Over at FiveThirtyEight, Ben Lindbergh and Rob Arthur add juice — heh — to the theory that Major League Baseball’s actual baseballs are contributing to the surge in home runs.
At some point this season, you’ve probably noticed: We haven’t just gone back to those homer-happy days of 1999 and 2000 — we’ve surpassed them.
In 2016, the typical major league plate appearance is more likely to result in a homer than ever before. And this onslaught happened quickly: Home runs on contact—the rate at which non-strikeout at-bats produce dingers — is up 35 percent compared with 2014, which has helped drive a scoring increase of 0.41 runs per team, per game.
Naturally, many fans are wondering why. (The rest have already decided it’s steroids.) And while we can’t quite settle the speculation, we can offer the strongest statistical evidence yet that it isn’t because of the batters, or the pitchers, or the ballparks, or even performance-enhancing drugs. Instead, the numbers suggest the ball itself is to blame.
Lindbergh and Arthur tried to solve the problem through lab testing, but they didn’t have the resources to generate a sample that erases the effects of variability between baseballs from the same manufacturer. So they turned their attention to Triple-A baseball, which has some strange development by itself. Traditionally, home runs rates between the leagues followed the same path, although MLB hitters socked more dingers. Now, the home-run rates are going in different directions, and considering MLB balls are manufactured in Costa Rica while all other ones come from China, it’s as good a place to start as any.
Moreover, the hitters who jump from Triple-A over this period have seen more home-run success in the majors:
For both the league-switchers and the individual matchups, we found that the level at which a player hit was a big factor in determining whether his batted balls would become home runs. In both cases, hitters knocked roughly 30 percent more balls out of the park in the majors than expected. And if we focus the model solely on homers as a percentage of fly-ball contact — which is also at an all-time high in the majors — the results stay the same.
At this point, I started thinking, "Oh, Tim Anderson." Anderson’s already hit more homers in Chicago (five) than Charlotte (four) despite 100 fewer plate appearance. And unlike somebody like Todd Frazier, who has consolidated all his extra-base power into homers, Anderson’s one shy of his Triple-A totals in doubles (nine) and triples (one), too.
This is not to say all of Anderson’s power is a mirage. As his 442-foot blast on Monday showed, he can hit the tar out of the ball. This factor is just something to keep in the back of your mind as we figure out Anderson’s true ceiling. If there is a livelier ball and it’s here to stay, maybe Anderson’s increased power will hang around, too. If there’s bound to be some normalization, then this particular factor is well-timed, as Anderson's surprising power makes up for his non-surprising walk-to-strikeout ratio.
Also, this makes Jose Abreu’s 19-homer pace even sadder.
Sadder still, the White Sox open up a four-game series against Detroit, and Alex Avila will probably not be joining them at any point.
Down in Charlotte, Avila removed himself from Tuesday’s game, which was the second of his rehab stint. He did not play Wednesday and the Sox are expected to update his status Thursday.
The good news? Kevan Smith looks relatively healthy by comparison. After playing just one game over 2½ months due to a back injury, Smith returned to Charlotte and has played six straight games, including four behind the plate. He’s 5-for-21 with three doubles, a homer, two walks and seven strikeouts over this time, which isn’t bad relative to the rust.
Smith’s health doesn’t necessarily change the equation in Chicago, because Dioner Navarro has played all but one game since Omar Narvaez joined him, even though he hasn’t been deserving of the playing time. Smith is a better prospect than Narvaez, but not necessarily when it comes to catching MLB pitchers, especially after the layoff. It just makes a catastrophic catching situation a little less dire underneath.