Going deep on 2016 MLB season's biggest story: return of home run

In the first part of his midseason breakdown, Tom Verducci analyzes what has been the biggest story of the year to date: the potentially record-setting rise in home runs.
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This week, while the major leagues are off for the All-Star break, Sports Illustrated senior baseball writer Tom Verducci will be taking a look at the 10 biggest stories to date for the 2016 season and forecasting whether what we've seen so far is likely to continue.

Back in March, I wrote that these would be the three biggest stories for the 2016 season:

1. Can the Cubs win the World Series?
2. How great is the Mets’ rotation?
3. Will a new generation of young sluggers continue the uptick in offense we saw in the second half of last season?

As baseball hits the halfway point, it’s time to answer those questions with the evidence we have so far. In order, the answers are: 1) Most definitely; 2) As I suggested back then, about as forgettable and bittersweet as the 2004 Marlins; and 3) Yes, yes, unequivocally yes. We are looking at a shocking, if not downright suspect, jump in home runs. I’ve hit this theme earlier this year, but now it’s jumped to the top of my list.

Forget about the slugging exhibition put on by Giancarlo Stanton (a poetic record of 61 home runs) and the rest of the field at Monday's Home Run Derby in San Diego; this entire season has been one long power display. The rate of home runs per team per game this year is 1.16, the highest in baseball history except for 2000, the height of the Steroid Era, and even that mark (1.17) is in danger of falling.

In just two years, the sport has zoomed from the lowest home run rate since 1992 (0.86) to a 35% increase in homers. Get this: More home runs already have been hit this year than in the entire '92 season.

On-field and off, 1992 marked the end of an era in MLB

There is an actual scientific, technical term for such a statistical anomaly: freakish. Home runs have jumped by a double-digit percentage two straight years. That’s happened only four other times in history, and each previous occurrence was easily explainable: expansion in 1993, lowering the mound in '69, players returning from war in '46 and the first generation of true sluggers in '29 in the wake of Babe Ruth and the cushioned-cork center baseball.

This time? We have no rules changes, no expansion and no changes to the baseball, at least from what MLB officials tell us based on their experts who monitor ball composition. But as one general manager told me, you can make baseballs fly farther simply based on how you store them before they are used—i.e., the dry air of Denver before the humidor was installed at Coors Field.

It’s true that average fastball velocity has jumped from 90.5 mph to 92.2 in just 10 years, so hitters must “sell out” more often rather than “read and react,” which leads to more of an all-or-nothing approach. And this is the first generation of hitters that, in following the cues of how analytics-minded executives pay players, has devalued batting average and contact.

But those trends have evolved over time. The suddenness in which this leap in home runs has occurred—mostly since the second half of last season—minimizes the impact of any slow-baking factors.

Consider the the number of players to reach the All-Star break with 15 home runs over the past three years:

2014: 33
2015: 33
2016: 58

That’s a staggering jump, and it includes not just expected names like the Orioles' Mark Trumbo (the MLB leader, with 28) and the Cubs' Kris Bryant (first in the NL, with 25) but also surprises like the Reds' Adam Duvall (eight career homers entering the season, 23 already this year) and Rockies rookie Trevor Story (21). But let’s dive deeper. Let’s take all of those players who have had at least 15 homers at the break the past three years and see how many got there without striking out 50 times:

2014: 3
2015: 5
2016: 5

So despite the increase in homers, there is no increase in the guys who can do damage without striking out about 100 times a year. Dive deeper still: Despite all these homers, there is only one player younger than 31 years old who reached the All-Star break this year with at least 15 homers and fewer than 50 strikeouts—the Marlins' Justin Bour, 28 (15 homers, 46 strikeouts). The others graduated from a previous generation of hitting: the Nationals' Daniel Murphy, 31 (17 HR, 38 K); the Angels' Albert Pujols, 36 (15 HR, 42 K); the Tigers' Victor Martinez, 37 (17 HR, 48 K); and the Red Sox' David Ortiz, 40 (22 HR, 43 K).

(In 2000, the greatest home run year ever, 26 players hit 15 homers before the break without striking out 50 times.)

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The game has changed drastically, and it may not be for the better. As a kid, I would play a version of one-on-one baseball with a brother or a friend: We would draw a strike zone in chalk on the side of a building and, using a tennis ball or a Spaldeen and a broomstick, pitch to each other. There is no defense behind the pitcher and no base running. More and more, this static version of the game is what modern baseball has become. Analysts refer to home runs, strikeouts and walks as the Three True Outcomes, but in a spectator sport, the emphasis on these elements creates a boring game with the ball and players in motion less and less. At a time when technology is re-wiring our brains to crave more stimuli more quickly, it’s not the time of game that causes baseball to cede ground to football, basketball and soccer, it’s the lack of motion in the game.

Today, virtually one out of every three plate appearances ends with no defense required—a strikeout, walk or home run. As you can see below, the game has become more and more about only the 60 feet, six inches between the pitcher and batter. Here's the percentage of plate appearances that ended in one of the Three True Outcomes in 10-year intervals over the past four decades:

1976: 22.6%
1986: 26.5%
1996: 28.4%
2006: 28.1%
2016: 32.2%

Second-half forecast: We just might see an all-time record for home runs. The current mark of 5,693 was set in 2000. This year is on pace to shatter that figure.