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As the home run rate in 2005 took its steepest decline in 17 years, scouts had a favorite line to explain why certain sluggers were not hitting as many home runs: “Congress got him.” The inference was that testing for steroids with penalties, which came about through pressure from lawmakers, changed the game. Sports Illustrated headlined a cover story I wrote that year, “Baseball’s Incredible Shrinking Slugger.”
This season the home run rate has taken its biggest drop in 34 years, from 2.44 per game to 2.00. And the favorite explanation this time around goes like this: “The baseball got him.”
Tom Horak/USA TODAY Sports
By design, the baseball does not carry as far because of more uniform manufacturing specifications. (It was introduced last year, but this is the first season with 100% use of the less lively baseball.) Add the use of humidors in all 30 ballparks for more uniform storage protocols, and you get the end of a Rabbit Ball Era from 2016 to ‘21. The “Launch Angle Revolution” was driven by the mantra “Slug is in the air.” Hitters still want to get the ball airborne. It’s just that with this baseball, the rewards are not as great.
A baseball barreled up this year travels about six feet less than last year. Batting average on flyballs has dropped from .281 to .256 and slugging percentage on flyballs has sunk from .877 to .761.
The signature look to this season is the Head Shake. Night after night, hitters are walking back to the dugout shaking their heads after what they thought was a home run turned out to be a flyout.
Here are the hitters who have suffered the steepest declines in slugging this year (entering Sunday). Seven of the worst 10 drops belong to former All-Stars. The four biggest declines are veteran stars in their 30s:
Biggest Decline in Slugging Pct., 2022 from 2021
1. Yasmani Grandal, White Sox*
2. Joey Votto, Reds*
3. Marcus Semien, Rangers*
4. Max Muncy, Dodgers*
5. Tyler O’Neill, Cardinals
6. Jesse Winker, Mariners*
7. Mike Zunino, Rays*
8. Franmil Reyes, Guardians
9. Bobby Dalbec, Red Sox
10. Adam Duvall, Braves*
The next 10 also are full of established veterans: Brandon Belt, A.J. Pollock, Avisail Garcia, Javy Baez, Robbie Grossman, Brandon Crawford, Nick Castellanos, Trent Grisham, Shohei Ohtani and Nelson Cruz. All but Grisham and Grossman have been All-Star players.
Here is one way to measure all those Head Shakes: the batting average on flyballs crushed at 100 mph or harder has declined by 80 points, and those monster shots are far less likely to be home runs:
Batting Average on Flyballs Hit 100+MPH
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Flyballs Hit 100+MPH
Back in 2005, Jason Giambi was the cover subject of that “Baseball’s Incredible Shrinking Slugger” story. If you need a face to this downturn in home runs, you can’t go wrong with Joey Gallo of the Yankees. No one has made more outs on flyballs hit at least 100 mph than Gallo:
Most Flyball Outs Hit 100 MPH
1. Joey Gallo, Yankees
2. Matt Chapman, Blue Jays
3. Paul Goldschmidt, Cardinals
Nelson Cruz, Nationals
Marcell Ozuna, Braves
Jorge Polanco, Twins
Gallo is on pace for 34 such crushed outs this year. No one had more than 27 last year (Sal Perez). In 2019, no one had more than 19 (Castellanos).
Last year, two-thirds of Gallo’s 100+ mph flyballs were home runs. This year only about a quarter of them are going out:
Gallo Flyballs Hit 100+ MPH
Let’s say, using last year’s rate, six more of Gallo’s flyballs are home runs instead of outs. That would mean Gallo would be hitting .224 instead of .172, slugging .517 instead of .310, and posting an .840 OPS instead of a .589 one—all closer to his career norms.
Lest you think fewer home runs are bad for the game, think again. Strikeouts and walks are down. Stolen bases, singles and balls in play are up. Hitters are showing signs of adjusting; batting average in May this year (.245) is up 13 points from April and is higher than what it was last May (.239).
This is just the start to changing the game for the better. The pitch clock, a ban on shifts and further limiting the pitchers on an active roster also will push the game into a more balanced version. And remember, the drop in home run rate is not creating another Deadball Era; it is moving away from the Rabbit Ball Era and restoring norms from almost a decade ago.
For instance, you don’t see as many hitters at the bottom of the lineup popping home runs to the opposite field—if at all. The big guys are still hitting home runs. (Hello, Aaron Judge.) The little guys, not so much. The home run rate of batters hitting 7–9 in the batting order has declined much more (35%) than for the guys who hit 3–6 (24%).
Welcome back to the new normal, hitters. The evidence is in with this baseball: adapt or keep shaking your head.
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