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Home Run Records Are Dropping Like Flies. Do Any of Them Matter?

Once-unthinkable feats of power are the new normal in the MLB. Let’s figure out which are truly impressive.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Wednesday night, the .301 winning percentage Tigers took on the .638 Astros at Minute Maid Park. With Houston on its home turf and Tigers starter Daniel Norris outmatched on the mound by Astros ace Justin Verlander, the Astros’ odds of victory rose to heights previously unseen at sportsbooks. Even with the Astros as -550 favorites (at least), some bettors still backed them big.

Anyone who wagered on a win for the Astros soon wanted that wager back. As expected, Verlander dominated Detroit, throwing a complete game two-hitter and striking out 11 without walking one. But both hits were homers, and the Astros lost 2-1, sealing a historic upset.

Unexpected as the outcome was—according to FanGraphs’ game odds, the Tigers were 78.5 percent likely to lose, giving them the most improbable victory of 2019 and the fourth-most-surprising since 2014—the game itself wasn’t totally atypical of 2019, the year of home run records. All three runs in the game scored on homers, emblematic of a season in which the percentage of runs scored on dingers is drawing near 50 percent. Verlander has been brilliant in almost every respect, leading the AL in innings and strikeout-to-walk ratio and the majors in strikeouts, WHIP, and hits per nine innings. But the two homers he allowed pushed his season total to a league-leading 33, the lone blemish on what might otherwise have been his best season—and, perhaps, the pea placed under his mattress that’s made him the majors’ most outspoken critic and conspiracy theorist on the subject of the juiced ball. If the season ended today, Verlander would have the highest-ever ratio of home runs allowed to all runs allowed.

That’s a home run fun fact. But you know that, because if you’ve followed baseball at all in 2019, you’ve been buried in home run fun facts—especially lately, because the homer rate keeps climbing. More homers were hit per game in March and April than in any previous start to the season, and more homers were hit in May than in any previous month. That was true of June, too, and the rate has soared since, ticking up steeply through the first three weeks of August as the weather has warmed and the aerodynamic ball has flown even farther. According to data provided by Rob Arthur of Baseball Prospectus, the past 30 days have seen the sport’s highest average game-time temperature in at least the past five years, which makes sense considering the coming climate apocalypse. (Call your congressperson, and try to get ground balls.)

The combination of a still-skyrocketing home run rate and the stage of the schedule when it’s possible for full-season records to fall has created a home run fun-fact crisis. Although MLB’s per-game home run rate is up less than 23 percent from last year’s full-season mark, that seemingly modest bump has inflated the fun-fact rate to a prodigious degree. Now that we’ve entered uncharted home run territory, there’s no way to watch or read about baseball without quickly coming across a report about a player or team accomplishing an unprecedented dinger barrage. To test that contention, I’ll pause after finishing this paragraph, scan the top stories at MLB.com, and see how many it takes me to find the first home run fun fact. (You’ll have to take my word for it.)

Here it is, in the seventh story down, which recaps a seven-homer Wednesday slugfest between the Cubs and the Giants: “[Nick] Castellanos got things rolling with a two-run homer in the first, marking his eighth shot in 19 games in a Cubs uniform. The outfielder also became the first batter in franchise history to hit a homer in the first inning in three straight games.”

A franchise- and inning-specific streak of this sort would barely be fun under any conditions, but in 2019, it’s doubly banal. We get it: Guys are hitting lots of homers. Whether we’ve reached the point of too many homers may be a matter of taste, but there’s almost no question that we’ve been suffering from a surfeit of home-run-related stats since Opening Day (when the Dodgers hit a record eight dingers and all teams combined for a record 48). To make matters worse, we’re four years into MLB’s highest-homer era, which means that many of the records being broken now are too recent to seem significant.

When so many stats are record-breaking, even the extraordinary starts to sound mundane. No matter how much home run fun-fact fatigue we might be feeling, though, there’s no way to avoid this constant stream of “historic” stats. What we can do is create a taxonomy of the home run fun facts confronting fans in 2019, classifying the 10 most common kinds into genres and assessing which ones are worth our attention. Below, we present a ranking from least to most fun—if, that is, any home run fact can be fun in an era of rampant power.

