If you’ve been paying attention to Major League Baseball at all this year, surely you’ve latched onto one of the major developments: there have been dingers everywhere.
By dingers, I mean blasts. Smashes. Bombs. Deep flies. Big flies. Four-baggers. Some grand salamis. Long balls. Giant, glorious dongs. Home runs.
However you want to refer to them in the moment, the home run is everywhere in 2019. Jonathan Villar hit the 6,106th home run of the season, breaking the previous record (set last year, I might add) with weeks to go. Teams are demolishing home run records left and right. The home run is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, play in sports; there’s the unparalleled beauty of the crack of the bat, the wonder as the ball sails majestically through the air, and the tension built from the seed of doubt that it might drop into an outfielder’s glove, a tension released when the ball clears the fence and the celebration begins. But too much of a good thing breeds at least a little contempt—or at the very least, fatigue.
Those of you old enough have seen this before. During the late 90s and early 00s, player abuse of performance enhancing drugs changed everything about the sport. Suddenly, hallowed records that stood for years were broken, and then broken again, and then broken again. The consequences radiate to us today, as the stigma attached to the Steroid Era stars prevents has resulted in a ridiculous logjam at Hall of Fame candidates.
In other words, once the Icarus superstars of your sport wearily and repeatedly plead the fifth to members of the United States Congress about the home runs, the image was burned into the minds of fans and pundits everywhere—an image of glorious flight and a crash and burn that signified the great and terrible power of the home run.
But it is different this time around. The reason for this is twofold: the ball itself is juiced, an event clearly less morally questionable than the last time around; and player development has rightly identified the importance of sluggers and the home run. Home runs are valuable events, and you cannot hit a home run on the ground without a truly astounding amount of on-field shenanigans. That it has taken a century and a half to arrive there is an unfortunate blight on the great thinkers of baseball. You want to win, do the things that give you more of a chance to win.
All this brings us to Jorge Soler who, barring a theoretically possible but otherwise extremely unlikely power surge by Gleyber Torres or Nelson Cruz in the last two weeks of the season, will be crowned the American League’s home run king with at least 45 home runs. He might share the crown with Mike Trout if he does not hit another bomb, but he will gain a crown nonetheless.
Unfortunately, such an achievement comes just when the home run is at its lowest overall value in history. This dovetails with an overall fatigue about the home run at all. In 2014, the American League Champion Royals hit 95 home runs. Combined. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Twins have hit 287 home runs as a team this year, and the Royals—a team on pace for a second consecutive 100-loss season—have hit 156. It’s a different world, or so it seems.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it ignores where the home runs are coming from and ignores Soler’s home run brilliance. In 2014, 163 players hit at least 10 home runs in the year. In 2019, that figure is 260—and counting. However, only seven players of those 260 have hit more than 40 home runs, a number that represents less than 2.7% of all hitters with double-digit dingers.
Furthermore, it’s not as if Soler is the only one getting the juiced ball. Everyone is getting the juiced ball. But is everyone hitting 45 home runs? They are not. A juiced ball and advanced analytics make it easier to hit a home run, but it does not make it easy. Soler is hitting long balls at an extreme frequency, and he’s doing it much better than his peers.
So, yes, you may be tired of long balls. You may not be emotionally invested in Soler’s penchant for destroying baseballs and distributing souvenirs to outfield ticket holders. That’s fine. But we should at the very least marvel at what Soler is doing. The ball may have made everyone sluggers, but Soler is the best of the best.