MLB's Home Run Surge Is Getting Too Extreme

This week in Nine Innings we explore why home runs are losing their luster, why one pitcher stood on the mound in only his socks and dig up an old baseball card.
By Jon Tayler ,

Welcome back to Nine Innings, SI’s weekly look at what’s fun, cool and somewhat stupid around the league. This week's topics include: Renato Nuñez turning into Aaron Judge; Gary Thorne pulling a Bob Uecker; Rich Hill swearing; and much more.

If you have any feedback, questions or angry rants to send my way, please don’t hesitate to hit me up via email (jon.tayler@simail.com) or Twitter.

This Week In … Too Many Homers!

Given that it happened in a matchup between the Orioles and Tigers, it’s unlikely more than a few thousand people saw Baltimore designated hitter Renato Nuñez homer on Monday. It’s even less likely that most of those fans could identify Nuñez on sight. Coming into this season, he was a utility player of absolutely no note, a 25-year-old on his third team in four seasons. Yet that Memorial Day round-tripper represents already the 13th of the season for Nuñez, or four more than he’d hit in his entire brief career before this year. He now has more homers than Kris Bryant, Khris Davis, Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, J.D. Martinez, and hundreds more.

Nuñez isn’t alone. This 2019 season has made big names out of relative nobodies thanks to a juiced ball that’s causing home run figures to skyrocket. Tommy La Stella has 12 homers. Ketel Marte has a dozen. Hunter Pence came back from the dead and has hit 11. Tim Beckham has more homers than Mookie Betts. Mitch Garver has as many as Andrew Benintendi and Lorenzo Cain combined. And that’s to say nothing of Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger threatening Barry Bonds’ all-time mark, or giants like Joey Gallo translating raw power into a chase for 50. As I’ve noted in previously in Nine Innings: It’s never been easier to hit a home run.

Yet as the homer becomes more ubiquitous, it’s started to lose its luster. Like a fireworks show gone on too long, the constant barrage of thunder—the league is averaging 1.33 homers per game, a historic rate—has taken some of the fun out of the explosions. When no-names like Nuñez are on pace for 39 homers, or when the Twins have already cracked the century mark with a week to go before June, or when the Orioles are allowing four or five per night, it reaches a level of ridiculousness that messes with the entire enterprise. I love home runs, but this season is Homer Simpson getting his face stuffed by the donut machine in Hell: it makes all of them less fun.

The home run used to be a special thing—not a rarity, but an event you might only see once or twice a game. There’s a drama inherent in that. But when home runs are hit every night by the dozens, it’s hard to care about them. A similar thing has happened with 100-mph pitches. Once upon a time, you could count the number of dudes who could throw that hard on one hand, and guys like Joel Zumaya or Aroldis Chapman were appointment television. Now, it’s commonplace to see pitchers light up radar guns over and over again.

A game built on extremes, as baseball in 2019 is, is never going to be as entertaining as one that’s properly balanced—where homers and strikeouts and velocity and power all exist in relative moderation. That’s not to say I want the game to go back to its 1980s nadir, when it was nothing but singles, bunts, and small-ball; that’s just as dull as the endless rounds of homers. But there has to be something in the middle. The version of baseball where Renato Nuñez is suddenly one of the game’s best power hitters doesn’t feel to me like the best of all possible iterations.

Then again, in a sport constantly competing for eyeballs, maybe that’s what MLB wants: highly-GIFable, easily sharable highlights of the loudest, biggest thing that can happen in a game. The homer spike may be best for baseball’s bottom line, even if it isn’t for the game between the lines.

This Week In … Vladimir Guerrero Jr.!

Fresh off an explosive week in which he homered four times, Vlad Jr. fell back into his post-promotion funk, hitting just .259/.286/.407 last week. Granted, that slump did still include him absolutely tattooing a Rick Porcello fastball some 425 feet into centerfield at Rogers Centre for his first homer in Toronto, so it wasn’t all bad. Also, keep in mind he doesn’t turn 21 until next March, so again: could be worse.

