Long Distance Connections

Baseball has returned from its All-Star break, and that surely means a return to the barrage of home runs we’ve been seeing lately.

In case you hadn’t noticed, home runs are way up in MLB, and that’s a trend that’s been growing over the last few years. If you look at the league-wide stats from 2014, 2015, and 2016, you can see the growth; those stats for this year are only partial, of course, but with 3111 home runs so far, in just slightly more than half the games played, it’s clear that ’16 will almost certainly surpass last year’s prodigious home run total of 4909 by a long distance.

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Giancarlo Stanton: a beast with the bat, but not the only one in MLB.

Naturally, your humble correspondent is not the first to notice this trend. The venerable New York Times weighed in on this very topic a few days ago, but they were late to the game; both The Sporting News and The Washington Post examined this topic at the very beginning of this season.

I suggest you read each of the articles cited above. They’re all good primers on what’s going on in baseball that has caused this boom in bats and balls going boom. They get, I believe, most of the answers right as to why, in an era when pitching had once again become dominant, balls suddenly started flying out of the parks again.

However, for all their intelligent analysis and correct reasoning, each of the reports listed above misses one rather obvious contributor to the upswing in home runs in MLB: the NBA, and specifically the NBA’s recent trend in favor of the 3-point shot.

The DFR: BaseballBack in the day, many baseball players tended to be rigidly exclusive to their sport. Guys would eat, sleep, and live baseball, all day, every day–when they weren’t working their off-season jobs as plumbers, farmers, or car salesmen. Some players may have paid nominal attention to football or basketball when they weren’t out on the diamond, but there seemed to be far less cross-pollination in those earlier times.

Those days are gone now. The world of professional sports has grown so much, and become so all-encompassing for those whose lives are intertwined with it, that all major sports figures today tend to be keenly aware of what those other guys are doing. Many players in the NFL and MLB are heavy-duty fans of NASCAR (and, among the real knuckleheads, WWE); many basketball players closely follow football and baseball; and almost all pro athletes are into golf to some extent.

“…if you’re living in an era where heavy duty scoring from long range is part of the zeitgeist, it’s easy to imagine guys picking up on that vibe and swinging more for the fences…”

Given the impact that Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors have had, both within and beyond the NBA, with their record-breaking seasons these last two years, it’s easy to imagine other pro athletes taking notice. And it’s very, very easy to believe that baseball players–hitters in particular–noticed something about the current trend within the NBA and realized it had applicability to their own endeavors on the diamond.

Consider: the NBA has seen a huge upsurge in the number of 3-pointers taken and made in the last several years. Why? It’s called “math.” A number of not-particularly-ingenious hoopsters came to the realization that shooting 33% from 3-point range is, for all practical purposes, identical to making 50% of shots from 2-point range. (Making half of a hundred shots from close in will gain you 100 points, while a third of a hundred shots from behind the arc will net you only 99 points; but for the most part, on multiples of 3, you’ll get identical results with 50% from 2 and 33% from 3.) Hence, if you can do just a little better than 33% from behind the line–and, of course Curry, Klay Thompson, et. al., do a lot better than 33%–you’re ahead of the game if you just keep hoisting and making threes.

Fair enough. What does that have to do with baseball?

Simply this: during the offensive joyride that was MLB in the late ’90s and the ’00s–as in the Aughts, the first decade of this century, not Celtics legend Robert Parish–the mission for the major league batter was straightforward: just go up to the plate, get a hit (which was relatively easy back then) and keep the line moving. Home runs came as a regular part of the assault, of course, but most hitters had little reason to go up there trying to knock one out.

Then came the pitching revival that started around the end of the last decade. Suddenly, ballparks were no longer gigantic pinball machines; the ball was not jumping around all over the place. Instead, batter after batter was getting mowed down by a new generation of arm talent. Clayton Kershaw. Chris Sale. Justin Verlander. David Price. Johnny Cueto. And that’s just to name some of the starters. New and better relievers showed up, too. Stringing together hit after hit after hit became a more difficult proposition for even the most talented lineup.

The new era of pitching dominance showed in the stats. Total number of runs scored across MLB in 2004: 23,376. In 2014: 19,761. That’s a profound decrease in runs scored. Indeed, most offensive categories saw the same steep declines from the ’04 heyday to a decade later.

So what do you do as a ballclub when your ‘O’ turns into ‘No’? You have to make your few, scattered hits count–and no hit counts more than one where the ball soars over the fence.

It’s a similar calculus to the NBA’s new equation. You get more bang for your buck/bomb/bash if you hit from long distance, in both sports. So, obviously, you should try to hit more from long distance–in basketball and especially in baseball, where your hits are going to be fewer and further between. If you’re only going to get five hits in a game, instead of fifteen, you’re a lot better off if three of those five hits clear the fence.

Did baseball players make that specific calculation after observing the trend in the NBA? Probably not–at least not consciously. But if you’re living in an era where heavy-duty scoring from long range is part of the zeitgeist, it’s easy to imagine guys picking up on that vibe and swinging more for the fences than players have in the past. And, since that hitting strategy dovetails with other suggested reasons for the home run surge–more emphasis on power coming up from the minors, a greater acceptance of strikeouts as the cost for more power hitting, more power arms throwing harder pitches that fly further upon solid contact, etc.–it makes sense that the NBA influence, however subliminal, would be one last piece of the puzzle explaining why home runs have exploded upward and outward in the last two years.

In the end, MLB’s home run surge may just be yet another piece of evidence that everything’s connected. Dialing long distance, whether it’s the crack of the bat or the swish of the ball going through the net, is all the rage these days. The message has spread across the sports landscape: it’s bombs away for the foreseeable future. And our job as fans? Sit back and watch the fireworks.


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