Major League Baseball’s current run-scoring environment is haven or hellscape, the preferred definition likely hinging on whether you throw a ball or swing a bat for a living.
At this point, with the season not yet halfway done, it’s simpler just to get to the absolutes:
The record for league-wide home runs will be obliterated.
At least three teams should sail past the Yankees’ record – just a year old – for most team homers in a season.
More runs will be scored per game (currently 4.8 per team) than at any time since 2007.
Four players have a strong shot to hit 50 home runs, which hasn’t happened since 2001 – when Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Luis Gonzalez and Alex Rodriguez did it.
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If you’re seeking a reason why we see things like 92 combined runs scored in the just-concluded four-game Rockies-Padres series, well, at this point just answer yes to the following:
Is the ball juiced?
Are more hitters selling out for power?
Does it make more sense to hit over exotic defensive alignments than into them?
Are power hitters better trained and instructed than ever before?
OK, you probably already knew all this. You also likely love it or loathe it, but that’s a topic for another day.
Still, it’s best to prepare yourself for what we may see into the summer and fall – baseball that is both psychedelic and paradoxical. We will see unprecedented power displays in an era when hitting, in some ways, is more difficult than ever.
Scoff if you must at the on-pace-fors, as some may yet normalize. Others will not, however.
With that, chew on these outliers who in many ways epitomize baseball as we know it:
Hunter Renfroe, 50-homer man
Sure, this is a loaded time to take a snapshot of Hunter Renfroe’s production. After all, the Padres outfielder just mashed five home runs in his past two games, at Colorado’s Coors Field, no less.
Yet, so much hay is already in the barn for a 26-year-old who always had power but was betrayed by strikeouts rates of 29% and 25% his first two full seasons. This year, he’s actually regressed – striking out 27% of the time – but hey, this is 2019, and when a cudgel of a man like Renfroe runs into one, it will go.
Padres outfielder Hunter Renfroe is on pace to top 50 home runs. (Photo: Isaiah J. Downing, USA TODAY Sports)
He is in special company – the three others on pace for 50 homers are NL MVP favorites Christian Yelich (26 homers) and Cody Bellinger (23), along with Mets rookie slugger Pete Alonso (23). The Padres haven’t had a 50-homer man since Greg Vaughn in 1998, a season that saw Mark McGwire hit 70, four hit 50 and 13 hit 40. Since the Padres’ 2001 move to Petco Park, only Adrian Gonzalez – 40 in 2009 – has eclipsed that mark.
Renfroe has been clutch – among Padres, only Eric Hosmer leads him in gross Win Probability Added, with 75 more at-bats. His weekend binge kept the Padres within shouting distance of the Rockies and other wild-card hopefuls.
Sure, the 18 men on pace to hit 40 homers likely won’t keep it up. Ketel Marte, for instance, probably won’t hit 44.
But the 1.35 homers each team slugs per game is already a 7% leap over the record-setting 2017 mark, a season that inspired significant juiced-ball agita and an MLB study that, without identifying a condemnable culprit, agreed the balls were flying farther.
And Renfroe looks very legit – a power-hitting man in just the right moment.
Riley, Alvarez: Unstoppable at 2 levels
Here’s a fun fact to stump your pals at the bar or on the world wide web: Name baseball’s 2019 home run leader.
Nope, it’s not Yelich or any of those dudes, but rather Yordan Alvarez, who has hit 27 homers this year.
OK, 23 of them were at Class AAA Round Rock (Texas), but that fact only burnishes our greater point: This is baseball, 2019, and the skill of young sluggers and the boost they get from the rabbit ball they’re hitting is almost impervious to their level.
In case you hadn’t heard, for the first time the game’s two affiliated Class AAA leagues are using the major league ball – and the results are astounding. Alvarez hit 23 homers in 56 minor league games – one every two and a half games! – and a jump to the majors has not slowed him.
He homered four times in his first five games with the Houston Astros, just the fourth player with such a power surge to start a career. Saturday’s shot traveled an estimated 439 feet.
Yordan Alvarez arrived in Houston with a bang. (Photo: Erik Williams, USA TODAY Sports)
If Alvarez’s eight days in the big leagues aren’t sufficient enough to wow you, consider Austin Riley.
The Braves’ top hitting prospect has 26 total home runs, just one behind Alvarez, but he’s already racked up 11 in the big leagues – one every 10.5 at-bats. Riley, 22, may take over as the Braves’ third baseman in 2020 but for now is learning left field on the fly in Atlanta.
Whatever. This, too, is baseball 2019: Rake first, worry about defense later.
Mariners: Dump players, hit bombs
Looking for the ultimate intersection of modern baseball? Head to Seattle, where the Mariners embody a pair of trends: They’re trying to give away all their good players – yet can’t stop hitting home runs.
The Mariners are helmed by impetuous GM Jerry Dipoto, who would trade his Whopper for your Filet-O-Fish if he thought the latter would return 1% more taste and satisfaction. In November, he determined the current group was going nowhere and shortly thereafter shipped off Robinson Cano, Jean Segura, Mike Zunino and others.
He ultimately was left holding aging, well-paid pieces in Jay Bruce and Edwin Encarnacion – who combined to slug 35 home runs for Seattle before Flag Day.
Don’t worry, they’re gone now, too.
Bruce is a Phillie and Encarnacion a Yankee – check your head in those right-field bleachers – but don’t count on the slugging to stop.
The Mariners have hit 131 home runs, second only to Minnesota’s 135, and their cast of sluggers is as curious as it is deep.
Dan Vogelbach is now their home run leader and if that name sounds vaguely familiar, it should: From 2016-2018, he failed to stick in Seattle, batting .197 with just four home runs in 127 at-bats.
Guess what he decided to do over the winter? “This offseason,” he told Fangraphs before the season began, “I made an adjustment to where my intent is to get the ball in the air more often.”
Yep, strap in for another launch angle origin story!
Vogelbach’s has nearly doubled, from 10.1% in 2018 to 20.1% in ’19, but he’s not just hitting the ball in the air – he’s hitting the heck out of it everywhere. Vogelbach has 17 homers, a .932 OPS, and hits one out every 12.4 at-bats, ranking fifth in the AL. At 26, the affable slugger may very well be an All-Star – and a very good bet to land in the Home Run Derby.
Yet there’s all sorts of weirdness in the Mariners’ strain of home run fever.
They’ve somehow got 17 home runs from the catching platoon of Omar Narvaez and Tom Murphy. Narvaez’s 10 homers are already a career high. Murphy – waived by one team in March, traded by another – has hit seven homers in 83 at-bats, nearly matching his career total of 10 in 196 ABs entering the year.
You probably don’t think Mallex Smith’s four homers are a big deal, right? Well, consider that in 2018, he homered once every 240 at-bats. This year? Once every 51.
At 31-44, the Mariners are bad, but in this offensive environment, even the cellar-dwellars can pause often and admire their handiwork.
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