Consecutive team games with a homer or homer allowed

The Yankees set a record by hitting a homer in 31 consecutive games. On Thursday, the Marlins extended their streak of allowing a homer to 23 consecutive games, leaving them three short of the record. These facts aren’t fun; they’re simply inevitable. Take a team that hits or coughs up a ton of homers in an offensive environment where the average game yields almost three taters, and it’s going to go deep (or allow its opponents to) a bunch of times in a row.

The most egregiously un-fun fact in this category: The Mariners set a record by either hitting or allowing a homer in 107 consecutive games. Is that … good? Bad? On days when the Mariners didn’t homer, were any Mariners fans rooting for the team to allow a homer so the streak could continue? Did we need to know that this happened?

Full-season franchise home run records

It’s moderately remarkable that the Twins are about to break the Yankees’ one-year-old single-season record for hitting home runs, if only because they’re not nicknamed the Bombers and haven’t had much homer mojo in recent years. It’s also somewhat amusing that the Orioles broke the single-season record for home runs allowed, because they blew by the old high on Thursday, which left several weeks for their pitchers to pad the team total. The Twins’ and Orioles’ homers hit and allowed counts, respectively, are probably both going to get to 300, a number big and round enough to remember.

It wasn’t nearly as noteworthy when the Twins broke their single-season franchise record for home runs hit on August 10, or when the Orioles broke their franchise record for home runs allowed two days later. Once you know that the leaguewide record is destined to be obliterated—MLB is on pace to top 2017’s 6,105 homers by more than 700, and if the midseason rise in home run rate holds, the final tally will come close to 7,000—it follows that plenty of franchise records are due to be shattered too. Roughly half of the league’s 30 teams will have new homer-hitting records by the end of the year; it’s just a matter of time.

Another un-fun aspect of the franchise-record chase is the string of mini-records en route, which amplifies the statistical static: The Twins, for instance, were the fastest team to 200 homers and tied for the fastest team to 100. On the positive side, a few players are on pace to break individual franchise home run records, which are slightly more memorable.

Most team homers in a span of X games

On August 16, the Dodgers completed a stretch of five games in which they hit a record 22 home runs. That snapped the previous record of 21, last tied by the Yankees all the way back on … August 8. “I guess the numbers don’t lie—we do hit the ball out of the ballpark,” Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts said. Yes, Dave, but who doesn’t?

The biggest flaw in this fun-fact construction is that there are separate records for every span of games from one to 162, which opens the door to hundreds of potential fun facts—thousands, if you count franchise records. That way lies both boredom and madness. Another source of fun-fact inflation: When the Dodgers hit 22 dingers in five games, they also set a highly related record for the most consecutive team games with at least four homers. I hate that those are different records.

Sadly, no individual player has hit four homers in a game this season, let alone an unparalleled five, which would be fully fun.

Streaks of multi-homer games

On Wednesday, no major leaguer launched more than one home run. That snapped a streak of 37 days on which at least one hitter did, which easily surpassed the previous record of 29. The end of the record run was welcome news to writer Joe Posnanski, who after 19 straight multi-homer days had committed to blogging about the streak for as long as it lasted. But it probably didn’t make a major impression on anyone else, because the multi-homer streak wasn’t really a riveting spectator experience. It was just another manifestation of the same underlying phenomenon: lots of dudes hitting homers.

Posnanski tried to put the streak into perspective, writing, “In all, 107 players had two home run games during the streak. For comparison, 110 players hit two home runs in the entire 1992 season.” That sounds sort of impressive, but like a lot of fun facts, it basically lies: Baseball in 1992 featured 26 teams and the lowest non-strike-season home run rate since 1978. One might as well point out that hitters this year have already outhomered hitters from 1992 by more than 2,300 round-trippers. Citing record multi-homer streaks is essentially synonymous with saying, “Psst—players are hitting more homers now.” Team multi-homer streaks are no better: The Orioles set MLB records with 10 consecutive games in which they hit multiple homers and 14 consecutive games (some of them overlapping with the homer-hitting streak) in which they allowed multiple homers. Neither one was fun.

Streaks of three homers are a bit better, if only because three-homer games are still scarce. Yes, we’re going to get a record-breaking count of those, too: We’ve already had 20 three-homer games in 2019, which trails only the 22 from 2001. With numbers that small, though, we weren’t guaranteed to get a record-breaking streak, so it seemed momentous when Robinson Canó, Paul DeJong, Nelson Cruz, and Mookie Betts broke a record by homering three times on back-to-back-to-back-to-back days in late July. That was genuinely entertaining, because we knew the streak wouldn’t last long and it was fun to follow along with anyone who’d already hit two homers on days three and four.

