Feature

Knocking the ball out of the park

The Major League Baseball season starts this week, marking the beginning of what has become an annual home-run race. Why are today’s players hitting so many dingers?

What’s a dinger? It’s the same as a round-tripper, a four-bagger, a long ball, a circuit clout, a jack, a tater, a bomb, a blast, a bolt, a moon shot, and a cha-cha. These are among the various names that fans and players use to refer, with fetishistic fervor, to the act of hitting a baseball over the outfield fence—a home run.

Is it getting easier to hit them?The players are certainly making it look that way. Legendary slugger Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs stood for 34 years, and was considered unbreakable. But on Oct. 1, 1961, in what many fans considered an act of blasphemy, Roger Maris blasted his 61st home run into the right-field seats of Yankee Stadium. No one topped Maris for 37 years. Then, in 1998, both Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs passed Maris, and kept on going. Sosa hit 66, but McGwire clubbed four in the last two games to establish the new single-season record at 70. Last year, Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants vaulted past McGwire’s still new record with an astonishing 73 homers.

Why the power surge?Many suspect that Major League Baseball “juiced” the ball about a decade ago, by winding it tighter, to create more scoring. At the same time, the big leagues added more teams, diluting the quality of the pitching. Another factor is the ballparks themselves. Many of the new parks have quirky outfield dimensions, with fences closer to home plate, to promote more scoring. Bonds, for example, has taken good advantage of the 307-foot right-field fence in San Francisco’s new Pacific Bell Park. But the primary reason for the increase in home runs is that players are bigger, stronger, and more flexible than ever before.

How much bigger?Compared to their early-20th-century counterparts, today’s players are gigantic. Jimmie Foxx, who hit 58 homers in 1932, was one of the premier long-ball hitters of his day. His rippling muscles and 6-foot, 195-pound frame struck fear in the hearts of pitchers. Today Foxx would only be of average size and weight—smaller, in fact, than some shortstops and second basemen. Compare, for example, all-time home-run king Hank Aaron, who is 6 feet tall and played at 180 pounds, with Sosa, who packs 225 pounds of solid muscle on his 6-foot frame. Willie Mays, at 5-11, 180 pounds, was a runt compared to the now-retired McGwire, who as a 6-foot-5, 250-pound giant, could hit the ball into the stands with one arm.

Why the growth spurt?Modern weight-training regimens have given today’s hitters unprecedented power. As recently as the 1980s, batting coaches insisted that weight training would ruin a player’s fluid swing by making him too muscle-bound. The gym was off-limits. But in the 1990s, a few sluggers discovered that new training techniques let them add bulk and improve flexibility at the same time. McGwire began hitting 50-plus homers after he added 25 pounds of muscle. As he and other brawny hitters began hauling in $10 million a year, other players formed a line outside the weight room. “It’s not hard to figure out,” Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Carlos Delgado told Sports Illustrated. “If you hit 30 home runs, you can make $5 million, even if you strike out 200 times.” Delgado hit 39 homers last year, and this year he’ll be paid $17.2 million.

What about Bonds?He’s walking proof of the power of weight training. For the first decade of his career, Bonds played the game at 180 pounds, and averaged just under 40 homers. As his contract neared its end, Bonds began working with a personal trainer, and reported to spring training in 2000 bristling with 30 pounds of new muscle. He hit a career-best 49 homers. Bonds kept bulking up the next off-season, adding another 18 pounds. Last year, at the age of 37, nearly every time Bonds made solid contact, the ball soared over the wall.

What does it take to hit one deep?Muscle alone won’t do it, of course. Home-run hitters whip the bat through the hitting zone at great speed, but must also have extraordinary hand-eye coordination and reflexes. A major-league hitter has about a half second to react to a 90 mph fastball. Timing is key, as the ball spends only about 10 milliseconds over the plate. Due to the raised pitching mound and the pull of gravity, the ball approaches the plate at a downward angle, but the batter must swing at a slightly upward tilt. If he hits it right, the ball will leave his bat at a 35-degree angle, the ideal trajectory for a home-run ball. Today’s hitting instructors teach sluggers to swing upward to maximize home-run production.

Are just the sluggers hitting more homers? No, even the average players are hitting more. During the so-called dead-ball era (before 1920), hitters cleared the fence once every 250 at bats. When a harder, livelier ball was introduced, the frequency increased to once every 100 or so at bats, and kept rising, according to Strikethree.com. By the 1940s, players were hitting homers every 60 trips to the plate, and in the 1950s, the rate reached one in 50. With the jump in power in the 1990s, the frequency has increased to one home run every 40 at bats. That translates into one crowd-pleasing dinger for each team every game.

The price of power Babe Ruth turned the home run into baseball’s most thrilling feat, and was worshiped like a god. In 1930, when the New York Yankees paid Ruth the amazing sum of $80,000, sportswriters told Ruth he was being paid more than President Herbert Hoover. “I know,” Ruth said, “but I had a better year than Hoover.” Ruth’s feats took on such a mythical status that sluggers of later eras have been vilified for daring to depose him. In 1961, Roger Maris was booed and berated as he closed in on Ruth’s record-even by his hometown Yankee fans. As a result of the pressure and the abuse, Maris’ hair fell out, he had trouble sleeping, and he was left with a permanent bitterness. Hank Aaron didn’t fare much better when he broke another hallowed record, Ruth’s career record of 714 home runs. As he approached Ruth’s total, Aaron, an African-American, was barraged with threats and racial insults. “I still have all my hair,” a weary Aaron said that year. “But when it’s over, I’m going home to Mobile and fish for a long time.”

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