You might have heard that home runs are back in a big way across Major League Baseball. As of last night, there had been 5,272 home runs hit in 2016, the most since the 2006 season which is commonly dates as the end of "Steroid Era" of high offensive output and prodigious home runs totals. But that's not the full story, since just over 7% of the season remains. If the same pace of home runs per game is maintained, MLB will total around 5,660 home runs in 2016, within spitting distance of the all-time high of 5,692 in the 2000 season.
This is pretty remarkable on its own, even if it's due to a juiced ball, but it struck me last night that there's something even more striking. The league leader in home runs is Mark Trumbo at 43, so there's a very good chance the leader will fall short of 50 home runs. Certainly still very impressive, but nothing that historically remarkable, and well off the single season totals that were being posted the last time this many balls were flying out of the park. This dichotomy intrigued me, so I dug a little further. But first, a little recent history of home runs in MLB.
Throughout the 1980s, annual MLB home runs totals were pretty consistent in a range from 3,000 to 3,500. There was run-up from 1985-87, but then home runs returned to their familiar level until the Expansion year of 1993. In 1993, there were 4,029 home runs, an increase of over 1000 from 1992's 3,038. While two more teams, the 33% increase in home runs far outpaced the 8% increase in games. Whatever the reason - juiced ball, watered down pitching, steroids, smaller parks, a combination - baseball's offensive era was officially underway.
The 3,306 home runs in 1994 was back down, but in a strike shortened season. Pro-rated to a full season, there would have been almost 4,700 home runs, another huge increase. 1995 dipped slightly, but 1996 brought a new all-time high of 4,962. The most recent Expansion year of 1998 broke through the 5,000 mark, albeit with about 7% more games so it was in line with 1997 (the last year with less than 5,000 home runs until 2007) on a rate basis.
Then we hit the true peak of the era from 1999 to 2001, averaging 5,559 home runs a season, with the aforementioned peak of 5,692 in 2000. At the same time, at the player level. From there, things tailed off, staying between 5,000 and 5,500 from 2002-06; averaging about 5,000 from 2007-09; ranging around 4,600 from 2010-13; and troughing out at 4,186 in 2014 before the explosion of the last couple years.
This record league output coincided with record individual output. Per Baseball-Reference, there have been 43 player-seasons of 50 or more home runs. By my count, 22 of those - just over half - were in the 1993-2006 timeframe. Six of the eight seasons of 60+ home runs occurred in that time period, in fact concentrated at the very peak of 1998-2001. So it's surprising that with the 2016 on track to match the total over the period, no one is very close to 50 home runs, much less 60+.
In fact, it would appear that all of these home runs are being spread around more than ever. If strikeouts are fascist, home runs may be communist. It wanted to see whether this has been true, so going back to 1980, I looked at the proportion of home runs hit by the top-10 league leaders relative to the league total:
As it turns out, 2016 is in fact a historical low, with 7.4% of all home runs hit by the top-10. But it's not a drastically low level, and not much lower than numbers from the 1993-2006 era (in 2000, it was just 8%). What's interesting is that this has been consistently falling over time. It used to be routine for the top-10 to account for over 10% of all home runs. That's not been the case for a while. Expansion could explain a little of it (more players, where the top-10 doesn't expand), but there should be some offset with the best players facing more marginal talent.
I did the same thing for the top-5 hitters to see if anything was different, but the trend is the same.
Never before have their been so many home runs in baseball. But never before are they coming so little from the top sluggers in the game.