The 2009 season is just three weeks old, and already one of the dominant themes of discussion is rising home-run rates. As with many subjects this spring, the new Yankee Stadium has done much to drive the conversation and skew the numbers, with 26 home runs flying out of the yard during the Bronx Bombers’ initial six-game homestand, a result that even piqued the interest of idle meteorologists. Elsewhere, anecdotal observations of balls not particularly well struck flying over fences abound, and measure-meister Greg Rybarczyk of Hit Tracker has noted that distances are up. In a staff piece cobbled together by request from our partners at ESPN last Friday, Marc Normandin pointed out that April home-run rates were up from 1.78 per game last year to 2.15 this year. As colleague Will Carroll often asks when passing along data for examination by the more mathematically inclined, “Is this anything?”

Color me unimpressed, at least initially. While home runs are being hit with more frequency than last year, the rate at which balls are flying out of the park is well within the range we’ve seen since 1994, when home-run rates began climbing. Through play on Saturday, April 25:

Year  HR/PA   HR/TmG
2009   2.79%   1.082
2008   2.60%   1.005
2007   2.63%   1.020
2006   2.86%   1.109
2005   2.69%   1.032
2004   2.89%   1.123
2003   2.78%   1.071
2002   2.71%   1.043
2001   2.92%   1.124
2000   2.99%   1.172
1999   2.91%   1.138
1998   2.69%   1.041
1997   2.64%   1.024
1996   2.80%   1.094
1995   2.60%   1.012
1994   2.66%   1.033

I’ve expressed the per-game rate as per team per game, so the numbers are half of what Marc reported. That’s not only a matter of personal preference, it jibes with our tendency to talk of run-scoring environments in terms of a single team or, say, to normalize offensive statistics to an average of 4.5 runs per game. I’ve also reported the rate per plate appearance, which some people tend to prefer, but for simplicity’s sake, from here on I’ll just stick with my per team per game convention.

Excluding the strike-affected 1994-1995 years, the 2009 season ranks seventh out of 14 seasons no matter which rate you use. Within that context, it’s a run-of-the mill post-strike season. What’s throwing observers is that 2008 featured the lowest home-run rate of that period, and 2007 the second-lowest. The 7.7 percent increase over the previous year, were it to hold, would be the largest climb since 1998-1999 (9.3 percent), just edging out the 2005-2006 increase (7.4 percent).

Of course, we’re still dealing with a relatively small sample size here—10.6 percent of the schedule, to be exact—as we haven’t even finished the April slate in a season where Opening Day arrived late because of the World Baseball Classic. The question is whether a change observed in the cruelest month will continue to manifest itself over the course of the year. All signs point to yes:

Year    April   Change   Season   Change
1996    1.150     N/A     1.094     N/A
1997    0.944   -17.9%    1.024    -6.4%
1998    0.976     3.4%    1.041     1.7%
1999    1.143    17.1%    1.138     9.3%
2000    1.281    12.1%    1.172     3.0%
2001    1.168   - 8.8%    1.124    -4.1%
2002    0.953   -18.4%    1.043    -7.2%
2003    1.047     9.9%    1.071     2.7%
2004    1.087     3.8%    1.123     4.9%
2005    0.947   -12.9%    1.032    -8.1%
2006    1.154    21.9%    1.109     7.5%
2007    0.920   -20.3%    1.020    -8.0%
2008    0.896   - 2.6%    1.005    -1.5%
2009    1.082    20.8%    1.082     7.7%

Since the post-strike 1995 season didn’t start until April 25, we’re confined to using 1996 as a cutoff, but the effect is clear: the small samples of April (and March) games can produce swings on the order of 20 percent, and while the magnitudes of such year-to-year changes aren’t sustained over the course of the season, an increase or decrease in April home runs has always portended an annual change in the same direction without fail during this era. It’s a nearly bulletproof assertion to say that we’ll see more home runs hit in 2009 than 2008.

The next question is why. For the better part of this millennium, the conventional wisdom has held that any variation in home-run rates must be connected to the impact of steroid usage; indeed, the entirety of the post-strike period outlined above has been stamped “The Steroid Era.” The way this reasoning goes, if home-run rates are on the rise, it’s because more players are juicing, or at least more are beating baseball’s testing system with human growth hormone or undetectable designer-drug successors to “the Clear” and “the Cream.” Similarly, if home run-rates are falling, it’s because the testing seems to be working and the game has cleaned up. Particularly with annual rates falling in three out of four years since the beginning of 2005, as Major League Baseball has gained the power to suspend players for testing positive for steroids, it’s an easy explanation to invoke.

