Newspaper article International New York Times

As Homers Fly, So Does Conjecture ; Sluggers Are on Pace to Top 5,600 This Season, a Total Achieved Only Once

Newspaper article International New York Times

As Homers Fly, So Does Conjecture ; Sluggers Are on Pace to Top 5,600 This Season, a Total Achieved Only Once

Article excerpt

The number of home runs is up substantially this season, with hitters on pace to top 5,600; Major League Baseball is grasping for a reason.

The All-Stars dressed in yellow and brown on Monday, making the field at Petco Park look, from above, like a grill full of cheeseburgers. The homage to the host San Diego Padres, who once wore similar uniforms, helped distinguish Home Run Derby day from every other day of this curious baseball season.

Home runs are up. Way, way up. Baseball arrived at the All-Star break with hitters on pace for more than 5,600 home runs, a level exceeded only once in history: in 2000, at the height of the steroid era.

"I'd like to say that guys aren't cheating," said Stephen Vogt, the Oakland Athletics' catcher. "Everybody's going to speculate -- right? -- when the home run numbers go up. But we are cleaning up the game, and I hope that's not the reason behind it."

Before 2003, when baseball began testing for performance- enhancing drugs, we searched for reasons to explain the surge in home runs. Expansion, smaller ballparks and better nutrition all played a part -- but history, rightly, gave steroids most of the blame.

So what now? Besides Dee Gordon -- last year's National League leader in batting average and steals -- the players caught in this season's drug net have mostly been marginal. Perhaps some sluggers are beating the system, but a widespread cheating epidemic seems unlikely.

But something is happening. Two years ago, there were 4,186 home runs, or 0.86 per team per game. That was the lowest figure in any of the last 20 full seasons, dating to 1996. This season, there are 1.16 homers per team per game, up from 1.01 in 2015.

Put another way, at the current pace, home runs will rise by more than 700 over the previous season for the second year in a row. That's a lot more balls soaring over fences, and one pitcher is keeping his theories private.

"I'm not going to be the one who throws that stone," said Washington Nationals starter Max Scherzer, who leads the National League in homers allowed. "I'm not going to sit here and say anything and make accusations. That's not the way you do things. But if they are up significantly, it would be interesting to see what M.L.B. actually thinks about it."

Mike Teevan, a spokesman for Major League Baseball, said the league does "extensive reviews of the performance of the baseball, and there have been no differences" to explain the increase in homers. Strikeouts, said starter Jon Lester of the Chicago Cubs, are also rising, and hitters are taking a different approach.

"I know our hitting coach wants you to hit the ball in the air," Lester said. "There's no slug on the ground. Guys are willing to take their punch-outs to hit the ball in the air, and swing hard in case they hit it. …

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