A home run haven

June 30, 2007

(This post was originally published on Baseballgb.co.uk )

Barry Bonds’ quest for the all-time home run record continued apace last night with number 750 landing in the seating at AT&T Park. When he matches and then passes Hank Aaron’s 755, which will surely happen in the next few weeks, it will rightfully be seen as a unique achievement, yet several of his contemporaries are also taking their places in the home run record books. While homers always hit the headlines, a series of recent landmark feats are making many fans consider the current baseball climate in relation to previous eras.

Frank Thomas hit his five hundredth career homer on Thursday night and four other players, Alex Rodriguez, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez and Gary Sheffield, are currently closing in on that magical round number. Consequently, many are arguing that the hallowed 500 mark has lost some of its prestige. Does it no longer signify entry into the exclusive ranks of the elite power hitters? Is 500 now merely the new 400? What does that tell us about the current era?

Well, hitting five hundred home runs is a fantastic achievement regardless of the increasing number of people who have done it. Maybe hitting fifty home runs in a season isn’t quite as impressive as it was fifteen years ago, but consistently hitting around that number for ten years or so certainly is. By its cumulative nature, the feat of hitting five hundred homers shows a high level of performance over many years and it is this that separates the good from the great. We cannot escape the fact that more players are hitting more home runs in this era than at any previous time though. Of the top forty career home run hitters, eighteen are either currently playing or retired within the last ten years. (And Andre Dawson just misses the cut having finished his career at the end of the 1996 season)

Looking through the names of the top forty home run hitters, it is difficult not to begin by addressing the issue of steroids and performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). The likes of Bonds, McGwire, Palmeiro, Canseco, Sheffield and Gonzalez have all had their names associated with drug scandals. Tom Hicks, owner of the Texas Rangers and joint-owner of Liverpool FC, recently made some misjudged remarks about Juan Gonzalez and they highlighted the many problems that are faced by those of us who want to make some sort of sense out of the issue. We cannot conclusively prove who was taking PEDs and, just as importantly, we cannot quantify the difference that they may have made. Also, while PEDs may increase a home run hitter’s total, there is another side to the debate. Power pitchers arguably have just as much to gain from PEDs as power hitters do. This view is supported by the number of pitchers who have received suspensions since MLB introduced a drug testing programme. So, do we handicap a hitter “x” amount of home runs for alleged PED assistance, but then add on “z” amount due to the hits they “would have had” were they not facing some pitchers with “juiced” arms? It’s impossible to do, so we have little choice but to accept that it may be a factor and leave it at that.

The truth is, while sensationalist media reports would like to pin everything on steroids, there are many factors that should be considered in these homer-heavy times. The sport is simply more offense orientated than ever before, with a growing emphasis being placed on home runs. Some would argue this is a deliberate phenomenon created by MLB. There have been many whispers of “juiced balls” being used as an attempt to bring fans back to the sport after the 1994/95 strike. This has combined with the shrinking strike zone, taking the high strike away from the pitcher and shifting the balance towards the hitter. We also have to consider the way competition has an effect on the evolution of the sport. Thirty years ago, the quality of a shortstop or catcher was measured by their ability in the field and weak hitting was accepted as the norm. Although defence is still important in these spots, many teams are now willing to accept league average glovework if it comes with twenty homers and an above average on base percentage. And nothing symbolises the offensive shift more than the designated hitter in the American League, with Frank Thomas being the poster boy for the DH and the effect it has had on the home run record books.

Beyond the general increase in offense, we can question other changes which could have some influence on creating an era where more hitters can hit a large number of home runs during their career.

Ask many fans what is the defining feature of the current era and no doubt “money” will enter the conversation. Do the staggering salaries that players command these days provide more encouragement to extend their careers for a few years longer than they may have done thirty years ago? Possibly, but I’m inclined to believe that this wouldn’t have a large effect on the career home run list. The offensive stars of the game are multi-millionaires by the time they enter their thirties. Sure, an extra $30 million would come in handy for anyone’s retirement fund, but if you’ve already made more than $86 million (as Frank Thomas allegedly had before signing a deal with the Blue Jays prior to this season) then you could quite easily walk away and live a life of luxury anyway. The desire to continue playing, whether for the love of the game or the love of the fame, probably hasn’t changed much over the last thirty years or so.

Expansion may have played a part though. In the last fourteen years, the number of MLB teams has increased from twenty-six to thirty (the Marlins and Rockies joining in 1993 and the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays in 1998). Common sense suggests that this would weaken the overall talent pool, allowing the top hitters of today to feed on some pitchers who, relatively speaking, wouldn’t have made the Majors in years past. Perhaps the growing influx of Latin and Asian players during this period has largely negated this effect? One obvious impact that expansion has had is that there are more opportunities for ageing sluggers to find a home to top up their career totals.

Finally, while steroids and PEDs are commonly seen as the main medical influence on home run totals, this overlooks what is arguably the most important factor. To state the obvious: you can only hit home runs if you are fit enough to play. Especially in regards to career totals, the advances in medical care are fundamental to the current boom. Whether it is new surgical techniques that allow players to return to the line-up more quickly than before, treatment that keeps players out on the field rather than on the disabled list, or better preparation that reduces the risk of injuries occurring in the first place, they all make a huge difference.

So, there’s no need to feel guilty when you look at the career home run list. The proliferation of recent or current players marching past the greats of yesteryear does not diminish the achievements of Aaron, Ruth, Mays, Mantle and the rest. By the same token, we aren’t simply living in a “juiced” era that is distorting the record books. It is a different time, for many different reasons.

Reference:

The career home run list can be found, alongside everything else you could wish to find out, at the incomparable http://www.baseball-reference.com.