The last game of the final day of the 2000 MLB season isn’t remembered much, and understandably so. That Oct. 1 matchup of two sub-.500 teams—the Brewers and the Astros—didn’t offer much to the casual fan, and neither team was likely to look back on the year with any real affection. But that Sunday night affair in Houston did put a cap on a season that had been historic offensively. With a man on first and no one out in the bottom of the third, Astros first baseman Daryle Ward took the first pitch he saw from Brewers righty Jamey Wright and sent it out to the seats. The home run—Ward’s 20th in just 281 plate appearances—was the 5,693rd of the year for the league, extending a record for most total homers in a season that had been broken just a few days earlier; it was also the last.
Like that Brewers-Astros game, not many people will think twice about Tuesday night’s clash between the last-place Blue Jays and the fading Royals, but once again, history was made in a quiet place. Facing Toronto reliever Ryan Tepera as the leadoff hitter in the top of the eighth, Kansas City leftfielder Alex Gordon worked the count full, then skied a breaking ball to right-center, where it landed just beyond the wall and below the first row of rightfield seats at Rogers Centre. Gordon rounded the bases for only the eighth time this year, but he did so as the owner of MLB’s 5,694th home run of the season—a new record, but one with still several more days to grow.
By the time Tuesday night had come to a close, the league’s home run total sat at 5,707 thanks to 30 home runs from 29 different players across 16 games. Included in that barrage were two from the Diamondbacks’ A.J. Pollock; one from Athletics rookie first baseman Matt Olson, his 15th in his last 21 games; and the 26th of the season from Reds second baseman Scooter Gennett, who came into the year with a career total of 35 in 456 games. Never before in baseball history has it seemingly been easier to hit a home run. And with a dozen days still to go before the regular season comes to a close, there’s a decent chance that the 6,000 mark may be breached—that there will be literally twice as many home runs hit in 2017 as there were 25 years ago.
That it was Gordon who struck the record-breaking ball is a terrific piece of irony: Going into Tuesday’s action, of the 149 hitters who qualified for the batting title, not one had a worse slugging percentage on the season than Gordon’s .307. As the home run revolution—likely the result of a juiced ball—has seen veterans and rookies alike ascend to heights unexpected. Gordon has languished into one of the game’s least effective players, but there he was taking Tepera deep to make history.
As Sam Miller notes in this excellent piece for ESPN, the 2017 season has seen a lot of bad offensive seasons featuring a lot of home runs, as hitters sell out for distance and eschew contact in a game where pitchers throw harder than ever before. It’s the kind of season that produces Rougned Odor going deep 29 times but posting an on-base percentage of just .259; of glove-first catcher Austin Hedges slugging 18 home runs and somehow still recording an OPS+ of 70; of stellar Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius with just one more walk (25) than homers (24) on the year. The ease with which home runs are now hit has created a game with new records set every day and with statistical anomalies everywhere. The question now is whether this will be a fluke or the start of some new era of baseball, akin to the steroid-fueled boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, in which a player like Ward could bop 20 homers in half a season and no one would think twice about it.
When fans and historians look back on the 2017 season, the story will be the home runs hit by Giancarlo Stanton still chasing 60 and hulking rookies Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger shattering their rookie team records. It will also be the home runs hit by Olson and Gennett and countless other names that will likely be forgotten or left behind, players who got rich in boom times and hope the bubble won’t burst.
It was easy to imagine, when Ward hit his record-setting homer, that the gold rush would never end. That 2000 season was the fourth straight to see an increase in total homers, and seventh straight full year (leaving out the strike-shortened 1994 campaign) to eclipse 4,000, a figure that had been cracked just once from 1901 to ‘92. As hitters got bigger and stronger, why wouldn’t the home run record keep climbing? But the explosion of 2000 gave way to a gentle yet unmistakable decline in dingers, bottoming out in 2014, due to a number of factors: more and better PED testing, harder-throwing pitchers, an increase in pitcher’s parks. A similar fall may follow this season. But maybe this is instead the point where the wave starts to build again, with Gordon’s home run not as the crest, but as the beginning of a version of the sport no one has ever seen before.