Everyone is talking about home runs. It’s no surprise. The aging fan base grew up watching a game where every home run meant something. In the nineties, the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa was a national phenomenon. I still get tingles remembering that summer. But those days are gone. The coming generation of fans knows only the long ball. Home runs are expected by fans and even, if I may be so bold, by the management.
Let’s look at an example of my point which also illustrates how I’m guilty of the same thing.
Greg Bird spent basically the entire 2017 season on the disabled list. The guy had foot surgery and missed 100 games. Then, out of nowhere, he literally came out swinging in September and into the playoffs. In Game 3 of the ALDS, on a 1–1 pitch, in the seventh inning, Bird took a fastball deep into the right-field stands. The shot put the Yanks up 1–0 and ended up being the game-winning run. I don’t think Cleveland fans have ever recovered.
That’s exactly what home runs should be. A clutch play in a big moment.
But even I have started wondering why Bird isn’t launching balls into the right-field porch every at-bat. At times I have heard myself yelling things at the screen like, “Come on, earn your paycheck!” In those moments, I am what’s wrong with baseball.
I am loathed to admit it but even I have begun expecting home runs on a near per-inning basis. And that is simply wrong. I’ve since chastised myself because I have been preaching one singular message for years. That is, small ball wins championships.
Think about it. Traditionally, your job as a hitter was to get on base by whatever means necessary. Whether it was a single, double, triple, a base on balls, or being hit by a pitch, your job was to get on base safely. It was then your job as a baserunner to advance bases. If the guy behind you did his job, you would have the chance to advance. If you were particularly ballsy, you would steal a bag. Base hit, by base hit, a team’s lineup would work their way around the bases and score runs. Occasionally, a guy would step up to the plate and go yard, clearing the bases and becoming that day’s hero.
These days, I am far more excited when I see a perfectly executed bunt. Now, that, we can all agree, is a thing of beauty.
Small ball is the heart of baseball and it’s dying. I’m hoping this is just a phase but I’m not holding my breath. Aside from the walk-off homer, grand slam, or the rarest, the ultimate grand slam, small ball has made baseball what it is. MLB needs to do what it can to bring it back.
For a point of reference, according to Baseball Almanac, the MLB leader in career stolen bases is Ricky Henderson with 1,406. Henderson’s accomplishment spanned an astounding 25-years, from 1979 to 2003. Lou Brock holds the number two slot with 938 stolen bases in 19-years. It’s not until number 32 that we see a player still active in 2018, Jose Reyes, with 517 in 16-years on the field.
Of course, we can’t discount the shift. This defensive structuring is an insidious and blasphemous allowance by the gods of baseball if you’re a utility infielder at the plate. In the same breath, the shift is a godsend of strategy to all those in the field.
Whether it should be allowed, or not, is moot here. What it provides, is a deterrent from small ball strategy. And the argument can be made that it’s doing its part in irrevocably changing baseball. If small ball is being eliminated, what can teams do but put the ball in the stands? Perhaps there is no right answer.
Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Baseball is on the verge of ruining home runs and I can’t believe I just wrote those words, but it’s true. They are a daily occurrence. They are an expectation. Through Sept. of 2018, 12 Yankees had double-digit home run numbers. What’s more, 50.8% of 2018 Yankee runs came via the home run.
Even the league itself is worried about this. Stadiums are keeping balls in climate controlled boxes the size of storage closets to control whatever mythical force is causing so many home runs.
In all honesty, it’s probably really simple. MLB is feverishly working to come up with ways to make the world’s greatest game more exciting. They want to improve the fan experience, speed up gameplay, and have more “action.” To that end, it’s not unfathomable that MLB is guilty of altering the construction of the baseballs to produce more home runs. They — unwisely — believe more and more home runs will bring larger and larger crowds to the ballpark. This may be true in the short-term, but over the long-haul, this could be the downfall of baseball as we have known and loved it for years.
Before I conclude my sermon, I must acknowledge one item of hypocrisy. That is, Aaron Judge’s record-breaking rookie year was a story we will be telling for generations. To see a rookie do what he did was absolutely amazing. I hereby exempt all of his 2017 home runs from my rant and I will revel in what some may see as duplicity. Yet, it doesn’t discount my claim that you need small ball to win championships. The Yankees didn’t advance beyond the ALCS in 2017 even with Judge’s monster run.
In 2018? The team set a record for the most home runs by a franchise in major league history, dropping an enormous 267 bombs. Yet, their season ended in the Division Series against their heated rivals, the Boston Red Sox.
Am I the only one worried about the undeniable increase in home runs is having on the culture of baseball? Even if I am, we cannot deny that we are witnessing a tectonic shift in gameplay, fandom, and the future of baseball. I can’t speak for everyone but I can speak up for those of us who are over it.