Except, of course, that this period has also been marked by some of the most drastic changes in the game since the end of the Deadball Era, featuring not only expansion but also interleague play, the redefined strike zone, the three-division format with the unbalanced schedule, and the Wild Card, and the biting with metal teeth, and… wait, scratch that last part. I first studied these factors for a chapter in Will Carroll’s The Juice, and if this story sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve covered this ground before. A building boom added a wave of new stadiums—we’re up to 25 since 1989, including two temporary facilities that came and went (Mile High and RFK), as well as the two recently opened ballparks in New York—and while the fence distances generally haven’t been shorter, intrepid reporters and analysts have revealed instances where the marked distances are less than advertised, an issue that affects even the new Yankee Stadium. Expansion has added high-altitude venues in Colorado and Arizona, and it’s possible that the configurations of other new parks, particularly given the HOK-designed tendency toward more field-level seats and shallower upper-deck inclines (as in the shiny Bronx bauble, again) may have produced unanticipated wind patterns that have increased home-run rates even as the outfield dimensions have increased.

Additionally, there is mounting evidence that the ball itself has changed over the years via the increasing size of the “pill” at its center, the introduction of synthetic yarns used to wind the ball, and the incorporation of a synthetic ring unaccounted for in Major League Baseball’s official specifications. The oft-cited University of Massachusetts-Amherst study from 2000 commissioned by Rawlings and MLB found that the manufacturing process may produce two balls that fall within the extremes of official tolerances, but differ in flight distance by 49.1 feet, despite being struck under the exact same conditions. One way or another, the ball may have been juiced.

Within the limited sample of this season’s games, balls and/or ballparks may be driving what Hit Tracker reports as an increase in both True Distance (actual home-run distance) and Standard Distance (normalized to remove the influence of wind, temperature, and altitude. On both counts, those measures are rebounding from two years of decline:

Year  Avg True Dis   Change    Avg St Dis   Change
2006     398.7        n/a         392.8      n/a
2007     396.8       -0.48%       392.7     -0.03%
2008     396.7       -0.03%       391.4     -0.33%
2009     398.1       +0.35%       396.1     +1.20%

On a percentage basis, those changes might seem trifling, but in a game of inches, they can have a considerable impact. According to Rybarczyk, the drop of eight percent in home runs from 2006 to 2007 resulted from a three-foot reduction in average fly-ball distance (not quite the same as home-run distances). Roughly speaking, Rybarczyk says that every foot of distance added increases homers by about three percent.

While we’re unlikely to get smoking gun-level proof regarding any changes in the ball, and while the early flurry of home runs and increased distances may well come out in the wash of a larger sample, we could be witnessing a shift, namely in how this subject is discussed. The absence of any new positive tests or contemporary steroid-related controversies (Alex Rodriguez‘s admission is soooo 2003) on which one can pin the home-run increase is striking. The ongoing discussion about the impact of the two New York parks, and ballparks in general, plus the entry of Rybarczyk’s distance data into the mainstream—he was on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight last week (as was our own Nate Silver)—suggests that observers are looking for explanations that refreshingly enough don’t involve speculation over which players are sticking needles into their butts. Beyond any fluctuation in home-run rates, that may be the most impressive outcome in this whole situation. While it’s premature to declare this the Post-Steroid Era, consider this one more signpost along the way.

