Baseball was so much more interesting during the late 90's and early 2000's, when the roids were pumping and baseballs were popping out of parks.
That's a commonly held belief among baseball fans today. Some even want Major League Baseball to allow steroids again. There's no denying that lots of home runs and scoring makes the game exciting. With aggressive drug testing on the rise over the past decade, a natural result has been less home runs and less scoring in general. Less steroids, less home runs. Pretty simple, right?
The first three months of 2016 paint a different picture. As a whole, home runs are up 13.86% from 2015. Run scoring is up 4.7% (9.34% form 2014). In fact, home runs are at their highest point since 2000.
Let's take a look at the top 5 years for home runs.
The home run leaderboards add evidence to the argument that home runs are back. In 2000, 16 players hit more than 40 HR (bonus points if you can get all 16 in the comments below). In 2014, there was one (Nelson Cruz). In 2015, when home runs kicked up again, there were nine. So far this year, 35 players have 16 or more. That puts them within reach of 40 with a little more than half the season left to play.
Why is the home run back?
There are two questions I had once I saw this data. The first is, why have home runs increased? I'm sure there are better, more well-researched articles out there about why home runs have increased the last couple years. Feel free to shoot them our way. For me, there are a few possibilities that make sense.
First, guys are taking PEDs again. This argument would have had a lot more credence on April 29, when Dee Gordon was busted. At that time, reports were flying that there would be more suspensions handed out to prominent players in the coming weeks. Fortunately, that hasn't happened. It is certainly possible that PED use is on the rise, and I'm sure there are more guys that take them than we want to admit, but I personally don't think this is the cause for a systematic increase in power.
The second possibility is an increase in pitch velocity. Simple physics tells us that balls that are pitched harder will go further if connected with. So, has pitcher velocity increased? Yes. In 2003, the average fastball velocity in Major League Baseball was 90.9 mph. By 2013, that had increased to 92 mph. Daren Willman provides some more eye-opening stats (you should follow him on Twitter) :
The third possibility is that front offices in baseball have adjusted the way they evaluate players. Hitters with power have become more valuable. With more advanced defensive shifting, guys that can simply put the ball in play have less value (more on this below). As teams prioritize power and managers pencil those guys in their lineups everyday, power numbers should naturally increase.
If home runs are up, why is scoring still low?
Yes, home runs have increased. But, why is run scoring still low? Offense peaked in 2000, with teams averaging 5.14 runs per game. Home runs have essentially returned to the 2000 level, but teams are scoring 13% less at just 4.45 per game. Now that is the highest total in 7 years, but it still doesn't make sense. That is, until you look at other offensive numbers.
The answer to this question is pretty simple when you look at OBP. Below is a table of the 27 seasons listed above, in order of highest to lowest OBP.
So even though home runs have returned to steroid era levels, run scoring hasn't because hitters are getting on base much less. I think this has come as a result of two things. One, higher pitching velocity means more strikeouts. Strikeouts are at an all-time high this year, at 7.98 per game (per team). In fact, the nine highest strikeout totals ever in order are 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, and 2008. Looking at that, you would say that there's really no end to the increase of strikeouts.
The second reason OBP is down is because of the shift in player evaluation I mentioned above. Teams have increased their desire for power bats, but this comes at a cost. The main one is an increase in strikeouts. The Astros and Cubs, two teams that have completely torn down their roster and built it back up the way they wanted, led the majors in strikeouts last year. The Astros were 2nd in home runs and the Cubs were 12th.
Going forward, it will be interesting to see how teams continue to adjust. Will they continue to prioritize power, or will contact hitters make a comeback? Will pitching velocity continue to rise, or will teams teach their pitchers to throw at less than 100%? The bottom line is, and always has been, that hitters that can hit for power and get on base at a high rate are what teams should be looking for. There's a reason the Cubs are back on top with young hitters like Rizzo, Bryant, Schwarber, and Russell.
So, should we bring back the roids to make baseball fun again? Based on the numbers I see, I don't think we need to.