was in 2000 (5,693) and 1999 (5,528), per Baseball Almanac. This is also reflected in the per-game averages. The current average of 1.15 home runs per game is ahead of the 1999 pace (1.14) and behind 2000 (1.17).

As for other trends, run scoring is at its highest level since 2009. Hitters are still striking out at unseen rates and the league batting average and on-base percentages aren’t noticeably different than in the past. The power trend sticks out like a sore thumb.

While nine players last season hit 40-plus homers, which was a massive jump up from the one player who hit 40-plus in 2014, hitters are generally not reaching lofty dinger totals to pad the count. This season could be another story. Teams are just shy of the halfway point of their schedules, and already four players have crossed the 20-homer threshold while an additional six have 19, six have 18, and four have 17. The 2000 season, unsurprisingly, saw 16 players cross the 40-plus homer mark. This season could match or surpass that.

The league is testing for performance-enhancing drugs more frequently and punishing offenders more harshly than ever before. It would be quite the stretch to suggest that the league’s newfound power is owed to PEDs. One potential explanation is that, due to the ubiquity of analytics, teams are having an increasingly easier time finding competent hitters. They’re making fewer mistakes based on the eye test or gut instinct. This is just an observation which could be biased, but to me it seems like teams are not giving as much playing time to players with immeasurable traits like “grit.” The best players are typically getting the most playing time.

Teams are also focusing heavily on power pitchers, which helps explain the booming strikeout rate. The pitchers, in this case, are helping supply some of the power with their 100 MPH fastballs. The biggest offenders this season:

  • Nathan Eovaldi: 97.1 MPH average fastball velocity, 17 HR allowed
  • Kevin Gausman: 94.8, 12
  • Max Scherzer: 94.2, 20
  • Jeff Samardzija: 94.2, 13
  • Chris Archer: 94.1, 16
  • Michael Pineda: 93.7, 14

It’s could be that the power surge is due to a bout of statistical randomness. With so many data points at this point in the season, it’s statistically unlikely that randomness is a better explanation than anything else. And power increased significantly from 2014 to ’15 as well. But it’s possible that this is just a blip.

Whatever the explanation, the return of power to Major League Baseball is a welcome sight.

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