This year there has been a significant increase of homers. Is the ball juiced?
The home runs of Aaron Judge (MVP & American League Rookie of the year?) and Giancarlo Stanton (major league home run champion with 59) have re-energized the sport and sparked some controversy. According to the Baseball Almanac, total home runs in the past two seasons have jumped up significantly. The home run is a big deal, but it wasn't always. In the first forty
years of the major leagues, a home run was more of a rarity. One of the earliest home run sluggers of this era was John Franklin "Home Run" Baker.
Playing for the Philadelphia Athletics, he was known more for being a great clutch hitter leading them to back-to-back championships. Baker, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame had a lifetime batting average of over 300. He was the most valuable player four years in a row and led the league in homers with 11 round trippers in 1911, 10 in 1912 and then 12 dingers in 1913. In his 18-year career he hit a total of 96 home runs, hardly prolific in baseball history, yet he was nicknamed “Home Run Baker” probably because he was the greatest hitter of his time.
Back in Baker’s day, home runs were not the focal interest of the era, which is known as the “Dead Ball Era." During this time, baseball was much more of a strategy-driven game using a style of play now known as small ball. The fan interest for the game was much more on stolen bases and hit-and-run plays than on home runs. The game emphasized speed and batting averages.
“Dead Ball” meant just that. It didn’t crack off the bat—it was more of a thud.
Consequently, the hit balls didn’t travel relatively as far. This was because balls designed during this era were made totally by hand. The ball had a melted rubber core center that was wound with wool yarn cord, also by hand, then covered and stitched with horsehide. The hand made process left the balls inconsistent and different from ball to ball. It was not unusual that the same ball would be used over and over again throughout the game. The balls would routinely become somewhat mushy, soft, even lopsided, making them hard to hit and when they got dirty, difficult to see. The game was played in stadiums that were significantly different than today. The outfields were arbitrarily roped off as a demarcation for spectators who would watch the game by standing behind the rope. A home run was just that. A batter would run all the bases on a hit ball. If a fair hit ball bounced into the crowd or even bounced over an outfield wall it was still considered a home run. As all stadium ballparks became fully enclosed, the bounced home run rule ended in 1930 and a hit that bounced into the bleachers was changed to a ground rule double.
By 1920 the game had really changed dramatically. When a pitch struck and killed an unfortunate ball player, a new rule stated that balls had to be kept white during the game; consequently a supply of new balls would have to be available for every game. Pitchers began scuffing and spitting on the ball to counter the ball’s freshness. These practices were eventually outlawed. Whiter balls proved to be easier to see and hit. The design and construction of the ball began to change as well. The ball became machine manufactured and consistent in size and shape. A small cork ball had replaced the inconsistent melted rubber center, and the wool cord was machine wound automatically. The new ball popped off the bat and increased longer drives and consequently more home runs were hit.
Then came Babe Ruth.
The Babe deliberately swung for the fences and began hitting unheard of amounts of home runs setting records each year much to the chagrin of the older baseball purists, but younger fans loved it. At the same time, baseball had a real set back with the “Black Sox Scandal” of 1919 when players intentionally threw the World Series games in order to influence the outcome and collect gambling money. But the Babe’s home runs were changing the game’s style, energizing it and making it even more popular than ever. Fans were coming back in record numbers and soon the scandal was forgotten.
The home run remains arguably the most exciting aspect of the game and the current uptick could be actually intentional. Perhaps the resurgence of home runs lately can be attributed to recent subtle changes in the way the ball is manufactured now. Pitchers have noticed that seams of the ball are slightly reduced and less pronounced, which they claim changes the grip and effectiveness of their pitches.
Maybe yes, maybe no, but regardless, it looks like the home run excitement is back and perhaps it will juice up the game once again!