Whether it is steroid testing, all those power arms in the bullpen, or a lower strike zone, balls just aren’t flying out of Major League Baseball stadiums like they did a decade or two ago.
Sluggers who came of age in the days of 50, 60 and 70 home-run seasons have been forced to recalibrate what is a successful power season.
And 30 is the new 40.
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” said Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, perhaps the best power-hitting prospect in the league. “I mean, I grew up watching Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs, and now guys are talking about 30’s good.”
Home runs have hit their lowest rate in more than two decades. Only 11 players reached the 30-homer mark last season, the fewest in a full season since 1992, when there were four fewer teams, and no interleague play.
The days of bulked-up sluggers like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa topping 60 home runs in a season like they did six times from 1998 to 2001 are going, going, and gone.
“I remember when guys hit 50 and 60 a year,” said Houston first baseman Chris Carter, who tied for second in the majors last season with 37 homers. “Then they stopped doing it, there were reasons for that, but I’d like to think it’s still attainable — look what Chris Davis did a couple of years ago. Why set the bar so low at 30? I’d like to think you could hit more than that.”
There are plenty of reasons for MLB’s power outage, with drug testing the main one. Testing was agreed to on a survey basis with no punishments in 2003, and penalties began the following year.
Testing has become more rigorous and penalties more harsh over the years. Amphetamines were also banned before the 2006 season, affecting everyday hitters trying to get through the grind of a 162-game season more than starting pitchers, who go every five days.
Home runs have dropped in frequency in that same time, and only Davis in 2013 and Jose Bautista in 2010 have reached 50 in the past five seasons. Davis was suspended for amphetamine use last season.
“When guys are getting off the stuff, then it kind of goes back to old-time baseball,” Toronto manager John Gibbons said.
Teams combined for just 0.86 home runs per game last season, the lowest rate in the big leagues since 1992. That is down more than 25 percent from the peak of 1.17 homers per game back in 2000, when 16 players reached the 40-homer mark.
Umpires are calling more low strikes, contributing to players over the past two seasons hitting the highest percentage of grounders on record to at least 1987.
More power arms in the bullpen also contribute. Teams regularly are stocked with relievers capable of throwing fastballs that approach, or even top, 160kph. With the stigma of striking out long gone, fewer balls than ever are being put into play. And those in play are not traveling quite as far.
“Pitching is so much better and the hitting as a whole hasn’t kept up with the pitching,” Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt said. “The defensive shifts have stopped some of the hitting. And the hitters, if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re going to keep getting what you’re getting.”
Home-run totals for the game’s biggest sluggers are going back to the level they were when Schmidt was the game’s most feared power-hitter in the 1970s and 1980s. Schmidt led the league in homers eight times on the way to hitting 548, and in only two of those seasons did he reach the 40 mark.
Nelson Cruz was the only player to hit 40 homers last season as the bar on what is considered a power season has been lowered.
For most players, even 30 seems to be too tough a mark to be considered a power hitter.
“It’s lower than that,” Toronto third baseman Josh Donaldson said. “I think 20 is the new benchmark — 30 is elite power.”
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