Calling the Pen: Too much home run derby - BaltimoreBaseball.com

Baseball Essays

Calling the Pen: Too much home run derby

I loved playing home run derby as a kid. You needed only two players — the pitcher and the hitter. Anything not hit over the fence was an out, and we struck out a lot because every swing was for the fence. You needed only a Wiffle Ball with the cut-out holes on one side, and the thin yellow bat that always seemed to have a sweet spot.

Most of the games were in my backyard with a wooden fence. Crabapple trees were in right and left fields, meaning balls had to be hit deep and high to clear them — and then might find the telephone wires that stretched across the back. Straightaway center was the clearest shot, although it meant laying off inside pitches and waiting a split second longer to avoid pulling the ball into the trees. Those, too, would sometimes hit the telephone wires and bounce back into the yard for an out.

We would get lost in those games, extending their life into adulthood. Like big league pitchers, we could make the ball rise, drop and curve, and we would occasionally hit shots that took flight and seemed to defy the laws of physics.

Which might make me someone who would enjoy watching home run derby being played almost every night by the best players in the world. But its appeal is fading with every routine fly ball and one-handed swing that leaves the park. Call me a curmudgeon, but baseball’s credibility issue is messing with my love for the game.

I remember the fascination with the summer-long home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, and how their Paul Bunyan-esque feats went beyond baseball’s borders in terms of interest. And then Barry Bonds bested them both, leaving Babe Ruth and Roger Maris in the dust of history books. Many cried foul, and not just the purists. Performance-enhancing drugs had altered the game and the playing field. Pitchers were using them, too, in an effort to keep up in the arms’ race.

Baseball identified and punished a number of those who had cheated. Their historic feats are tainted, their Hall of Fame future in doubt.

But the game has been altered again, and this time the juice appears to be in the baseball. And no one has done anything to stop the number of records being set.

At the All-Star break, The New York Times’ Tyler Kepner wrote: “Major leaguers — who are subjected to strict in-season and off-season testing for performance-enhancing drugs — are on a pace to hit more than 6,600 home runs this season, which would obliterate the record 6,105, set in 2017. Four of the top five home run seasons in history have occurred in the last four seasons. Pitchers are striking hitters out in record numbers, too. But they want answers about the ball they’re using to do it.”

Baseball has an integrity problem that has been ignored by the stewards of the sport. The baseball is different, and so is the game. It is mirroring home run derby — lots of home runs and lots of strikeouts. There might be entertainment value in the home run derby at the All-Star Game, but not so much night after night.

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In Kepner’s story, Tampa Bay right-hander Charlie Morton said: “If the ball’s different, and intentionally different, I guess the one thing I would ask is just some transparency. If the league is trying to do something different and get a different result with balls in play, I think for history’s sake and for the integrity of the game that there would be transparency.”

Home run hitters have always held a special place in the game. The Babe changed it when he began hitting more home runs than entire teams in the 1920s. His impact on the game and pop culture is described in beautiful detail in Jane Leavy’s book, “The Big Fella.”

Mickey Mantle was known for his country boy strength. Hank Aaron had a smooth-as-silk swing. Frank Robinson had his Triple Crown season, including 49 home runs, playing in Memorial Stadium. They earned their home runs and their place in the game as sluggers.

But now, everyone is doing it. The ballparks are smaller, the baseball is livelier, the emphasis is on launch angles, velocity and swinging hard on every pitch. Pitchers seem to be enamored with velocity, too, more so than location and command.

Analytics are playing a role in the changes to today’s game. There is more information for hitters and pitchers to process. More shifts. More players looking inside their caps at computer printouts. It’s information teams will continue to use in search of an edge.

Meanwhile, gifted contact hitters such as Tony Gwynn appear to be part of baseball’s past. Gwynn seemed to be able to hit the ball where he wanted, rendering a shift useless. Many of today’s hitters often don’t see the other side of the field, just the other side of the fence.

And although there might not be another Gwynn among them, today’s young hitters are talented, and strong. Watching Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette attack the ball with ferocity is fun. Watching Aaron Judge combine power with grace is a thing of beauty. Watching Cody Bellinger uncoil, Mike Trout complement brute strength with athleticism and Christian Yelich’s all-around excellence keeps us coming back for more.

But when the Yankees are leaving the park five and six times a night, it doesn’t feel right. Not because it’s the Yankees. And not because it’s against the Orioles’ inferior pitching staff. But because baseball is supposed to be more than just hitting home runs.

The record for home runs in a season was set last year by the Yankees, who hit 267. The Yankees are among four teams that will surpass that mark this season if homers continue to be hit at the same pace.

Today’s players are strong enough and good enough not to need help from baseballs that have cheapened the home run, and the game. Baseball is trying to find ways to appeal to more fans, to quicken the pace so that younger fans won’t tune out so quickly.

Maybe it’s bought into the Marvel Universe, establishing superheroes through home run power. Tony used technology, Thor had his hammer, Captain America his shield.

Baseball’s brightest young players can shine on their own. Take the Titleist out of play. Level the playing field more for pitchers and hitters. It will be a better game.

Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] for consideration.

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. CalsPals

    August 31, 2019 at 7:31 am

    Jack, awesome article, all I can really say is “Amen”, sadly…go O’s…

    • Jack Gibbons

      August 31, 2019 at 12:30 pm

      Thanks, CalsPals. Santander appears to be another one of those young players with outstanding promise and strength.

  2. Boog Robinson Robinson

    August 31, 2019 at 9:10 am

    Spot on Mr. Gibbons, but I don’t believe it’s only altered baseballs. It’s been going on for years. Calling the strike zone as it’s defined in the rule book would go a very long way towards leveling the playing field between pitcher and batter.

