Sports / Baseball

Baseball Has More Home Runs Than Ever—And Is Better For It

The Major League Baseball (MLB) playoffs are in full swing, which means we get a full dose of meaningless baseballisms. Pitching wins championships! Bunt the runner over! Grumble grumble CLUTCH grumble FUNDAMENTALS grumble grumble. For more than a century, these dictums have outlined the way to win important baseball games; a “smart” team will string together a few hits and eke out a run or two with some well-placed sacrifices. It seems that the players didn’t get the message this time around. The postseason this year has been defined by the long ball, not small ball. You are much more likely to see a player swing out of his shoes than attempt a bunt. In fact, as of October 15th, forty-nine percent of all postseason runs have scored via the home run.

The rise of the home run is not just a playoff phenomenon; this is Major League Baseball in 2017. The regular season record for total homers was broken with two weeks left to play. The Kansas City Royals broke their franchise record for long balls two weeks before that—and they ranked only twelve out of the fifteen teams in the American League. The causes of the home run spike are numerous: a change in the baseball, a batter emphasis on fly-balls, the de-stigmatization of the strikeout, even smaller stadiums. Not everyone has welcomed the deluge of dingers, however. Indeed, the “why are there so many homers?” articles are only outnumbered by the “home runs are ruining the game” columns. Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, perhaps the most distinguished baseball writer in the country, recently bemoaned that “the game is disappearing. In its place grows a game obsessed with power.” Like many traditionalists, Verducci is disturbed by the rise of the “three true outcomes” (strikeouts, walks and homers). He pines for the days of yore, when men were men and batters focused on putting the ball in play instead of swinging for the fences.

Verducci is right; the game is changing. However, he is wrong to lament the shift. Nostalgia aside, ground balls to the second baseman are boring as hell. Home runs are fun, darn it! More than that, home runs make the game more exciting, and I have the evidence to prove it.

Comebacks and lead-changes make baseball better. This is an uncontroversial opinion; I think we all can agree that games are more dramatic when their outcome is in question. My hypothesis is that an increase in home runs leads to more back-and-forth baseball. Crucially, I mean that homers have an effect independent of run-scoring. It is not simply that more home runs mean more runs scored, leading to more frequent comebacks. I believe that dingers inherently make baseball more exciting. If home runs increase and total run scoring stays the same, I would still expect to see more lead-changes.

My reasoning is based on the randomness of the home run. Late-game situations are increasingly the domain of dominant relief pitchers. When guys are throwing one hundred miles per hour and striking out half the batters they face, it becomes difficult to string singles together. However, even against the best pitchers, one fluky swing of the bat can change a game. This was beautifully illustrated in game seven of the World Series last year. In the eighth inning, the light-hitting Rajai Davis poked a game-tying dinger off of fireballer Aroldis Chapman. The Indians were never going to string hits together with Chapman on the mound. They needed the long ball to mount any successful comeback. More home runs means more improbable (and sensational) moments like that one.

To test my hypothesis, I need a way to quantify the drama in a baseball game. Luckily, Fangraphs supplies a “meltdown” statistic that can serve as a proxy for comebacks. If a relief pitcher decreases his team’s chance of winning by at least six percent, he accrues a meltdown. This drop in win expectancy doesn’t have to come via a home run—a run doesn’t even have to score for a meltdown to occur. A pitcher could come into a tie game and allow a leadoff triple; this would lower his team’s win expectancy by more than six percent and the pitcher would receive a meltdown.

Since meltdowns explicitly measure changes in team win probability, they are the perfect statistic to measure excitement. It doesn’t matter that meltdowns only quantify the performance of relievers. Nowadays, starting pitchers rarely make it out of the sixth inning; when the game is on the line in the late innings, a relief pitcher is nearly always on the mound. If home runs make games more exciting, then there should be a relationship between dingers and meltdowns.

To perform the analysis, I recorded the homers per game, meltdowns per game, and runs per game for each year of Major League Baseball since the “wild card era” began in 1995. I then used the twenty-three years of data to run a multivariate regression. I made home runs per game the independent variable, meltdowns per game the dependant variable, and controlled for runs per game. Behold the results:

Model R Square Model Slope Significance
0.342 0.142 0.010

As it turns out, a relationship exists! Home runs are positively correlated with meltdowns and the result is statistically significant. The level of significance is 0.010, meaning that there is only a one percent chance that the relationship is a product of random chance. Furthermore, the model has an R Square of 0.342, which means that thirty-four percent of the variation in meltdowns can be explained by changes in home run rates. That is pretty darn good for a simple model with only two variables.

We can be fairly certain that there is a relationship between dingers and meltdowns, but what about the size of the effect? For each additional homer per game, the model predicts an extra 0.142 meltdowns. Homers per game have increased by 0.4 since 2014. This means that over a full season of baseball, the new home-run happy environment leads to about 275 more meltdowns. The figure isn’t monumental; an MLB season has thousands of games. However, it is certainly noteworthy. On average, it means more than one extra meltdown a night!

I am not the only one who enjoys the home run spike, but it is satisfying to back up my feelings with some cold, hard facts. The data proves that homers make the game more exciting; they create comebacks and generate back-and-forth baseball. Home runs are the great equalizer, one of MLB hitters’ few weapons against the growing army of high-velocity pitchers. Anti-dinger crusaders forget that before the home run surge, many observers worried that baseball was headed for a dead ball era. Luckily, this never became a reality and run-scoring is back to standard levels. Simply put, homers make the game better. Please shut up about bunting.