In the 2017 MLB season, 5,707 home runs were hit. This is a new record for most home runs in a season which beat out the 2000 season of 5,693 homers. But why were so many home runs hit last year?
A New Hitter’s Mindset
For some hitters, their approach to hitting has completely changed. Everyone as a child is told to “hit down on the ball” and “to react to the pitch rather than anticipate the pitch.” This is just not true anymore, and a good example of this is rookie superstar Aaron Judge.
Aaron Judge led the American League with 52 homers last year, but what the casual fan might not know is that he led the league in strikeouts with 208. Judge had struck out in a Major League game for a record 37 consecutive games from July 8th to August 20th.
So what does this mean?
It means hitters are selling out on pitches and anticipating specific pitches rather than reacting to what is thrown. Hitters will either not swing until they get the pitch they want, or they will anticipate the wrong pitch and not get good wood on the ball.
If you’re anticipating a 96 mph fastball and are thrown an 88 mph changeup, odds are you won’t hit it. But if you’re an Aaron Judge type of hitter, and you are anticipating a high and inside fastball and its thrown, that ball will go a long, long way.
The other rookie superstar, Cody Bellinger, is a perfect example of how hitters are changing their bat path. Bellinger utilizes his hips more than his hands to create greater bat speed and an upper-cut type swing to put the ball in the air.
This results in a higher chance of striking out, but if he makes good contact with the ball, it’ll more likely than not be an extra-base hit.
Another example of this is explained by 2015 AL MVP, Josh Donaldson, in a video with MLB Network.
In this video, Donaldson explains why he will not “hit down on the ball.” When you are a kid, you are told to “hit down on the ball” because it helps create more consistent contact, and it puts pressure on defenses.
But Donaldson disagrees, in the video with MLB Network Donaldson says, “If you’re 10 years old and your coach says get on top of the ball… tell em’ no. Because, in the big leagues, these things that they call ground balls are outs. They don’t pay you for groundballs. They pay you for doubles. They pay you for homers.”
This shows you the new hitters mindset in the MLB. Donaldson has designed his swing to elevate the ball and not worry about striking out. Donaldson will sacrifice the components of a swing that help you make contact with the ball so that he can create more power.
The Money Influence
Another reason everyone wants to hit homers is the money. Like Josh Donaldson said in the MLB Network video, “…They don’t pay you for groundballs. They pay you for doubles. They pay you for homers.”
This is a significant reason why many players have switched their mindset to elevating the ball. A good example of power hitters obtaining large contracts is with Chris Davis of the Orioles. Davis’ strikeout and batting average numbers aren’t ideal for most players. But Davis hit 47 homers with .562 SLG% in his contract year (2015), and he received a 7 year/161 million dollar contract. There are so many cases of power hitters landing big contracts because all teams need game-changing power.
In 2017, teams like the Giants, Phillies, Braves, and Pirates hit the least amount of home runs and really struggled in 2017. Meanwhile, teams like the Yankees, Astros, Cubs, Dodgers, and Diamondbacks all made playoff runs, and they all finished in the top 13 in home runs hit in 2017.
The one exception that stands out is the Boston Red Sox who finished 27th in home runs hit. The Red Sox made the playoffs, but their biggest weakness was the absence of power. That glaring hole should be filled at some point this offseason to put some pressure on the Astros and Yankees next October. The bottom line is that you need a real power threat in the middle of your lineup to stay competitive.
In the 2016 free agent class, there seemed to be a decrease in contract value for power hitters similar to Chris Davis. For example, Mark Trumbo, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion didn’t get huge contracts like Chris Davis.
Trumbo, who has had an up and down career, is also a two-time All-Star and one time Silver Slugger recipient. In 2016, he hit 47 homers just like Chris Davis in 2015, but he only got a 3-year/37.5 million dollar contract with the Baltimore Orioles.
The rest of the 2016 free agent premium power bats looked like this:
- Cespedes: 4 years/ 110 million
- Encarnacion: 3 years/ 65 million
- Bautista: 1 year/ 18 million
Although these contracts aren’t as lucrative as Chris Davis’, premium power bats are still getting paid well above average contracts for predominantly just power numbers.
The hit king Pete Rose seems to agree with power bringing bigger contracts. In an interview with Graham Bensinger, Rose was asked: “Why do you think guys are striking out so much?” Rose replied, “All they want to do is hit home runs because that is where the money comes from.”
Rose then went on to explain that Major League front offices went and made everything easier for hitters to hit home runs in the 1994-1995 MLB strike. Reasons he said were, the ball is juiced, stadiums are smaller, and strike zones are smaller.
Even though Rose might sound like a crazy old man, he is undoubtedly correct about one thing: home runs sell tickets.
Whether its the hitter’s mentality, the money influence, or Pete Rose’s hypothesis that balls are juiced, home run numbers are going up.
Will 2018 have even more home runs? We will have to wait and see, but I would not be surprised if they exceded 5,707 homers in 2018.