Michael Bourn might be out of baseball by this time next season. He's owed an eight-figure salary through the end of next year, but after several seasons of fighting to stay relevant despite below-average offense and fading speed and defense, Bourn has cratered this year. He's hitting .228/.299/.274, and in 443 plate appearances, he's yet to hit a home run. If it weren't for the bad contract that allowed the Braves to clear some 2017 salary in a trade, and for the Braves' anti-competitive attitude about these final two months, Bourn would probably be a very well-paid fan right now.
Bourn isn't the only player to take up significant playing time this season and not hit a home run. He's just the worst. Two other players—Reds catcher Brayan Pena and A's infielder Eric Sogard—also have zero homers and at least 300 plate appearances on the year. They've each controlled the strike zone better than Bourn has, and each has a slightly more valuable defensive profile, but none has found the power to clear the wall even once this year, a season otherwise notable for home runs. Replete with them, really.
Not even playing every inning of the Braves' remaining games could quite get Bourn onto the list of batting-title qualifiers this season, and Pena and Sogard both trail even Bourn by a substantial margin in terms of playing time. That means that 2015 will be the third consecutive season in which no batter qualified for the title without cracking at least one homer. It might be, though it's very hard to tell with any certainty, that the zero-homer regular is now an extinct species.
Let's make this clear: A zero-homer regular is fundamentally distinguishable from a one-homer regular. That might sound silly to the statistics-minded, but I believe it's true. While zero-homer seasons often are the result of fluke or environment or not being allowed to complete the season, there is a subspecies of big-league batter (or there was one, at least) that actually lacks the power to hit a home run. The difference can sometimes be of kind, not of degree.
This phenomenon—going three years without a regular hitter failing to homer—is not, in itself, new, nor is it sufficient evidence that players of this type have permanently disappeared. No player qualified for the batting title with zero homers from 2002 to 2004, nor from 1996 to 1998. Each time, someone did eventually turn the trick again, so the recent history of the Fraternity of the Powerless is a spotty but resilient one. There always seems to be a guy buzzing on the horizon, or one seeing his power evaporate even as he clings to a regular job.
That said, there are a handful of good reasons to believe that we'll never see a player hit zero homers in a full campaign again. Here they are:
Physical Factors: The percentage of basketball players in the NBA who can dunk is perpetually, steadily rising, and one day (if we haven't already seen that day), it will be 100 percent. That's not because the dunk is essential to the game. It's because the rim stays 10 feet off the ground, and the players keep getting bigger and jumping higher. The fences aren't moving out (they only ever move in, it seems), and the players taking aim at them are steadily more likely to hit the ball to (and over) those fences.
Part of that is evolution in the way we select players. Salaries rise constantly in all the major pro sports, ensuring that the incentives for any young person with exceptional physical gifts to pursue a career in sports remain sky-high. As teams get richer, they can pay more and more to hire good scouts and coaches, who make players better every day. They find and implement new strategies that increase the efficiency of player selection. Sports medicine improves rapidly. Ditto for nutrition, especially for players who reach the pinnacle of the sport and can afford the best in that regard. Ditto all of that for equipment.
Competitive Factors: Sabermetrics has taught us that power is important, although it can be overrated. Guys with empty batting averages are more easily spotted than they once were. Similarly, stats have proved that striking out a lot is not a death knell for a player's profile, and that has encouraged the development of increasingly trading power for contact. Those are minor issues, though. The larger ones have to do with the changes in game play MLB has undergone over the past two decades.
The strike zone has measurably grown since the start of the 2007 season, when PITCHf/x became a fixture in ballparks throughout MLB. That might seem unrelated to the home run thing; it isn't. Players whose power verges on nonexistence rely on winning the battle for the zone more than those who can drive the ball, so a growing zone disproportionately hurts the little guys, and makes those who have power more likely to stick over time.
The global strikeout rate is starting to level out, but it's doing so on the high side of 20 percent. When a fifth of all plate appearances end in a strikeout, fielders become less important than ever. With that in mind, teams are selecting their up-the-middle defensive players for their ability to hit a little, figuring most defensive shortcomings can be minimized through shifting, and the cost of whatever shortcomings remain will be limited by the dearth of plays on which those shortcomings matter.
With pitchers pounding the strike zone and missing so many bats, the league has a global OBP problem. Offense grows out of power, as much as ever, in today's game.
Ben Revere hit his first home run over 1,500 plate appearances into his MLB career. He puts the bat on the ball constantly, runs well, steals bases efficiently, and plays fine defense in the outfield, but once his weak throwing arm threatened to push him to left field, his career was in serious trouble. He has four homers now, in his last 1,000-plus PA. He's cracked a healthy 48 extra-base hits since the start of 2014, three more than he hit in his entire career before that season. A species can't evolve within a generation, but Revere mutated, metamorphosed. He stands, for now, as the last of the zero-homer regulars, but has proved himself malleable and adaptive enough to live on as a member of Modern Baseball. There will probably be another Revere, or Bourn, or Sogard, some day, but if baseball keeps changing the way it has throughout my lifetime, there just might not be.
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