Baseball, as much as any sport, is a game whose story is told through numbers. Even people who decry sabermetrics still know Cal Ripken’s 2,632 consecutive games or Pete Rose’s 4,256 hits. The 2019 season has seen no shortage of noteworthy statistical achievements, mostly in the arena of home runs and strikeouts. Here are a few that are not only interesting or remarkable in their own right, but paint a picture of the game as it is today.
Aristides Aquino’s String of Home Run Records
Despite record home run totals leaguewide—more on this later on—leading to an unprecedented number of players discovering a power stroke, we haven’t had anyone put a scare into the individual single-season home run record or even challenge the 60-homer barrier, which has made it tough to get invested in any individual home run chase, with two exceptions, both National League rookies.
The first is Pete Alonso, who’s already taken down the Mets’ single-season franchise home run record and NL rookie home run record, and is in position to become just the second rookie in the past 100 years—after Mark McGwire—to lead all of MLB in home runs, as well as challenge Aaron Judge’s overall rookie home run record.
The other is Aristides Aquino. The Reds rookie, a gigantic, gangly 25-year-old, appeared in just one game in 2018, then hit just one home run in his first five games of 2019. After that, he went on a tear, homering in four straight games from August 6 to August 10, including three in a 10-1 win over the Cubs, which made him the second player in MLB history, after Trevor Story, to hit seven home runs in his first 10 games.
Four days later, he hit his ninth career home run in just his 14th MLB game and 47th career plate appearance, both MLB records. The latter beat Rhys Hoskins’s old record by 18 plate appearances. Aquino went on to become, by career games played, the fastest player to 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15 career home runs, and set the record for most home runs in the first 100 plate appearances of a career (13) before he cooled off in September. No matter, he’s still hit more home runs per plate appearance than any player in MLB history with at least 150 career PA.
The Baltimore Orioles’ Home Run Giveaway
Two teams—the Yankees and Twins—have already passed the previous single-season record for home runs by a team, set by last year’s Yankees. By season’s end, two more—the Astros and Dodgers—could end up joining them. Similarly, the Orioles have already annihilated the single-season record for home runs allowed; they currently sit at 287, with the previous record of 258, set by the 2016 Reds, far in arrears.
But aggregate home run records are so blasé in this day and age that what the Orioles have done doesn’t really hit home, viscerally. So let’s put it this way. This season, 38 players have thrown at least one pitch for the Orioles, and 36 of them have given up at least one home run. The two exceptions are Nate Karns, who’s thrown 5 1/3 innings in the majors this year, and Jesús Sucre, who’s ordinarily a catcher.
The 40-30 Boys
Before he broke his kneecap, Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich became just the 10th player in MLB history to hit 40 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same season. With a week left in the campaign, Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. sits on 39 homers and 37 steals, which puts him in range not only of 40-30, but 40-40, which is a feat previously achieved only by José Canseco, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Alfonso Soriano.
As a kid I was fascinated by these home run–stolen base combo milestones because they exemplified a sort of complete offensive ballplayer: not just a slugger, but a great athlete, or otherwise a good athlete blessed with the intelligence to pick his spots on the basepaths well. It fits with the developing trend of the modern ballplayer, where the likes of Carlos Correa and Mike Trout—both big and strong enough to beat up a coal-fired power station—are also nimble enough to play up-the-middle positions.
Many of these statistical markers represent trends that I’m at best ambivalent about: the surges in home runs and strikeouts, the constant roster turnover that turns ballplayers into interchangeable cogs to be used and disposed of. But the return to the 40-30, or even 40-40 club, if it’s a trend, represents a combination of strength and speed that I believe portends good things for the sport going forward.
The Seattle Mariners Using 67 Players and 42 Pitchers
The Seattle Mariners had an extremely weird season. After ditching established veterans like Jean Segura, Robinson Canó, and Edwin Díaz in the offseason, they began 2019 on a 13-2 tear in which they scored 117 runs, putting them four games up on the defending AL West champion Astros. Since then, the Mariners are 50-86, and they’ve undergone roster turnover that’s shocking even for a Jerry Dipoto team.
