On May 8 in Baltimore, Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. made the kind of catch that keeps a player in the lineup even when he’s spent the season sabotaging his team at the plate.
A spring game against the Orioles isn’t a formula for high drama, and many of the 12,451 fans officially in attendance for the game had departed by the time Bradley made the grab, which came at Trey Mancini’s expense. But the catch hardly could have been better—an 11th-inning, game-extending snag in which Bradley seemed to skip several frames, propelling himself off a Southwest sign with one cleat to gain extra altitude, then spinning to face the expectant Baltimore bullpen as he caught the ball with his whole upper body hanging over the fence, extended like a swimmer trying to touch the wall. In the top of the 12th, Andrew Benintendi launched a ball that no Orioles outfielder brought back, and the Sox hung on to take a 2-1 victory.
One would think that Bradley’s catch could easily outclass any rivals from the rest of the week. But the day before Bradley’s robbery, Ramón Laureano brought back a homer for the second time this season, prolonging Joey Votto’s slow start and preserving Mike Fiers’s no-hitter. The night Bradley left the ground, the Padres’ Manuel Margot stole a homer (in less astonishing fashion) from the Mets’ Pete Alonso, and the next night, two more outfielders joined the homer-prevention parade, with Adam Jones robbing Ronald Acuña Jr. to preserve a 1-1 tie and Josh Reddick depriving Hunter Pence of a go-ahead three-run shot. That cluster of spectacular catches drew attention to a development that deserves to be mentioned more often amid all the moaning about increasing strikeouts and slower games: We’re watching the golden age of the home run robbery, baseball’s most breathtaking play.
These days, dingers are everywhere: Changes in the baseball’s construction have reduced its air resistance, and hitters are aiming upward to take advantage of its increased carry. Entering play on Monday, the average launch angle of MLB batted balls was up for the fourth consecutive season, climbing to 12.1 degrees—2 degrees higher than the average in 2015, the first year in which MLB’s Statcast system tracked batted balls. This year’s ground ball rate—like last year’s at the time—is the lowest on record. Teams have averaged 1.30 home runs per game, putting MLB on pace for 6,297 home runs, or 192 more than the 2017 record high—and that’s without accounting for the fact that the home run rate typically increases as the weather warms up.
In becoming much more common, the homer has arguably lost a little of its luster. As ESPN’s Sam Miller wrote in October 2017, “The home run feels like the default. If it looks good off the bat, it’s almost certainly a home run. If it looks lousy off the bat—well, it might be, too.” Miller made the case that in an era when home runs are rampant, the deep flyout has become a greater source of excitement, observing that “baseball is best when it sets up an expectation and subverts it: The nasty slider that jags suddenly out of the strike zone, the shortstop who fields a grounder on a dive and flips it to second base with his glove, the three-run comeback against the dominant closer, and now, the home run that doesn’t happen.”
Miller wasn’t writing specifically about home run robberies, although his article included a couple. But the home run robbery is the pinnacle of the deep-flyout form. Unlike a ball caught in the gap or at the track, a ball that’s bound for the stands can’t be counted out as a potential dinger until the second it’s caught—and sometimes not even then, if the outfielder falls over after the attempt, obscuring the outcome and sustaining the suspense for a frantic, tiny eternity in which only the fielder and perhaps a few fans know whether the ball is in the glove or gone.
Like the home run, a home run robbery is worth 1.6 runs, on average, and it’s sometimes decisive. But that figure fails to convey the intense emotion provoked by a play that flips from the best-/worst-case scenario (a homer) to the worst-/best-case scenario (an out) in one endlessly rewatchable, ultra-athletic maneuver. The home run robbery is a play that can come to define an entire career: If I say the names Endy Chávez, Dewayne Wise, or Gary Matthews Jr., their robberies are almost certainly the first (and maybe only) moments in your mind. None of those players was worth more than 14 WAR, but because of those catches, they’ll hobnob with superstars on highlight reels for the rest of their lives.
According to data from Sports Info Solutions, Bradley, Reddick, and Jones are among the most prolific home run robbers since the leaguewide home run rate spiked in 2015.
Leading Home Run Robbers, 2015 to 2019
Others on that list have contributed some of this season’s most memorable robberies, including Cain’s game-ending grab on Opening Day and Trout’s MVP-on-MVP crime against Christian Yelich in April. But more and more outfielders are getting in on the act. Through Monday’s games, or almost exactly a quarter of the regular season, outfielders had already robbed 21 home runs. That put them on pace for 84 robberies, which would be by far the most since SIS started tracking the event in 2004. A larger sample may slow that pace, but this isn’t a 2019-only phenomenon: Last year’s 65 robberies broke the previous record of 60, which was set in 2017. The first two years of the current high-homer era, 2015 and 2016, featured 50 and 48 robberies, respectively, which were themselves the highest totals of any season since 2004, a high-homer year at the tail end of the somewhat misleadingly labeled steroid era.