Most combined homers in one game

Fairly fun, if only because it’s so simple and because it helps calibrate our sense of how many homers is truly a lot. On June 11, the Phillies and Diamondbacks teamed up to hit 13 home runs, edging out the 12 smashed in games in 1995 and 2002. “You can’t really explain it,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said. Torey, have you heard about the high home run rate? If not, I have some fun facts for you.

Most combined homers hit in one day

On May 24, MLB teams combined to hit 59 homers, despite a Yankees-Royals rainout that reduced the number of games played to 14. Only one day in MLB history has ever produced more dingers—July 2, 2002, with 62—and that was with 16 games played. Again, this isn’t shocking: If you set a record for home runs in a season, you’re bound to have had some high-homer days along the way. But seeing a single-day explosion makes it easy to internalize the new normal.

Most players to hit X homers in the league or on a team

I’m as guilty as anyone of adding to this pile. In our midseason staff predictions post, I forecasted that MLB would break the record of 47 hitters with at least 30 home runs, which was set in 2000. Even prior to the recent surge, this seemed like a safe call, and now it’s nearly a lock: Entering Thursday, only 18 hitters had reached 30, but 50 had hit 25. The record for hitters reaching 20 homers (117) is also well within reach, and this season’s pre-Thursday total of 228 hitters with at least 10 homers was only 14 behind the record of 242. On the team side, three clubs—the Twins, Yankees, and Blue Jays—entered Thursday boasting 11 hitters with double-digit dinger totals, putting them two away from breaking the record of 12 set by last year’s Yankees.

These facts aren’t fun, exactly; a single guy going for 74, 71, or even 62 would be much more compelling than a bunch of guys going for 30. But they are, at least, educational, reminding us that the hallmark of the present power surge is a wide distribution of dingers rather than a few chemically aided outliers.

All of the above, but in Triple-A

This season, for the first time, both Triple-A leagues adopted the same ball as MLB. Predictably, the Triple-A home-run rate has spiked. Take it away, Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper:

Many of these fun facts take the form of the ones we’ve covered, but the sudden, extreme nature of the Triple-A increase—and the lack of corresponding increases in the lower minor leagues—convincingly illustrates the extent to which this season’s power stats are attributable to the ball. The numbers are mesmerizing, but they’re also reminders that every home run fun fact we encounter rests on the same flimsy foundation.

Most player homers in first X career games

Otherwise known as the Aristides Aquino category. Aquino, a 25-year-old, low-profile Reds rookie, set a record by homering 11 times in his first 17 career games, all but one of which came after his promotion to the majors this month. (Of course, he also tied or set several records for the fastest to 10 or fewer.) “Baseballs may be flying out of MLB ballparks at record pace but that doesn’t make what Aristides Aquino is doing any less remarkable,” says the website for Cincinnati station WKRC. Actually, it does; it’s no coincidence that we’ve seen so many recent fast starts for rookies in the dinger department, including Trevor Story’s in 2016, Rhys Hoskins’s in 2017, and Will Smith’s this year. In 2019, home run fun facts tell us more about the ball than they do about teams or players. But even though we know it was partly or largely a product of the ball, Aquino’s dinger display was still spellbinding. In some cases, context can’t take away the fun.

Most homers against a single opponent

Last week, my Effectively Wild cohost Sam Miller said, “If you could only save one fun fact from the year that captured as many sort of zeitgeisty things as possible, I think it would be Gleyber Torres hitting 13 home runs in one season against the Baltimore Orioles.”

Torres’s 13 bombs against the O’s (more than a fifth of the Yankees’ record total against Baltimore), which flabbergasted Gary Thorne, are the most any player has hit against a single opponent in the divisional era. Like all of this year’s home run fun facts, it’s only semi-satisfying—again, because of the ball—but it’s still the one we would put in the time capsule as the signature stat of 2019. This season’s hottest fun fact has everything: the juiced ball, the titanic imbalance between baseball’s best and worst teams, and the thrilling success of the sport’s young hitters. Best of all, it can’t climb any higher, which makes it the rare home run fun fact that won’t continue to torment us for the rest of 2019.