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Home runs, juiced balls, and the Oakland A’s

A closer look at the league-wide trend that’s led to historic levels of dingers.

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Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

It’s baseball’s worst-kept secret — home runs are way up. Across the game, the ball is flying out of the park at an unprecedented rate that exceeds that of even the steroid era. And whether intentional or not, it seems that changes to the baseball itself are the biggest culprits.

You don’t even have to look very hard to see the changes. Last Saturday, the Minnesota Twins hit their league-leading 166th home run of the season, officially an MLB record for home runs hit by a team before the All-Star break. They broke the previous record of 161, which was set by the New York Yankees ... just last season.

The home run epidemic is affecting the Oakland A’s just as much as anyone else. The team’s 145 home runs at the break set a franchise record, and are already a whopping 41 more bombs than the team hit in the entire 2011 season.

The A’s are on pace to hit roughly 256 home runs this season. This would shatter the franchise record of 243 dingers, which was set by a 1996 squad that included the likes of Mark McGwire, Geronimo Berroa (!!!) and Terry Steinbach.

And the A’s haven’t even been at full strength! Their top power hitter, designated hitter Khris Davis, spent most of the first half battling injuries and saw his home run total drop as a result. Another slugger, Matt Olson, missed more than a month at the start of the year and could be leading the league in homers if he hadn’t. Even without full contributions from their two biggest contributors, the A’s are outpacing every single Bash Brothers team.

But this isn’t coming out of nowhere. The ball has seemingly been different since about halfway through the 2015 season, and back in 2017 Tim Eckert-Fong wrote about Oakland’s role in the home run surge. But home run numbers have only continued to rise over the past few years. Here’s how the A’s stack up against the rest of the league:

Sandwiched between two playoff runs, the 2015 and 2016 teams were two of the A’s worst offensive clubs this decade. But even those two teams saw a slight increase in home runs as the league rate started to climb, and in 2017 the team’s power really spiked.

On an individual level, the A’s have a few players in particular who seem to have been affected by the changes to the baseball:

  • First baseman Yonder Alonso was seen as one of the faces of the “fly ball revolution” when he clubbed 22 home runs in just 100 games for the 2017 Athletics. But in retrospect, it seems the altered baseball also played a significant role in his success. His fly ball rate dropped significantly in 2018, but he still blasted 23 homers for the Cleveland Indians.
  • Designated hitter Khris Davis was always a serious power threat. But his bat truly blossomed in Oakland, despite a shift from hitter-friendly Miller Park in Milwaukee to the cavernous Coliseum. Davis was a true slugger even before the ball changed, but it certainly hasn’t hurt his elite power production.
  • Similarly, first baseman Matt Olson was one of the team’s top prospect largely due to his great power potential. But his slugging dipped in Double-A Midland and Triple-A Nashville in 2015-16. Olson’s bat didn’t truly explode until he earned regular playing time at the major league level where, in the second half of 2017, he smacked 24 home runs and posted a .392 ISO in just 59 games.
  • For much of his career, Jed Lowrie was seen as a middle infielder with solid contact skills and a little pop. After a dreadful 2016 with Oakland (76 wRC+, 2 HR, .059 ISO), it looked like his career might be done. But in 2017 and 2018, he was a true middle-of-the-order threat. The change in the baseballs, combined with a return to health and a significant increase in launch angle, led to 14 homers in 2017 and a career-high 23 bombs in 2018.
  • Through the minor leagues, righty Daniel Gossett was excellent at keeping the ball in the yard. The 1.00 HR/9 he posted in Single-A in 2015 was the highest rate of his minor league career. But upon reaching the majors, that success went out the window. He now owns a 2.02 HR/9 through his first 23 MLB starts. He is currently rehabbing from Tommy John Surgery, so it remains to be seen if Gossett will find a way to pitch effectively in the new MLB run environment.
  • Righty Jharel Cotton was similarly successful in the minor leagues, but did have occasional home run struggles of his own. In 2014, he allowed a 1.28 HR/9, and in 2016, that number rose to 1.33. Through his first 29 big league starts, he has pitched to a 1.82 HR/9, with the bulk of the damage coming against his mid-90s fastball and his Bugs Bunny changeup. Cotton is also rehabbing from Tommy John, and is likely to pitch out of the A’s bullpen at some point down the stretch.
  • Oakland took a gamble on veteran righty Marco Estrada, and so far, it hasn’t paid off. The 36-year-old allowed seven home runs in five starts (23.2 innings) before hitting the IL with a back injury. As a fly-ball pitcher, he’s no stranger to the home run, but in the past he’s been able to keep the ball in the yard well enough to remain an effective pitcher. Now, with his fastball sitting around 88 MPH, his career might be in jeopardy.

