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OC Register: Hey, baseball – where have all the home runs gone?

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Monday wasn’t the first time it happened to Gavin Lux. His towering fly ball in the fourth inning against Atlanta registered 103 mph off the bat. In the dugout, his teammates rose with anticipation – only to see the ball come to rest in Atlanta center fielder Adam Duvall’s glove just in front of the fence.

Dave Roberts couldn’t believe it.

“I’m not a conspiracy theorist,” the Dodgers’ manager said, “but something is different.”

Lux could believe it. It had happened to him days earlier in Minnesota: 108 mph, a double off the wall. It happened to him Sunday at Dodger Stadium: 96 mph, a warning track fly ball. By Monday, all he could do was scratch his head.

“I don’t know what it is,” Lux said. “I feel like the balls are a little different, or maybe I need to go hit the weight room more. I don’t know what it is.”

Atlanta manager Brian Snitker had seen it too, on Saturday in San Diego, when Manny Piña hit one 104 mph to the warning track against the Padres – a 403-foot out.

“There have been a few that I’ve seen that didn’t go out that I thought were,” Snitker said.

Across the league, the home run rate is down compared to the same point last year. Fly balls simply don’t travel as far as they used to. Privately, hitters are frustrated. Publicly, pitchers are flirting with no-hitters or perfect games on an almost nightly basis.

The Padres recently became the first team ever to open a season with no hits allowed by their first two starting pitchers. Clayton Kershaw (seven innings) and Max Fried (five) have flirted with perfect games; Fried’s came on the same day Max Scherzer no-hit the Giants for 5 ⅔ innings. What’s going on here?

The answer seems to rest with the baseball itself. Ten teams began storing their game balls inside humidors prior to the 2022 season. First came the Colorado Rockies in 2002. The Arizona Diamondbacks joined them in 2018. Each time, the effects were dramatic.

From 2017 to 2018, the league-wide slugging percentage fell from .425 to .410. In Phoenix, slugging dropped from .449 to .394. (The dropoff among the other rate-based offensive statistics was similarly pronounced.) The Rockies slugged higher than .450 in each of their first eight seasons at Coors Field. They’ve done so only four times in 19 regular seasons since installing the humidor.

It was logical, then, to expect some measure of change when 20 more ballparks got humidors in 2022. But can we blame a humidor for every warning-track fly ball?

One study analyzed the year-over-year change in home run rate at venues where a humidor was in place prior to this year. There, the home run rate was actually up in the first 11 days of the season compared to the same time period last year. Everywhere else, the rate had fallen.

Another way to measure the possible effects of a humidor is to analyze the exit velocity of every fly ball. In normal humidity, a more humid baseball should have a lower coefficient of restitution, meaning it doesn’t “bounce” as hard off the bat. The ball is also heavier, which makes it more difficult to hit hard. This tends to lower exit velocity. In a league suddenly full of humidified baseballs, average exit velocities should be lower, right?

Not yet, according to Statcast. The average exit velocity of a fly ball through Monday was 92.4 mph, up from 92.2 mph a year ago. Perhaps the humidors are not solely to blame.

If it feels like these baseball-related questions keep cropping up every year, it’s because they do. And it’s getting exhausting.

Baseball aerodynamics are fascinating to physicists, but dissatisfying to fans as an explanation for why batters suddenly can’t hit home runs. We want the baseballs to seem like a constant. It’s frustrating when each season gives us exactly the opposite.

MLB’s tinkering appeared to peak last year, when two different batches of baseballs – one lighter, one heavier – were secretly in play, as detailed by Insider. Data on the baseballs in play in 2022 is only beginning to emerge.

It’s more than fair for an institution like MLB to question anything it does “because we’ve always done it that way.” In some cases, it’s a moral obligation. This is not that. The baseball – specifically, the process by which the baseball is manufactured – isn’t a problem in itself. Tinkering with it is merely one method of restoring the balance between power and speed that made offenses less one-dimensional in previous generations.

If that was the purpose of MLB’s tinkering – the humidors, the introduction of a new baseball – one would expect the tinkering might stop at some point. So far it’s not clear that it will.

Let’s hope it stops here. A rate as low as 0.94 home runs per game (through Tuesday) has been reached only once in the past 18 seasons. If the humidors (or the ghost of Old Hoss Radbourn, or whatever) can suppress home-run rates to pre-PED-era levels, it carries the potential to re-introduce a brand of offense that many fans pine for – a brand that emphasizes speed, de-emphasizes power, and makes manufacturing runs by putting the ball in play a more valuable skill.

When the league hired Theo Epstein as a consultant last year, the former Red Sox and Cubs executive promised to make the on-field product more entertaining without compromising “all that makes baseball special.” Commissioner Rob Manfred has been outspoken about wanting to reverse the game’s trend toward more homers, walks and strikeouts. Perhaps we’re seeing that reversal play out in real time, one warning track fly ball at a time.

Roberts and Snitker said they have not seen batters or pitchers adjust their approaches to the new ball. Not yet, at least.

“Maybe next season when there’s more data, and guys who are hitting balls at a certain velocity with that trajectory that are not getting rewarded – they turn into fly-ball outs – then you see an adjustment,” Roberts said. “But I think that’s going to be a slow drip.”

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3 minutes ago, floplag said:

I dont, i might be the only one that loves seeing multiple hits strung together over 2 walks and a 3 run bomb but for me its much more exciting to watch people run, than walk 🙂 

You can still do that stuff while being juiced. 

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28 minutes ago, True Grich said:

If it feels like these baseball-related questions keep cropping up every year, it’s because they do. And it’s getting exhausting.

LOL at “exhausting.”

Next year they'll be sticking bats in exhaust pipes.

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