It's never been easier to touch 'em all. Just look at Tommy La Stella. On Sunday afternoon the Angels’ infielder deposited a fastball over the centerfield wall in Angel Stadium for his second dinger of the game and sixth of the season. That set a new career high for La Stella, and while six isn’t exactly a huge total, not only does the light-hitting infielder have a new personal best before April is even out, he’s also nearly equaled his pre-2019 career total of 10 in just 21 games this year.
The statement bears repeating: It's never been easier to touch 'em all.
I wrote last week about the game’s home run spike, but a look at the stats shows just how ludicrous things have gotten. Saturday’s doubleheader between the Twins and Orioles featured 17 home runs in 18 innings. Dee Gordon, who weighs as much as a folding chair, has as many home runs (two) at age 30 in 94 plate appearances as he did at age 26 in 650. Jay Bruce has twice as many home runs (nine) as singles (four). Gordon Beckham, who was effectively out of the majors the last two years and hasn’t topped nine homers in a season since 2014, is on pace to go deep 26 times.
On and on it goes. The main point is that the homers, they are a-flyin’, and no one seems to know why. Well, to be entirely accurate, it’s pretty clear why: something changed with the ball itself. But that remains (heavily supported) speculation, because the league has denied that the ball is any different.
Regardless of what Rob Manfred says, though, that’s the only logical conclusion—that or everyone is gulping down designer steroids. But as home runs get hit at a ridiculous pace, the question becomes just how far this will go, and specifically, if records will fall as the dingers keep piling up.
On its face, making predictions with early on-pace stats is a fool’s errand. But there’s a growing body of evidence that, at the extreme end of the spectrum, 2019 may create some history. So with that in mind, how likely is it that the game’s home run records will be broken this season? Here’s a quick look at four big ones to see if they can stand.
Individual Single-Season Total
Record Holder: Barry Bonds, 73 (2001)
Current Challenger: Christian Yelich, 13
I’ll be clear upfront: I don’t think Bonds’s crown will be snatched. His accomplishment was a singular and titanic achievement that required a previously unimaginable combination of power and plate discipline (and, uh, chemicals). Consider that Bonds hit 73 homers in just 664 plate appearances despite drawing a walk in 177 of those—35 intentional—and missing nine games. It’s hard to imagine any player coming close to that level.
But it’s worth noting that Yelich is right on Bonds’ pace. His two homers on Saturday against the Dodgers gave him 13 in 22 games, and he reached that mark in his 98th plate appearance. Bonds took slightly longer to get to 13: He didn’t get there until his 25th game and 102nd trip to the plate. Yelich came up empty in four plate appearances on Sunday (barely), so for all intents and purposes, the two are now neck and neck—though Yelich is on pace to finish with nearly 100 extra plate appearances, giving him that many more chances.
Yelich isn’t alone in chasing Bonds. Cody Bellinger popped his 11th homer on Sunday; teammate Joc Pederson hit his ninth and 10th on the same day; and Khris Davis, who’s led the majors in home runs last season with 48, has been waiting a while for them to join him in the Double Digit Club, having reached 10 home runs way back on April 12 (though he hasn’t hit one since). All four of those players are currently on pace to hit 68 or more homers; Yelich is the pace leader at an absolutely absurd 92. But that assumes good health and continued production (and for Pederson, an increase in plate appearances despite his platoon role that the Dodgers strictly enforce). Nor does it seem likely that Yelich’s home-run-to-fly-ball rate of 40.6% will hold up (or Bellinger’s 42.3, or Pederson’s 38.5, or Davis’ 33.3).
Still, there is a non-zero chance here, with my money on either Yelich or Bellinger, whose swing is perfectly crafted to launch homers with abandon and whose peripheral stats—namely a big drop in his swing-and-miss rate—suggest a very real and positive change to his approach. If you want a true dark-horse candidate, go with Joey Gallo, whose HR/FB ratio is an eye-popping 53.3%. If he puts the ball in the air, it usually goes stupidly far. But the closest anyone’s gotten to Bonds in the last 17 years is Giancarlo Stanton, who hit 59 homers in 2017 (a record-setting year for homers overall, again likely due to the ball), and he needed a monster second half just to get within spitting distance. My bet is that Yelich, Bellinger and the rest fall short.
Team Single-Season Total
Record Holder: 2018 Yankees, 267
Current Challenger: Mariners, 56
If Bonds’s total can’t be reached, though, the rest of these seem far more approachable, starting with the team record that fell just one season ago. Last year, the Yankees averaged 1.65 homers per game, with 12 different players finishing in double digits. Looking back at that roster, there are no real surprises in those home run totals, save Luke Voit’s 14-homer binge in a 39-game late-season cameo. Most of those dingers came from either established power threats like Stanton or Aaron Judge, or talented hitters breaking through to a new level like Didi Gregorius and Aaron Hicks. If anything, that total could have been even higher, given that Judge and Gary Sanchez both missed time with injury. Add in Yankee Stadium’s homer-friendly tendencies, and all the ingredients to this particular cake make sense.
