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Breaking Down the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Baseball's New Single-Season Home Run Record

By season's end, MLB will have shattered its total home run record. There were plenty of exciting moments, but it's unclear whether this homer-happy trend is good for the game.

A few years ago, the phrase “Too Many Homers” became a popular way to turn one’s nose up at a brand of winning baseball. Now, it’s become an even more common refrain. On Tuesday night, the Royals' Alex Gordon hit the 5,694th home run of the 2017 season, breaking a record that had stood since 2000. While the long ball has been one of the biggest stories in the game this year, it’s fair to say that neither chicks nor dudes dig it as much as they did a couple decades ago.

Sure, it’s still a thrill when a player mashes a dramatic homer at a key moment, but in some ways, baseball’s biggest bang has become banal. Here’s a closer look at the phenomenon through a variety of prisms highlighting the good, the bad and the ugly of this homer-happy season.

Off-the-charts rates

In 2017, teams are averaging 1.26 home runs per game, surpassing the 2000 season's 1.17 per game for the all time high. On a per-game basis, this year's rate represents a 9.1% increase over last year (1.16 per game), a 24.8% increase over 2015 (1.01 per game) and a 46.5% increase over 2014 (0.86 per game, the lowest it had been since 1992). By season's end, the 30 teams will combine to surpass 6,000 home runs for the first time.

The increased per-game rate is alarming enough, and it's more pronounced when one considers that for the 12th season in a row, we'll see a record number of strikeouts as well (over 40,000 for the first time). As a percentage of batted balls, the rate of home runs is increasing even faster than the per-game rate. This year, they count for 4.8% of all batted balls, up 10.1% from last year's record-setting level of 4.4%, up 27.3% from two years ago, and up 49.4% from 2014. 

The Guillen Number

While home run rates are at an all-time high, scoring rates are not. This year' 4.66 runs per team per game is up 4.0% over last year (4.48 per game), 9.6% over two years ago (4.25 per game) and 14.5% over three years ago (4.07 per game). Even so, those 4.66 runs rank just 13th in the 25 seasons since 1993, when offense generally went on the rise thanks to a confluence of factors including expansion into high altitudes, juiced players and juiced baseballs.

One way of tracking the link between home runs and scoring is a Baseball Prospectus stat called the Guillen Number, which is the percentage of runs scored via homer. The name comes from BP alum and SI contributor Joe Sheehan, who noticed that the successful White Sox teams managed by Ozzie Guillen were actually much more reliant upon homers than their manager's smallball tendencies would have one believe.

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Together, the 30 teams have combined to score 42.3% of their runs via homers this year, breaking last year's record (40.2%), which in turn broke that of the year before (37.3%). The Blue Jays' MLB-leading rate of 50.5% of runs scored is the fourth-highest since 1950, which is as far back as BP's data goes; only the 2010 Blue Jays (53.1%) and the 2016 Orioles and Yankees (51.9% and 51.1%, respectively), were higher. This year has produced six of the top 20 Guillen Number seasons since 1950 (the A's, with 48.8%, are fifth in that span), and last year produced four. Only one of the top 20 seasons happened prior to 2005, via the 1956 Reds (47.1%), who featured a rookie Frank Robinson, more on whom momentarily.

Stanton's 56

His pace has slowed over the past two weeks, but Giancarlo Stanton has finally tapped into his full potential as a slugger. His 56 homers isn't just a personal and franchise-best, it's the highest total in the majors since Ryan Howard's 58 in 2006. Going yard with a frequency that made one wonder if he’d unlocked the cheat codes to a video game, Stanton homered 42 times in a 90-game span from May 26 through September 4, and 32 in a 54-game span from July 5 through September 4. His 18 in August tied Tigers slugger Rudy York's 1937 record for the month, though he fell short of Sammy Sosa's 20-homer June 1998, the record for any month. Where a total of at least 60 appeared to be likely as September dawned—igniting debate over the legitimacy of Barry Bonds' single-season record of 73, set in 2001—Stanton has been pitched around to a much greater degree this month than any other, and had just two homers in 13 games (11 starts) from September 5–19 before connecting for number 56 on Wednesday afternoon.

