The juiced ball had so much potential. We’ve seen teams collectively shatter their franchise and cumulative home run records, Justin Verlander halted from having an otherwise world-beating season, and safe leads disappear in a flash, often more than once per game.
Yet, for all the balls that are leaving the parks, Pete Alonso will likely be the home-run champion this year, sitting at 51 dingers entering the last weekend of the season. He might even run in to one or two more against the Braves. Either way, he’ll end the season with an impressive, but not historic, home-run total.
And that’s been the really weird thing about the juiced ball, hasn’t it? Team records are crumbling, everyone has 20 long balls, but the all time single season records are pretty secure:
Nobody will come close to Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, or Maris this year, meaning the most prestigious record in the game is safe until at least 2020. And that’s what I want to complain about.
We could have seen a chase for the home-run title in 2019, and it could have been contained within one team. All the elements were there: a ball flying like never before, a shift in offensive philosophy, and the Yankees having the two best power hitters in baseball on the same team. The only trouble was the injury bug.
As depicted in the chart above, the closest that anyone has come to Bonds’ 73 in 2001 was Giancarlo Stanton’s 59 home run, 2017 MVP season. That was also the last time the ball was behaving similarly to this season, so even though Stanton is arguably the strongest man in the game, it’s totally possible even he needed some help to approach the lofty 60-homer season.
His chief rival for the title of Baseball’s Strongest Man is his teammate Aaron Judge, who of course hit 52 home runs in 2017—a season where he struggled with a shoulder injury in the second half that sapped some of his production in the dog days of August. He had an outside shot at the AL home-run record before the shoulder problems, and should have had a run at Maris again this year.
Of course, the two best power hitters in baseball have combined for just 115 games this year, and just 28 home runs. Judge especially looks a lot like his 2017 self from a batted ball perspective, with 34.7% of his fly balls going for home runs. In his rookie season that figure was just over 35%, showing how much real power he has and how much he can benefit from a special ball in a full season.
It’s a little early to evaluate Stanton through the same lens, as batted ball data stabilizes north of 60 plate appearances, and he’s at exactly 60 at time of writing. His 2017 HR/FB rate was 34.3%, though, and if we assume that the ball is behaving the same way as it did that season, it’s not hard to then extrapolate that we may have seen that again this year.
The single-season HR record is the most fun chase you can see, since every single plate appearance holds potential. Regardless of your feelings about three true outcomes in baseball, you were giddy watching Judge hit a dinger seemingly every other day in 2017. No matter how you felt about the steroid era, following McGwire/Sosa in 1998 was a blast.
Judge and Stanton spending so much time on the IL this year robbed us of a chance at a real home-run chase. Even though this team is super successful and super fun, we did lose out on perhaps an even more thrilling season.