    • Jack Gibbons

      August 31, 2019 at 12:35 pm

      Excellent point, Boog, as always. When I was thinking about all the upper-cut swings in the game, the level swing of Merv Rettenmund game to mind. He loved to hit the ball back through the middle and to all fields but Earl Weaver thought he should be pulling the ball more to hit more home runs. Weaver appreciated home runs, especially with men on base.

  3. SpinMaster

    August 31, 2019 at 10:07 am

    Is it just me or does this make the steroid era of baseball a moot point. If players were punished (no HOF induction) because they used, or were allegedly using steroids and broke the home run records of our past heroes, then why are today’s home run hitters put up on a pedestal? Am I missing the point? Whether the players altered their physique or the commissioner altered the baseball, what does this say about the game?

    • cedar

      August 31, 2019 at 11:05 am

      I think you make an excellent point SpinMaster. At some point, this current era will equal or surpass what the steroid era brought to baseball. I believe it’s then that we’ll see some of those steroid players enter the hall.

      I’m with Jack as well. I miss the attention to the tiny details of game play when you are watching a low scoring game. Analytics, while fascinating are directly contributing to the demise. There is a great article about Houston’s pitching and the preference to throw hard and fast every time and all the time. They’re analytics show that it’s become a game of strikeouts versus homers.

      • Jack Gibbons

        August 31, 2019 at 12:54 pm

        Cedar, You raise an interesting point about the Hall of Fame prospects of those who were caught cheating if today’s numbers continue to trend in the direction they’re heading. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but if baseball doesn’t address it’s lively ball era, its defense will grow weaker with each new record.

    • Camden Brooks

      August 31, 2019 at 12:19 pm

      Spin, the difference is that every player uses the same baseball. Bonds and McGwire used PED’s, while Ripken and Puckett did not.

      • Skyking

        September 1, 2019 at 11:50 am

        Question – obviously something going on with all these HRs, combination of players trying more to hit Homer’s (who protects plate and makes contact with two strikes – most rather walk back with K) but I believe also juiced ball. But, with juiced ball wouldn’t all hit balls have increased velocity? Grounders as well as flies? If Yes, then shouldn’t averages be up also – more hot grounders between fielders. Are league batting averages up?

    • Jack Gibbons

      August 31, 2019 at 12:42 pm

      SpinMaster, there were a lot of players who didn’t cheat and resented those who did to gain an advantage. Everyone is using the same baseball. To your point, though, it’s not OK for baseball to play with the game’s history to appeal to an audience that loves how hard and how far baseballs can be hit.

  4. willmiranda

    August 31, 2019 at 1:30 pm

    Sorry to be off topic, but this seemed like the only place to celebrate a great O’s win
    over the Royals. Two more wins and we tie them. To address the topic, I see that the O’s
    can hit a homers and steal home in the same game, with good pitching to boot. Oh, and a great
    defensive play by Stevie.

  5. Jack Gibbons

    September 5, 2019 at 12:45 pm

    Reader Ivan wanted to share a poem:

    The Lost Game
    I miss the baseball of years gone by
    A run-batted-in by sacrifice fly
    There are too many home runs hit today
    The balls have been juiced, so they say
    Fans in the stands maimed by juiced balls
    If that ain’t something that appalls
    There are too many high-scoring games
    Designated hitters are also to blame
    Steroids, hormones, supplements
    These aren’t baseball’s accoutrements
    Pitchers bat too, that’s real baseball
    The game no longer poetical

  6. Camden Bird

    September 6, 2019 at 3:30 am

    I’m a ’90s kid who really “came of age” as a baseball fan in 1998, and a part of me does have a warm and fuzzy nostalgic feeling about the Steroid Era because that is the era in which I grew up. I was a huge Sosa and A-Rod fan (pre-Yankees), and I was also a big McGwire fan. That said, I was heartbroken when I learned that many of my favorite players as a kid were using drugs to accomplish their feats. Even as a teen I knew, “this isn’t right.” So you can imagine my disdain for how the game is played today.

    Jack, I agree with you 200%. In fact, I was just thinking last night how all three of my favorite sports are totally different today than they were even ten years ago. The NFL started getting soft at the beginning of Goodell’s tenure around 2007. The passing numbers are a joke and defense is practically not allowed anymore. The NBA has likewise gone soft (remember how physical it was from the 1950s to the 1990s?) The play is so unbelievably sloppy and everyone is obsessed with the 3-pointer.

    Sadly, MLB is arguably the worst of them all. Like you said, everything is either a strikeout or a homer. I can’t stand it. The shift…a massive overload of analytics…the “opener”…a pitcher who will get you 6 IP is now considered “durable”…launch angles, exit velocity… timers…no more blocking the plate… new rules… the list goes on and on.

    That moron Rob Manfred (*spit*) is doing everything he can to attract or maintain a young audience; but in so doing, he is alienating many of his older fans. Manfred (*spit*) and MLB thinks that what fans want the most is a 90 minute to 2 hour game chock full of home runs and strikeouts. It’s not. Because it is such an overabundance of both, watching a game has become incredibly stale and “ho hum”. Like you said, everyone is doing it now, so what’s so special about it? They are literally ruining the game and its history. I truly wish that MLB would get a new commissioner who genuinely loves the game, its history, and its integrity; not someone who is hell-bent on “revolutionizing” the game and who cares only about the almighty dollar. I want someone more traditional, and I wish that GM’s around the league would go back to that too.

    While I am a ’90s kid and a ’00s teen, and I loved those years growing up, I really wish I could have witnessed baseball from the 1920s through the 1970s when baseball was BASEBALL. Heck, I’d even love to watch the Dead Ball Era, too.

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