Still, the struggles help illustrate how hard the majors are. Even if Vladito had come up and hit like Mike Trout, though, it still wouldn’t have been enough to make the 2019 Blue Jays better. Toronto has gone 10–18 since his call-up—no fault of his, obviously, but a reminder of how talent-deficient this roster is even with Guerrero there.

Hopefully, though, for the fans in the Great White North, Vlad Jr. can lead a resurgence. In that area, he’s now got some company with some other special baseball sons: Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Cavan Biggio, son of Craig. The former has homered three times in three games since being recalled from Triple A over the weekend; the latter went deep for his first career dinger on Sunday, to the delight of his proud Hall of Fame pop and both Guerrero and Gurriel. The future is in good hands with those kids (and Bo Bichette, son of Dante, who’s on the IL in Triple A), even as they make us feel old in the process.

This Week In … Grumpy Dads Cursing!

The shift: It’s the bane of lefthanded hitters everywhere. But southpaw sluggers aren’t the only ones who hate overloaded defenses. Every now and then, you’ll catch a pitcher grumbling when a ball that in ordinarily would’ve been ticketed for a glove instead sneaks through a vacated spot in the infield.

To that group, you can add Perpetual Grumpy Dad Rich Hill. Last Wednesday against the Rays, Ji-Man Choi dropped a bunt on Hill toward third base, where no one was to be found. Score it a single, and one that prompted a torrent of expletives—distinctly audible thanks to the stellar acoustics and empty seats at Tropicana Field—from the Dodgers’ venerable lefty.

Hill got out of the inning unscathed, but something tells me that when Rob Manfred bans shifts, he’ll be right there with him.

This Week In … Giving Up Entirely!

The Orioles have yielded approximately 17 billion home runs this season, with 12 million or so coming in last week’s four-game series against the Yankees. Most of those came off the bat of Gleyber Torres, who has been a one-man wrecking crew against the O’s (or, given that we’re talking about birds, a giant clear window). On the season, he’s hitting a jaw-dropping .465/.540/1.233 versus Baltimore—20 hits in 43 at-bats, including 10 of his 13 home runs.

It was the last of those 10 in last Wednesday’s pasting that drove longtime Orioles play-by-play announcer Gary Thorne to lose his voice, albeit temporarily, before he broke down completely.

What’s your favorite part of this? I’m caught between Thorne simply trailing off during “way back, up and…” as Torres’ homer lands on Eutaw Street and the aggravated little yelp a few seconds later. Then again, the deflated “I don’t even know,” followed by the angry and perfunctory “Goodbye home run” call is such a perfect encapsulation of how awful this entire Orioles season has been. 

Luckily for Gary, there are only [checks notes] uh, 110 games left on the season. Good luck, man.

This Week in ... Rain Delay Insanity!

The theme of this week’s Nine Innings seems to be folks losing their mind. To wit: Here’s Chicago utility infielder Yolmer Sanchez engaging in some light calisthenics during a Memorial Day White Sox-Royals matinee rain delay (the second of the afternoon, no less), before deciding to cool off by dumping Gatorade all over himself.

Sanchez was not done with the exercise or lunacy.

Ordinarily, hijinks like those are all in good fun. Here, though, they scream like a cry for help from someone trapped in a veritable baseball hell: torrential rains, rebuilding teams, AL Central baseball. Is this baseball’s version of Catch-22? Is Sanchez desperately trying to prove that he’s crazy so he can get off the White Sox, only to find that if you want to get off the White Sox, that proves you’re sane? That’s some catch, that Catch-22. “It’s the best that there is,” replies a grinning Rick Renteria.

This Week In … Socking It To Them!

