On June 6, Scooter Gennett stepped up to the plate with a man on and two out against St. Louis pitcher John Brebbia. In that at bat, he slammed a ball over the right field wall, increasing Cincinnati’s lead to 13-1 over the Cardinals.
Typically, such an event wouldn’t draw that much attention. But this home run was different.
What made the blast so special was what led up to the moment. Gennett had already hit three bombs that night. With the homer off of Brebbia, he became the first player since Josh Hamilton in 2012 and 17th all-time to hit four homers in the same game.
What makes the moment even more unique is Gennett’s role on the team. The former Brewer is a utility man. Even after his special performance, he is still struggling to get regular at-bats in the Reds’ lineup.
One would think such a big night would garner more opportunities. However, his track record is mediocre, indicating that the big night was merely a fluke. Additionally, the Reds have a deep lineup.
While both the makeup of the team and Gennett himself are factors in his lack of at bats, the nature of the game plays a role, too. Home runs are not nearly the commodity they once were. In fact, they’re relatively commonplace in today’s game; as mundane as they’ve ever been.
The game has surely changed in that regard.
Back in the dead ball era, we saw teams averaging less than 0.2 homers per 9 innings. At the same time, teams were striking out fewer than three or four times per game. Today, while the strikeout numbers have more than doubled, home runs have increased by a multiple of five.
Home runs and strikeouts are not a new phenomenon. Both of those numbers have been ticking up for decades. The steroid era, Moneyball and the ever-increasing salaries were drivers to those trends. Things, however, have really bumped up in 2017. Baseball is, more than ever, an all-or-nothing affair.
Sabermetric analysis minimizes the impact of a strikeout relative to any other out. Home runs have always been sexy and have always generated big money, but with average becoming less important, batters are no longer trying to go the other way with the pitch.
The mentality of the game has changed. Hitters are, for the most part, no longer shortening their swings with two strikes. They’re no longer expanding the zone, looking to just put the ball in play, as they protect against borderline pitches down in the count. Instead, they’re constantly going up to the dish trying to pull the ball regardless of the situation. Today’s game is more about launch angle and exit velocity than hitting behind runners and manufacturing runs.
Given the new mindset, it’s no wonder we’ve reached all-time highs with 1.25 home runs and 8.21 strikeouts per game for each team.
As recently as 2014, baseball had only 0.86 homers per game. The sport had decreased in long balls in the post-steroid era. The game topped out at 1.17 homers per game in 2000 and has yet to eclipse that mark in a full season. But we’re well on our way to it in 2017. If the numbers hold, we will have increased home runs by 25 percent in two years and more than 46 percent since 2014.
So far, there are 23 Major League hitters who have already hit 15 homers, and they’re all on pace for 40 or more jacks. While injuries and slumps will play a role in parsing that number down, it still doesn’t even factor in the general increase in homers we see in the summer months nor does it include some of the more prolific hitters who will undoubtedly see their power numbers increase. For instance, both Nolan Arenado and Nelson Cruz sit at 14 homers and each have led their respective leagues in dingers.
On the strikeout side of things, pitchers are becoming more and more specialized. We now see bullpens stacked with flamethrowers. When in the past you wanted to get into a bullpen as soon as possible, now some ‘pens like the ones in Cleveland, Boston and New York are harder to hit than the arms in the rotation.
When looking for a team to back in our MLB Pick ‘Em Contests, it’s easy to see that homers and strikeouts are king. Don’t be afraid to go with a team that brings a bunch of power to the table, even if that also comes with quite a bit of swing and miss. But, at the same time, those teams that are bucking the trend may have a decided advantage over those abiding by the new norm.
Interestingly, the Red Sox are one of those teams operating a bit differently. They’re averaging 0.95 home runs per game, which ranks them at No. 28. They also have the second-fewest strikeouts, though, at 6.91 per game. The Astros offer a nice example of how home runs and strikeouts, while often correlated, are not directly related. Houston has the lowest strikeout rate in baseball at 6.85 and the second-highest home run rate at 1.54.