Some of that, like the early-season trades of sluggers Jay Bruce and Edwin Encarnación, was self-imposed, as was the official retirement of Ichiro after a two-game sendoff in Japan. But they’ve also lost infielder Tim Beckham to an 80-game PED suspension and outfielder Mitch Haniger to a (takes a deep, bracing breath) ruptured testicle.
As a result, the Mariners have cycled through a series of waiver-wire pickups, rookies, free agents, and half the original lineup of Temple of the Dog. In all, the Mariners have used 42 pitchers and 67 players overall, both MLB records, and as the league does away with 40-man September active rosters in 2020, this record might end up standing for quite some time.
Justin Verlander Allowing 34 Home Runs—and Just 61 Runs
Verlander has been one of the most outspoken critics of MLB’s juiced ball era, causing a minor kerfuffle around the All-Star break when he called the ball “a fucking joke” and told ESPN that he was convinced the league had altered the ball on purpose to increase offense. It’s a little reminiscent of Verlander’s comments to Ken Rosenthal last year, when he pointed out that his major competition for the AL Cy Young Award, Blake Snell, fell well short of traditional standards for innings pitched.
In both cases, Verlander’s got a point, but it’s also very easy to see why he’s making these arguments: He’s been particularly victimized in both cases, specifically by the juiced baseball. This season, Verlander’s allowed 61 runs and 34 home runs, which means that 55.7 percent of the runs scored against him this year have been scored by someone who started the plate appearance with a bat in his hand. This blows away the all-time record, set by Clayton Kershaw in 2017, by almost 9 percentage points. Before Kershaw, only John Candelaria in 1977 had given up more than 45 percent of his runs to batters who hit home runs.
Before the new ball was introduced in mid-2015, Verlander had a career opponent home run rate of 2.1 percent. This year, it’s double that, 4.2 percent. If Verlander were giving up home runs at his pre-juiced ball rate and faced the same number of batters, he’d have allowed 17 this year. Take away 17 home runs from Verlander’s 2019 record and his ERA would drop from its already AL-leading 2.50 to 1.78, which would make his 2019 season one of the best AL pitcher seasons in the 21st century.
Unfortunately, Verlander, like all pitchers, has had to contend with the A.A. Milne Tribute Ball—made of rubber and springs. Though all things considered, he’s coping pretty well.
Gerrit Cole Challenges the Strikeout Rate and K/9 Records
Like home runs, strikeouts are at an all-time high in MLB, which means on some level it was only a matter of time before someone started taking down single-season strikeout records. Entering his start on Wednesday night, Gerrit Cole, another Astros right-hander, was striking out 13.7 batters per nine innings, just ahead of Randy Johnson’s all-time record of 13.4, set in 2001. He’s also on track to set the record for strikeout rate by a qualified starter, currently held by Pedro Martínez.
While Cole’s achievements are remarkable, they are—like all things—a product of their environment. When Martínez and Johnson set their records, in 1999 and 2001 respectively, MLB teams were striking out about 6.5 times per game, on average. This year, it’s up to 8.8 times per game, which is an all-time record for the 12th year running.
The gross strikeout record of 383, set by Nolan Ryan in 1973, is still a ways off, but with the leaguewide strikeout rate on the rise, it might not be unbeatable. Pitchers can put up eye-popping strikeout totals either by throwing a ton of innings or by striking out a lot of batters per inning. Cole is the 18th pitcher since 1901 to strike out 300 or more batters in a season.
Looking at the list, you can see how individual pitcher innings totals have gone up and down over time, while strikeout rates have exploded. When high strikeout rates combine with high innings totals, we see a glut of pitchers break the 300-strikeout barrier at once. It happened four times from 1903 to 1912, then only once in the next 51 seasons, before Sandy Koufax kicked off a run in which a pitcher would strike out 300 or more 15 times from 1963 to 1979. After that, it happened just three times from 1980 to 1996, then 10 times from 1997 to 2002, then not again until 2015. Cole is the fourth different pitcher to reach that mark in the past five seasons. Verlander has a shot to join him next week, and the leaguewide strikeout rate is only rising.
A pitcher who throws 220 innings—about the maximum workload for a starter these days—would have to strike out 15.7 batters per nine innings to beat Ryan’s record, which sounds ridiculous now, but I don’t know how much more ridiculous it is than Cole’s K/9 ratio of 13.7 would’ve sounded 10 years ago.
Stats current through Tuesday.