During the decade from 2005 through 2014, home run robberies occurred about once every 60 games. (In 2014, a low-homer year, outfielders pulled off only 33 homer heists all season.) This year, the heists have happened once every 29 games, more than twice as often. As one might infer from the numbers above, home runs and home run robberies tend to go together. The chart below shows the rates of homers per game and home run robberies per game in each season since 2004, culminating in peaks in both categories in 2019.
In this period of 15-plus seasons, the correlation between home runs per game and home run robberies per game has been about 0.82. That’s a strong relationship, which isn’t surprising; it’s only logical that the conditions that create home runs would also create near-homers snared by a soaring, gravity-defying fielder.
In earlier eras, ballpark construction made it more difficult for fielders to bring back homers: Outfield fences were deeper and higher, on average, than they are today. But as ballpark dimensions have become more homogenous, fences have grown shorter and (in left and center) shallower, as indicated by the graphs below (which are based on info from the Seamheads Ballparks Database). The 7-foot fences in left and center at Camden Yards, where Bradley denied Mancini, have made it the most common location for robberies going back to 2004.
Neither fence depth nor fence height has changed much in the past 15 years, and while rosters are taller and more talented than they used to be, featuring improbably agile giants like Aaron Judge, they aren’t evolving fast enough to make a meaningful difference in robberies in the span of a few years. The recent uptick in home run robberies stems from other factors, foremost among them the aforementioned increase in the angle and rate of balls hit in the air.
On the one hand, increasing strikeout rates are eating into the total number of balls in play per season. In 2018, the 30 pitching staffs combined to allow almost 13,000 fewer balls in play than they did in 2005, a decrease of close to 10 percent. This year, they’re on pace to allow almost 16,000 fewer balls in play than they did in 2005, which would represent a drop of close to 12 percent. However, while the balls-in-play pie is shrinking, balls in the air are composing a larger slice of the remainder. What’s more, a higher percentage of those balls in the air are flying far enough to turn into home run robberies.
As one would expect, SIS records indicate that center fielders account for a plurality of home run robberies, with corner outfielders evenly splitting the remainder. (Since 2015, the totals per position are 67/108/69; in 2019, they’re 4/11/6.) On average, robbed homers happen this far from home plate:
LF: 363 feet
CF: 397 feet
RF: 356 feet
All: 376 feet
In each season of the Statcast era, more balls have been hit between 350 and 400 feet, the sweet spot for home run robberies:
2015: 9,378 (7.2%)
2016: 9,680 (7.5%)
2017: 9,848 (7.7%)
2018: 10,148 (8.0%)
2019: 10,268 (8.3%) (Projected)
Although we can’t confirm this via Statcast, those totals are almost certainly higher than they were during the deader-ball era immediately preceding 2015. And it’s not just that deep flies and liners are becoming increasingly common; as Baseball Prospectus writer Matthew Trueblood noted in his newsletter last week, outfielders are standing deeper, too, responding to both the increased likelihood of balls over their heads and the decreased likelihood of grounders through the infield. When pitches are delivered, right fielders, left fielders, and center fielders are positioning themselves four feet, five feet, and nine feet deeper, on average, than they were in 2015. That makes it more feasible for them to get back to the wall in time to stop a ball from flying over it.
Avg. OF Start Distance, 2015 to 2019
To recap: More balls are being hit in the air. More of those balls in the air are flying far enough to clear the fence by a few feet. Knowing both of those things, more outfielders are playing back, putting themselves in position to dash the other team’s dreams. The result: far more frequent sightings of baseball’s best play. Not every home run robbery is as riveting as Bradley’s, but no other on-field act in common circulation demands to be shared or induces adrenaline as reliably as bringing a long ball back.
The home run robbery isn’t really an antidote to baseball’s ball-in-play problems. Even at this year’s record rate, it’s still so rare that one would have to watch every game from two full days of baseball to expect to see one in the wild. That scarcity keeps the play special, but the recent increase makes it more accessible, ensuring that we won’t go a week without its unparalleled thrill. While we’re lamenting the magic that’s gone out of the game—fewer stolen bases, fewer triples, fewer fielding events—let’s not forget that at least one precious rate is rising in the right direction. In an all-or-nothing era, the sport’s silver lining is the alchemical catch that converts all into nothing with one last-second leap.