Rookie records threatened

While Stanton leads the NL in homers, Yankees rookie Aaron Judge leads the AL with 45. The brawny 25-year-old rightfielder, who homered in his first major league plate appearance on August 13, 2016 but hit just .179/.263/.345 in a 27-game cup of coffee, didn't hit his first homer of the 2017 season until April 9, the Yankees sixth game, but over a 20-game span he walloped 13, which earned him the cover of the May 15 issue of Sports Illustrated. Judge reached 30 homers by the All-Star break, putting him on pace for 57, and led the league in Wins Above Replacement (5.3) as well, catapulting him into the conversation for AL MVP. A dreadful second-half slump quashed that bid, but after hitting just .185/.353/.326 with three homers and 41 strikeouts in August, he's shown signs of returning to form, with eight homers and ..266/.418/.717 line this month.

Judge has work to do to catch up with Mark McGwire's MLB rookie record of 49, set in 1987, the only season with more than 1.0 homers per team per game prior to 1994. Over in the NL, the Dodgers' Cody Bellinger has tied the Senior Circuit rookie record of 38, shared by the Boston Braves' Wally Berger (1930) and the Reds' Robinson (1956). All the more remarkable is that the now-22-year-old first baseman/outfielder didn't debut until April 25, the Dodgers' 21st game, and didn't hit his first homer until April 29, their 26th. Thanks to a binge of his own, he tied Berger and the Yankees' Gary Sanchez (2016) for the fewest games (51) to reach 20 homers, and with his second homer in that same June 19 game against the Mets, became the fastest to 21. Bellinger currently has six multi-homer games; with one more, he'll tie McGwire's rookie record of seven.


Other rapid rookies

Bellinger's race to 20 homers may not even last the season. Phillies first baseman/outfielder Rhys Hoskins didn't debut until August 10, and didn't homer until August 14, his fifth game, but with a tear that included eight in nine games, he now has 18 in 39 games, reaching every home run level from nine onward faster than any player in history. He hasn't homered in his past five games, matching the longest drought of his young major league career, but if he hits two more in the Phillies' final 11 games, he'll snatch the record from Berger, Bellinger and Sanchez.

Other rookies have gotten off to powerful starts as well. Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong didn't debut until May 28 and now has 23 homers in 96 games. A's first baseman/oufielder Matt Olson, who went homerless in 11 games last year and spent all but one game of the first two months of 2017 at Triple A Nashville, didn't hit his first homer until June 24, his ninth game of the year, but has now hit 23 in a 47-game span, including homers in each of his past five games. Including Bellinger, Judge, DeJong and Olson, nine rookies—the White Sox's Matt Davidson, the Pirates' Josh Bell, the Orioles' Trey Mancini, the Cubs' Ian Happ and the Padres' Hunter Renfroe—have reached 20 homers, a record by far; the 1964, '87, 2006 and '16 seasons each featured six such players, and the current number could increase if the Red Sox's Andrew Benintendi (19), Hoskins, the Astros' Yulieski Gurriel (17) or the Royals Jorge Bonifacio (16) add a few more. Speaking of which…

Ho hum, 20 homers

So far, 110 players have homered at least 20 times this year. That is one short of the record set last year, and with half a dozen players at 19, that mark figures to fall sometime in the next couple weeks. Prior to 2016–17, only in 1999 (103) and 2000 (102) had more than a hundred players reached 20. From among this year's 20-homer club, 38 players including Gennett (26) and the aforementioned rookies have reached that plateau for the first time.

The Orioles have tied the MLB record with seven players at 20 (Welington Castillo, Chris Davis, Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Mancini, Jonathan Schoop and Mark Trumbo). Five other teams, including both the 1996 Orioles and the aforementioned 2010 Blue Jays, had done so previously. The Cubs, Dodgers and Reds each have six, all for the first time in franchise history. At the other end of the spectrum, the Braves have just one player with 20 (Freddie Freeman), while the Giants don't have any and may finish that way, as team leader Brandon Belt (18) is on the disabled list with a concussion that may prove season-ending.

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What's odd is that while the 20-homer plateau is so crowded, the 30-homer one is not. Thirty-one players have reached it, far off the record total of 47 from 2000, and shy even of last year's 38. Then again, another 17 players have 27 to 29 homers, and 14 have 25 or 26, so if a bunch of those players get hot over the season's final 12 days, that picture could change considerably.

