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Old questions remain as baseball hits new record for home runs

Last night saw the MLB season top 5,694 home runs, surpassing the steroid era mark that had stood since 2000.

Fenway Park in Boston.
Fenway Park in Boston.
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

KANSAS CITY ROYALS outfielder Alex Gordon carved out a piece of baseball history last night after belting the 5,694th home run of the Major League Baseball season.

Gordon’s towering hit in Toronto broke the previous record for home runs in a single season, set way back in 2000 in the drug-tainted heart of baseball’s Steroid Era.

The record reflects a startling uptick in home runs in recent years. In 2014, there were only 4,186 home runs hit — meaning 2017 has witnessed a 47% increase in homers this year and Major League Baseball has been struggling to explain the surge.

Some players have suggested that the answer lies in the balls being used, which some argue are smaller because the seams are lower, meaning there is less air resistance. MLB rejects that theory however, insisting that no alterations have been made.

Source: MLB/YouTube

Another theory is that teams are benefiting from advances in technology. MLB’s Statcast tool provides teams with a highly accurate, automated system that allows players to analyse technique.

The Pitchf/x system also means teams can measure trajectory, speed, break and location of a pitched ball, making it easier to anticipate where a pitcher may choose to throw.

Yet another theory argues that the increase in home runs can be attributed to the declining stigma attached to striking out. The average number of strikeouts per game has climbed steadily since 2005, from 6.3 to the current level of 8.25.

If more players are willing to take a swing irrespective of whether they hit or miss, the theory goes, there is a likelihood more balls will be hit.

The most sinister theory put forward meanwhile is that baseball is in the grip of a new Steroid Era, and that performance enhancing drugs may be behind the spike in homers.

Undermining that hypothesis is the fact that players are now being tested more widely than ever before, with the number of urine and blood tests doubling from 5,136 in 2012 to more than 11,000 in 2017.

“I think the game ebbs and flows,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said last month when asked about the home run bonanza.

“We’re in a period where we have bigger, stronger, faster athletes, like all sports. You think about it — everybody has bigger, stronger, faster athletes.

“I don’t think it’s surprising that given that development, there’s an emphasis on power pitching, which produces strikeouts, and there’s an emphasis on power hitting, which gives you a lot of home runs and less balls in play.

Minnesota at Kansas City Alex Gordon put the 2017 season into the all-time record books. Source: John Sleezer

“I think that someone will figure out a theory which they use to win with a little different approach to the game, and I suspect that the game will adjust once that happens.”

As of Monday, 708 home runs had been scored by rookies, with New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge leading the way with 44. Judge is five short of Mark McGwire’s record of 49 in a rookie season set in 1987.

The Los Angeles’ Dodgers Cody Bellinger has 38, tied for the third most by a rookie in MLB history.

Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton leads the major leagues this season with 55 home runs but is well adrift of the single season home run record, the 71 smacked by Barry Bonds in 2001.

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