CLEVELAND — Major League Baseball is on pace for 6,668 home runs, a number that would shred the record total of 6,105 from 2017, raising the question as to which factor is more responsible: a juiced baseball or juiced hitters?
Most concede that the ball being used this season in the majors and Triple A — but not in lower levels of the minors — is harder and carries farther. As always, fewer are willing to talk about the possibility that an increasing number of hitters are using banned substances. Testosterone, virtually undetectable because it leaves the body so rapidly, is the latest rage, according to some in the industry who aren’t interested in going on the record.
Former major leaguer David Segui (1990-2004) told USA Today’s Bob Nightengale: “I would say 60 percent of the guys today, easily, are doing stuff. It reminds me of our era when everybody talked about the balls being juiced. The balls weren’t juiced, the players were juiced. Just like now ... the ball is hot, but come on, you think these home runs are just because of the balls?”
At the other end of the spectrum, Red Sox designated hitter J.D. Martinez, hitting fifth on American League manager Alex Cora’s lineup card for Tuesday’s All-Star Game at Progressive Field and joined on the roster by teammates Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, offered his theory for increased home run totals and it had nothing to do with juiced hitters or baseballs.
“I have my own opinion on it,” Martinez said. “I think hitters are more prepared than they’ve ever been. I think hitters have more of an idea of what they’re going to do, with hitting the ball in the air more.”
And pitchers enter the equation as well, Martinez said.
“It’s a power-arm league,” Martinez said. “It’s either a walk or a strikeout. It’s stuff over command, so I think you see a lot more mistakes over the plate and that, combined with the velocity and trying to hit balls in the air, it’s a recipe for home runs.”
Martinez has been around long enough to remember when the approach of the hitters and pitchers was different from now.
“In years past, it was more of a command and location and movement type stuff and more of a weak-contact league,” he said. “Now it’s everybody wants strikeouts. The Dodgers started doing it. Tampa started doing it. Houston started doing it. Everybody has had success and it’s a monkey-see, monkey-do league. It’s crazy. You look at a bullpen now vs. a bullpen back then and you feel like you face the same pitchers every team you play now. OK, this guy throws a four-seam (fastball) and a breaking ball. OK, great. Go to the next team, same thing, and same thing again.”
Martinez said he thinks the home run pendulum will swing back.
“I think it comes in waves,” he said. “Pitching evolves, hitting catches up. We’re at that point where hitting caught up.”
American League starting pitcher Justin Verlander, an outspoken critic of the harder baseball, said he too thinks such things go in cycles and eventually will come back in the direction of pitchers.