A fun thing about baseball is that it’s an utterly weird sport full of utterly weird people who do utterly weird things all the time. Case in point: Here’s Indians lefty Oliver Perez taking off his shoes on the field and then standing on the mound in his socks.

There’s a reason for this, and it’s not because Perez was about to pull a Richie Tenenbaum. Something was apparently wrong with his spikes, and so the veteran lefty decided to change them after coming into Monday’s game against (fittingly) the Red Sox. So while he waited for a new pair, he stood on the mound, clad only in socks, for a solid minute.

Eventually, Perez got his new kicks, and play resumed. Not that those shoes did him any good, though: He gave up two runs in his appearance as Cleveland lost, 12–5. Maybe next time he’ll change the socks, too?

This Week In … Bobbling Your Head!

Sometimes these ol' Nine Innings blurbs need setup—some context, or a story, or at least a funny quip or a nice reference. Other times you just post a video or GIF and let it do the talking. This clip of Jose Martinez doing a perfect imitation of a Marcell Ozuna bobblehead is definitely the latter.

Look at that form and concentration, expertly nailing both the vertical and horizontal movement. My only quibble is that Martinez looks way more like he’s threatening Ozuna with some voodoo destruction than innocently enjoying some fun bobblehead action.

That look is going to haunt Ozuna in his dreams.

This Week In … Who Needs Craig Kimbrel?

Every week until he’s signed, I’ll take a look at which teams need free agent Craig Kimbrel, one of the best relievers in baseball, the most, and declare one the winner.

It’s ridiculous we've gained zero traction on this front, but it won’t be for much longer. The draft is next Monday, and once it’s over, the compensation tied to Kimbrel through the qualifying offer will disappear, removing the last of the strings that teams have been using as an excuse not to sign him. (Not that said string was particularly long or thick: As Craig Edwards wrote on FanGraphs, the highest pick that would be lost by any team signing Kimbrel would be No. 33 overall.)

The best player ever drafted with the 33rd pick? Your choice of Brad Wilkerson, Dave Burba or Mike Gallego. And again, that’s the highest pick that would be lost.

The Mets, whose bullpen is a fire at a gas station, would surrender No. 52 overall; the Cubs, who have roughly two functional relievers, would give up No. 64; the Nationals, whose relievers were cursed by an ancient mummy, would lose No. 94.

Also receiving votes: I don’t know, maybe there’s an Atlantic League team willing to pay for a good closer.

This Week In … Old Baseball Cards!

Each week, I’ll pluck a random baseball card out of a pile of old 1980s, 90s and 2000s cards I have at my work desk, then write a quick little take on the player in question. This week’s entry: Jeff Reed, catcher, Cincinnati Reds (1989 Topps).

The 1980 draft was one of the weaker and weirder ones of that decade. It’s best known for Darryl Strawberry going No. 1 to the Mets, though it didn't produce much after that: The next best player taken in the first round is either Kelly Gruber or Glenn Wilson. 

Jeff Reed sure doesn’t stand out as the No. 12 pick. He was a glove-first catcher who put up a .250/.334/.361 line in 17 seasons for six different teams. But before sinking into the swamp of defense-oriented backstops, he got a shot as the starter in 1989 for the Reds. Reed had hit just .232 with one homer down the stretch for Cincinnati in ’88 after struggling badly in Minnesota and Montreal (though he did catch Tom Browning’s perfect game that September); nonetheless, he was behind the plate on Opening Day for a team expected to contend. Instead, the ’89 Reds went just 75–87 as Reed hit a horrid .223/.306/.293, eventually losing playing time to Joe Oliver.

The two paired to help Cincinnati win a World Series the next year—Oliver the starter, Reed in reserve—but ‘89 ended up being Reed’s last real chance at a full-time gig. From there, he bounced to San Francisco, Colorado and Chicago as a prototypical veteran backup before retiring after the 2000 season. Given a chance to emerge as one of the few stars of the 1980 draft, he instead became just another name in a sea of them.

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