Remember those home-run-crazy days of yesteryear, when baseballs were flying out of parks at an alarming record pace? Remember how folks talked of balls being juiced, of bats being corked and of scoreboards becoming targets? Remember...last summer?
Just one year after the 1987 epidemic we are confronted with a new quandary: Whatever happened to the home run? Compared with the first two months of '87, homers in April and May were down from 1,357 to 999, a drop of 28% on a per-game basis. Last year 16 teams had hit at least 50 homers before June 1. This season only the Seattle Mariners have reached the half-century mark. Last year 11 players had 14 home runs or more in April and May; this season none did. What's going on?
First, a few words of comfort: There's no cause for panic. The 1988 pace over the first 40 games of each team, 1.57 homers per game, was actually a little greater than for the same period in 1985, and a little less than for 1986. But there are reasons for everything—and here are 10 of them to explain this season's homer drought.
1) The weather. This was one lousy spring in much of baseball land. "Ever try to hit a baseball when it's frozen?" says Detroit Tigers pitcher Jack Morris. Says Boston Red Sox outfielder Mike Greenwell, "It was miserable in the Midwest and East for seven weeks." Adds teammate Wade Boggs, "We've been dressed like Robocop all spring. When it gets warmer, the molecules in the bats expand and the ball jumps better and carries farther. Always has, always will."
Bill James and John Dewan of Stats, Inc., note that when the first heat wave hit the eastern half of the country on May 31, runs per game jumped from the season's average of 8.5 to 10.2 on that day. James and Dewan have also determined that temperature affects runs and home runs (see chart).
2) The wind. Consider Wrigley Field: The wind was blowing in for 12 of the Chicago Cubs' first 18 games, and those winds were measured at up to 51 mph. The Cubs, who hit 114 homers at Wrigley last season, went 92 innings during one stretch this spring without one. Consider Tiger Stadium: "It's been blowing in all year," says Morris. The Tigers, whose four-year home-run total (812) is second only to that of the 1960-63 New York Yankees (820), were as of June 1 on a measly 132-homer pace for the season. Consider Fenway Park: The east wind blew in for an estimated 20 of Boston's first 26 games at this home-run haven. The Red Sox hit all of 16 homers there in April and May.
3) The strike zone is larger. With the redefinition of the strike zone, both strikeouts and walks have decreased markedly. Batters, protective of the new zone, are swinging at more pitches early in the count to avoid getting behind. These swings tend to be more defensive than when the count is deep (3 and 1, 2 and 0), resulting in fewer big strokes and fewer home runs. Dewan and James have established that there is a correlation between walks and homers, and point out that the last time the strike zone was increased, in 1963, walks decreased by 12% and home runs dropped 10%.
4) The pitchers have adjusted. "There's no question that after a half-year's battering last season, pitching coaches and managers persuaded their pitchers to pitch inside or die," says California Angel pitching coach Marcel Lachemann. "Year after year we saw more hitters diving out over the plate, and no one came inside. Pitchers finally got the message. Not only is it tougher to hit the good pitch inside, but when you're worried about that, it's a lot tougher to get out and extend your arms on the balls away." To support this notion, the Elias Sports Bureau reports that if the pace of the number of hit batsmen over the first 40 games continues over the rest of the season, the totals will be the highest in the National League since 1969 and the highest ever in the American.
5) The pitchers are better. Detroit general manager Bill Lajoie points out that last year some 50% of the American League pitchers had either been released at some point in their careers or were in their first or second year. "There are a lot of young guys who are better now," says Lajoie. Cincinnati advance scout Jimmy Stewart says, "The young pitchers have learned to make some necessary adjustments to the young sluggers—Wally Joyner, Mark McGwire, Sam Horn—now that they've seen them a few times." Says Pirate pitching coach Ray Miller, "We've seen a lot of pitchers get smart, get ahead on counts and be willing to change speeds at any count. Last year hitters were sitting on 2-and-0 fastballs."
6) The ball is dead. Whenever home-run figures gain the limelight, some people blame the baseball. Some even believe that commissioner Peter Ueberroth's marketing demons have a certain homer-per-game formula that sells tickets and that they enliven or deaden the balls accordingly. All conspiracy theories aside, fans do apparently get more excited by live balls than dead ones. Last year the good people at Rawlings, which makes the balls, had their phones ringing off the hook. This season they've had three calls.
7) The bats are uncorked. Elias has pointed out that the home-run rate dropped 11% after St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog accused the New York Mets' Howard Johnson of corking his bat. And when National League president A. Bartlett Giamatti suspended Houston's Billy Hatcher for 10 days for using a corked bat, others took notice. "Who wants to take the chance?" says former San Diego Padre manager Larry Bowa. "I know that last year a lot of hitters were using them and have backed off because of what happened [to Hatcher]."
8) The balk rule is messing up hitters. "Holding the ball has confused a lot of hitters' timing," says Toronto Blue Jays batting coach Cito Gaston.
9) The decline is simply part of a cycle. "It's the same as why the National League has so few young right-handed power hitters and so many good young second basemen," says Cubs scout Charlie Fox. Which also surely explains why some northern New Englanders have reported a record number of loons.
10) Reggie Jackson retired. Everyone always said that when Reggie left, he would take something with him.
The homers-per-game average jumped each season from 1984 through '87. But this spring the rabbit died.
*through May 31