One other remarkable fact along these lines? There are more players with 15 homers (153) than there are players qualified for the batting title (148). The average team has five such players, which is to say that the majority of each lineup consists of players with at least 15. 

Multiple four-homer games

A player has hit four home runs in a major league game just 18 times; it's a feat more rare than a perfect game (23 going back to 1880, 20 since 1900). But this is just the second season that has produced multiple four-homer games, after 2002, when the Mariners' Mike Cameron (May 2) and the Dodgers' Shawn Green (May 23) both did so in the same month. This year, the Reds' Scooter Gennett (June 7) and the Diamondbacks' J.D. Martinez (September 4) both completed the feat.  

Gennett is a perfect encapsulation of this homer-saturated season, a 27-year-old, 5' 10" journeyman who was released at the end of spring training and who travels under the nickname "Scooter." Last year, he hit a career-high 14 homers, and of the 18 players to complete the four-homer feat, he has he fewest career homers (61 now, 42 at the time). His four-homer game against the Cardinals was the majors’ first since the Rangers' Josh Hamilton on May 8, 2012, and while doing so, he put himself into the conversation for the greatest single-game offensive performance by adding an RBI single and totaling 10 RBIs.

The 29-year-old Martinez is more of a known power hitter, having hit as many as 38 in a season. After missing the first 33 games this year due to a sprained right foot, he hit 16 homers in 57 games before being dealt to the Diamondbacks on July 18 as part of the Tigers' ongoing teardown. Since then, he's been on fire, bashing 24 homers in 53 games including four against the division rival Dodgers on September 4. His new career-high total of 40 ranks third behind Stanton and Judge.


Somebody stinks

Over his first three seasons, Rougned Odor emerged as an asset for the Rangers; last year, he set career highs with 33 homers and 2.4 WAR for a division-winning team. Despite 29 homers this year, he's in danger of an ignominious feat. Prior to this year, the lowest OPS+ for any batting title-qualified player with at least 20 homers was 73, by the Orioles' Tony Batista in 2003 (he hit an ugly 235/.270/.393 to get there). Odor has just a 67 OPS+ (.209/.251/.405), meaning that he's 33% less productive than the average hitter this year, and 6% less productive than Batista. (Hat-tip to ESPN’s Sam Miller for this tidbit.)

The foul smell goes deeper than Odor. Five other qualified players have an OPS+ of 85 or lower and at least 20 homers: the Blue Jays' Jose Bautista, the Phillies' Maikel Franco, the Indians' Mike Napoli, the Angels' Albert Pujols and the Rockies' Trevor Story, last year’s early-season darling. Only in 2004 has there been a season with more than two such unproductive sluggers; that year saw Batista (by then an Expo), the White Sox's Joe Crede and the Marlins' Alex Gonzalez all sink that low.

Replacement-level sluggers

Drilling down even further, 10 players with at least 20 homers have a sub-zero WAR (Baseball-Reference version), which is to say that despite their displays of power, they've been as bad or worse than a typical waiver-wire pickup or minor league callup. That's nearly as many as the next two highest seasons combined: five in 2008 and six in 2010.

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The Orioles have two such players (Chris Davis and Trumbo) as do the Phillies (Franco and Tommy Joseph), Rangers (Odor and Mike Napoli) and Blue Jays (Bautista and Kendrys Morales). The other two are Pujols and the Red Sox's Hanley Ramirez. Bautista (-1.8 WAR), Pujols (-1.7) and Joseph (-1.3) are in the running for the worst such season this year, though they've all got bad work to do to catch the Phillies' Rico Brogna (-2.5 WAR in 1997)

End stage Pujols

Perhaps the saddest aspect of this is that the active home run leader, Pujols—who’s seventh all-time with 613—is in contention for the worst season of any position player. The 37-year-old slugger became the ninth player to reach 600 homers on June 3. With 22 this year, he's surpassed Sammy Sosa (609) and Jim Thome (612) on the all-time list, but he's hit just .242/.287/.388 for an 81 OPS+ in 588 PA, that while spending the bulk of his time as a designated hitter and playing just six games in the field. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer and the game's best first baseman since Lou Gehrig, but lower-body injuries have sapped his mobility to the point that he has just a .250 batting average on balls in play. The final four years of his 10-year, $240 million contract, during which his salary will rise to $30 million annually, promise to be every bit as ugly, if not worse.