Gossett, Cotton, and Estrada are reminders that the home run increase affects both sides of the ball. Pitchers are seeing their ERAs skyrocket, and they aren’t all too happy about it.

Perhaps among those most impacted has been Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander. The 36-year-old has been excellent as always this season, save for his career-high 1.85 HR/9. He’s allowed the most home runs in baseball, a whopping 26 in his 126.2 innings of work. During last week’s All-Star festivities, he sounded off about the changes to the baseball. Via Jeff Passan of ESPN:

“It’s a f---ing joke. Major League Baseball’s turning this game into a joke. They own Rawlings, and you’ve got [Rob] Manfred up here saying it might be the way they center the pill. They own the f---ing company. If any other $40 billion company bought out a $400 million company and the product changed dramatically, it’s not a guess as to what happened. We all know what happened. Manfred the first time he came in, what’d he say? He said we want more offense. All of a sudden he comes in, the balls are juiced? It’s not coincidence. We’re not idiots.”

Following those comments, three MLB officials reportedly met with Verlander, likely in an attempt to calm the superstar down. But as emotional as Verlander’s comments were, it’s easy to understand where he’s coming from. From his rookie year in 2005 through the 2015 season, only once did he allow a HR/9 over 1.00 or a HR/FB rate over 10.0%, both coming in 2006 (1.02 and 10.3%, respectively). But he has eclipsed both of those numbers in each of the last four seasons, despite remaining one of the league’s best pitchers.

On the other hand, there’s the case of Washington Nationals righty Max Scherzer. The 34-year-old is arguably the best pitcher in the game today, and he’s seen his numbers affected by the home run surge as well. But he’s looking at the change in a very different way than Verlander. As he told Karl Ravech of ESPN just a day before Verlander’s outburst:

“I don’t feel anything different with the ball, but I think we can all see the ball is definitely traveling differently. And the commissioner has even come out and said so, that the drag is just different, it’s less. Yeah, the ball’s different, but you can’t cry about it. You gotta go out there and pitch. I’m not gonna cry about it. Our hitters get to hit with it.”

In 2016, Scherzer’s 1.22 HR/9 was the second-highest mark of his career, but in the years since he’s pushed that number back below 1.00. It seems as if he’s noticed the changes and adjusted in response. He’s acknowledging that the game is tangibly different, but he also knows that it goes both ways and it’s up to him to adjust in response.

For whatever it’s worth, Commissioner Rob Manfred has repeatedly stated that the change was not intentional. This is a significant step forward from his original stance that the ball was not changed at all, but it still raises some questions. If Manfred is telling the truth and MLB hasn’t been juicing the balls intentionally, then how did they end up this way? Does MLB really have this little control over the manufacturing of the baseballs?

Whatever the case, this is baseball in 2019. It has its fans, and it certainly has its opposition. It’s affecting everyone, from the best pitchers in the game to the unproven young arms; from prolific sluggers to career journeymen.

At this point, it’s been four whole years since the ball changed. It doesn’t seem like it’s going back any time soon. Now it’s up to the teams and the players to adjust accordingly or be left behind.