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It's be interesting, I'll be it a massive undertaking, to look at low powered guys and see if the distance of their doubles has risen. If the sample size includes as many players who regressed overall as progressed and the couple of players who transitioned into real power hitters are removed then you might me able to isolate wind patterns as a variable. If those distances have dropped then you could make an argument that the top "x" percent, the big doubles that get hang time, are being carried out. The wind wouldn't effect line drives, so the net shift would be down.
A good article, but an unnecessary one. The ball is quite clearly juiced. I'll wait patiently for numbers after the season, and postmortem analyses. But sometimes, contrary to the BP credo, the eyes are enough. The most recent examples: Ryan Zimmerman's 2nd HR last night, Nick Johnson's 2nd deck shot, Magglio's opposite field pop up, and Miguel Olivo's first oppo field HR since 2006. And that was one night. Other examples: Pujols 441 ft shot over the weekend, and his opposite field poke last week vs. NYM, which appeared to surprise even Albert. And Alberto Callaspo's first home run in nearly 500 PA's (into the wind). Jay Bruce's first HR on Sunday. There are a couple examples every night of balls that would not be leaving the yard last year. Simple as that. The parks play a role, as does the later start and warmer weather. But HR's are going to be up in a big way this year and it's because of the ball.
Anecdotal evidence: Mike Young has 6 homers in 19 games so far. Something must be up. The Rangers as a team have 39 homers in 19 games, on a pace for 324 for the year. That might break the team record :)
I new the ball was JUICED since winter baseball, all kind of home run records were broken in the Dominican & Venezuelan leagues.
Actually, those are completely different balls. The Venezuelan Winter League uses Wilson A1010 baseballs, while the Dominican Winter League uses Rawlings minor league (ROML) balls manufactured in China rather than the Costa Rican-made balls used in MLB (ROMLB). Thanks to colleague Derek Jacques for his input here.
Further input from BP contributor Carlos Lugo, a Dominican baseball writer and broadcaster: "Derek [is] right, the Rawlings ROML is the official ball used in the DWL, the same ball Minor League Baseball uses. As far as I know the Dominican is the only winter league using the Rawlings ball. "There was a lot of controversy during the season centered around the ball because the league witnessed a historic offensive explosion, where several offensive records were broken on a team and individual level. The league run production, slugging and OBP reached historic heights, and as always, the media was looking for an explanation to all of this, never mind the fact that the offensive production decreased markedly the previous season and similar, if less extreme, offensive production occurred in the rest of the leagues. Anyway, the company that imports and provides the balls to the league, Importadora Tropical, CXA (Introca) happens to be property of the Genao family, majority owners of the Gigantes del Cibao team and Laurentino Genao is the president of both entities. People (mainly a section of the media) were suspicious because since the Gigantes play in the league's more extreme offensive park, the idea was that Genao imported livelier balls on purpose as a way to indirectly give his team an advantage, since it is built around a group of power hitters. Of course, their pitching was going to be equally affected, but that would've ruined the conspiracy theory. Obviously Genao and the league denied that it was a different ball, and insisted it was the same ball as the year before, and the same ball used in MiLB. "In the past Caribbean Series the official ball was the Rawlings BER4 manufactured in China. The Mexican Pacific League uses the Wilson A1010, and I don't know what the Puerto Ricans used."
Carlos J. Lugo
in the April vs the full season numbers, you should probably be looking at April vs. the rest of the year, not April vs. the full year, including April. If you assume that April = 1/6 of the season (it isn't, quite, but I don't want to crunch it...) you still get the result that the full season trends the same way as April (although less you'd expect, 1 month is more volatile than 5 months). Anyway, here's what I get...sorry for the lack of html skills: Year April % changeSeason season ex-april 1996 1.150 1.094 1.083 1997 0.944 -18% 1.024 1.040 -4% 1998 0.976 3% 1.041 1.054 1% 1999 1.143 17% 1.138 1.137 8% 2000 1.281 12% 1.172 1.150 1% 2001 1.168 -9% 1.124 1.115 -3% 2002 0.953 -18% 1.043 1.061 -5% 2003 1.047 10% 1.071 1.076 1% 2004 1.087 4% 1.123 1.130 5% 2005 0.947 -13% 1.032 1.049 -7% 2006 1.154 22% 1.109 1.100 5% 2007 0.920 -20% 1.020 1.040 -5% 2008 0.896 -3% 1.005 1.027 -1% 2009 1.082 21% ??
Give or take a decimal rounding, I have that same table in my spreadsheet. I chose to keep it simple and emphasize the predictive value of April rather than the result of three sets of fluctuations. What's a bit more interesting to me either way is that while April rates have frequently fallen under 1.0 homers per team per game, the rate always rises above 1.0. Obviously, cold weather plays a part, but I haven't broken things down month-by-month across the board. Yet.
that is interesting. I wonder, though, why April should be predictive. If the fluctuations in the HR rate were truly random, in 12 seasons of data, you'd expect one or more false signals from the April data. The absence of a false signal seems to suggest that, each season, there is something real that has changed - points of emphasis for the umpires on the strikezone, new park(s), or...the baseball itself.
It seems like caught stealing rates are up this year? Anyone know if that is true?
TS Eliot AND Professor Frink in one article?! awesome.