Against mighty Seattle, though, those Yankees look like pipsqueaks. The M’s are averaging 2.24 per game, which works out to a 162-game total of 363. But Seattle doesn’t have quite as much going for it. T-Mobile Park was practically neutral last season in terms of favoring home runs and is trending toward the pitcher so far this year. The Mariners don’t and likely won’t have a hitter of Judge’s or Stanton’s power potential (depending on how you feel about beefy slugger Dan Vogelbach). Your mileage may vary on how good you think Ryon Healy, Tim Beckham and Omar Narvaez are, but they don’t look like the building blocks of a record-setting team.
Your large adult son is making Mom and Dad proud. Dan Vogelbach hits his sixth homer.pic.twitter.com/KUFfi4ctgs
— Sporting News MLB (@sn_mlb) April 20, 2019
Think about it this way: To get to 268 homers, a regular nine-man lineup has to average 30 home runs each—or you need a plethora of bench players popping 10–15 a piece to even it out. Maybe you feel comfortable with Vogelbach, Bruce, Edwin Encarnacion, Domingo Santana and Mitch Haniger reaching 30. But guys like Gordon and Mallex Smith won’t contribute meaningfully to the final total, and Narvaez, Healy and Beckham are more likely to slow down than speed up their pace. Beyond them, there’s no one on the Mariners likely to provide a Voit-style late boost.
Instead, if you want a team likely to take down the Yankees, it’s the Dodgers. Los Angeles is second in the league in homers with 44 in 24 games, or 1.83 per contest; over a full season, that’s 296. A lot of that has been Bellinger, but given how deep the lineup is, there’s a more realistic path here than there is for Seattle. There are close to a dozen players on the Dodgers you can easily see hitting 15 or more homers, and the top-end guys—Bellinger, Pederson, Max Muncy and Corey Seager—are all good bets to break 30. The way this record falls isn’t just Bellinger hitting 45 or 50; it’s having guys like Alex Verdugo hit 15–20 off the bench. Depth is the key to this record being broken, and no one has that quite like the Dodgers. I think they do it, though it’ll likely be close.
Most Allowed By One Team, Single-Season
Record Holder: 2016 Reds, 258
Current Challenger: Orioles, 401
An awful pitching staff in a hitter’s park and a tough division that’s loaded with good lineups, not to mention contending with a juiced ball? Sheesh. Maybe 401 is out of the question, but 258-plus sure isn’t. Nothing better illustrates the perfect storm of the home run spike than Baltimore’s plight: Orioles pitchers have allowed an astonishing 57 home runs in just 23 games, or 2.48 per contest. They’re 16 ahead of the next worst team, the Brewers, whose 41 in 23 games (or 1.78 per) would be the top challenger to the 2016 Reds if the O’s weren’t already so far ahead of the pack. Baltimore is already setting records, too, crushing the 1996 Tigers’ mark for most homers allowed in March and April (50)—and there’s still eight days left before May.
Even more so than the team hitting record, this record is in real danger, and for one simple reason. The team hitting record requires several players either maintaining good performances or improving. The team pitching record, though, only requires those pitchers to continue being bad, and with the rebuilding Orioles, you have a truly miserable pitching staff. Baltimore’s 6.21 ERA is the worst in the majors by half a run. Orioles pitchers are bottom five in strikeouts, top 10 in walks, and dead last in Barrels (12.4%), hard-hit rate (45.9%) and average exit velocity (90.8 mph). Crucially, O’s pitchers are also allowing the highest rate of fly balls in the league, at 28.1%, and the third-lowest ground-ball rate, at 39.5%.
— MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM (@MLBNetworkRadio) April 22, 2019
In other words: This is a pitching staff that’s getting roundly thumped. It’s also one that’s not going to improve much. Injuries, poor performance and trades are going to force the O’s to use the kinds of Quad-A arms and declining veterans conducive to more offense. The question to me isn’t whether the Orioles will break the record; it’s by how much.
League-Wide Single-Season Total
Record: 6,105 (2017)
Current Total: 862
This is a simple calculus. We’re at 862 homers this season through 24,634 plate appearances—a rate of one every 28.6 PA. At roughly 185,000 plate appearances in a given season, that puts the league in range of 6,500 homers. Keep in mind, too, that this has all happened in March and April, usually the worst months of the year weather-wise around the league and, by extension, the hardest in which to hit homers. Granted, the start to the season hasn’t particularly cold or rainy, but things will still warm up from here, and warmer weather means more home runs.
— SI MLB (@si_mlb) April 21, 2019
At this rate, you have to imagine that something would have to change for the league not to set a new record, and beyond a different ball being introduced—something that would prove for certain that the league knew its equipment was behaving differently—I’m not sure what that would be. Individual or team records are highly dependent on specific hot streaks continuing or ending. But that doesn’t affect the league as a whole. Unless everyone falls off the pace dramatically, this particular record is sure to fall.
Regardless of what happens with these records, it’s clear that, with this wave of home runs, the sport itself is fundamentally changing. The league, for various reasons, has long been trending toward a game that hinges on the Three True Outcomes—strikeouts, walks and home runs. Those are now the predominant outcomes of every plate appearance: Over a third of all trips to the plate end with one of those results. In the home run spike and guys like La Stella, you see baseball being stretched to its outer limit in that particular stat, and perhaps the beginning of a new era of play—that is, for as long as these particular balls remain.