Consider the dinger.
Marvel at its graceful arc through the afternoon sky as it soars over Waveland avenue, plunges into McCovey Cove, or careens off of the Budweiser sign. Fans find these blasts to me of the utmost quality, but also find beauty in quantity. Whether the home run record is considered to be 755, 762, or 868, accumulating a large number of long balls is admired for a number of reasons.
By that reckoning, 2016 is a glorious year. So far, players have hit more than 5,500 home runs, close to the record of 5,693 set in 2000. While 2016 may not set the record in aggregate, it will do in frequency; 3.055% of all plate appearances so far have ended with a home run. It is the only year with a HR/PA greater than 3%.
Analysts, writers, and players have all wondered why the ball is leaving the park so easily now. Could it possibly be a resurgence of steroid use? Unlikely. There haven't been an abnormal number of positive tests in 2016, nor are there any individual home run totals that are complete outliers. Are hitters simply better at optimizing launch angle and trying to keep the ball in the air? Possibly, but the overall rate of fly balls has not risen as Tyler Kepner noted in July. The player development theory is further hurt by the fact that the effect is only seen at one level: Major League Baseball. AAA players who get The Call suddenly start hitting home runs more often. Did someone's little brother screw up the difficult and physics sliders on the settings screen when we left the room? No, because baseball isn't a videogame unless your name is Jon Dowd.
These answers also don't explain why home runs are up for everyone. Unless PepsiCo spiked the Gatorade, not every player could juice at the same time, not all hitters believe in math, and Rob Manfred's younger brother is a retail financial services expert in Maryland. The one theory that manages to explain the Rise of the Dinger across the board? A juiced baseball.
Photo/Artwork by Don Marquess
It explains the sudden jump in home runs overall, which is too large to have happened by chance. It explains the overall increase in exit velocity seen on hits of all types. It even explains the glorious dinger of Bartolo Colon. Rob Manfred even stated that he wanted to increase run scoring in baseball, and juicing the ball is the easiest way to accomplish this. To the naked eye, it is an invisible change. The shift need not be banned. Players do not have to adjust to a new mound height, a different strike zone, or shorter fences. Suddenly, the offense just begins to take up again, and the crowd goes wild. No one can conclusively prove that the ball changed, but suddenly 107 players in baseball are capable of hitting 20 HRs in a season, and 35 players sit at 30 or more. Danny Espinosa has 23 home runs.
But if the ball is juiced, wouldn't we see more absolutely massive home runs? There aren't an extreme number of balls landing on Waveland or into McCovey cove this season. Wouldn't the best home run hitters hit many more? The league leader Mark Trumbo sits at 46, a number that is far from unprecedented.
These can be explained by a very small change to the ball. In an article yesterday, Jeff Sullivan analyzed the effect that a small increase in carry due to increased exit velocity would have for different types of hitters. Essentially, the middle-class of sluggers stands to benefit the most. Players like Giancarlo Stanton don't need the extra few feet to carry the fences, and the Ben Revere doesn't usually reach them. They will not see much of a difference in their numbers. But a player with warning track power? Yes, the Adam Duvalls and Rougned Odors and Freddie Freemen of the world have much to gain from a few extra feet of carry.
With that in mind, consider the 2016 Cleveland Indians.
Carlos Santana: 34 HRs. Previous best: 27
Mike Napoli: 34 HR. Previous best: 30
Jason Kipnis: 23 HR. Previous best: 17
Rajai Davis: 12 HR. Previous best: 8
Tyler Naquin: 14 HR. Previous best: 9 in high A-ball with 144 more PAs.
The list goes on. More than half of the Indians starting lineup on any given night is having a career year at the plate when it comes to launching the long ball. I've been convinced for a few weeks, but this only adds to my certainty that the ball is juiced.
It is a little more difficult to discuss Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor. Are they currently at career highs? Yes, 11 and 14, respectively. However, the majority of their playing time in baseball came after the 2015 All-Star break, which is when the dingers began rising. They are also both very young and still developing at the plate. I wonder, though, if the surprising power of Francisco Lindor isn't due to any changes he made since arriving from the minor leagues, but simply a product of his arrival coinciding with The Great Juicing.
If the ball is juiced, it certainly doesn't detract from what the Indians have accomplished this season. The effect is seen in both leagues, and at all times, so all teams share an equal opportunity to mash. What I do wonder about is whether or not this offense should rest on its laurels during the offseason and expect the same rate of production out of its current lineup. Having two players with 30 home runs for the first time since Ellis Burks and Jim Thome is exciting, but that doesn't mean that the offense is set. Manfred could squeeze the juice out of the ball tomorrow, and the Indians might return to being a team that inexplicably can't score runs for Corey Kluber.