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40 Homers: What Does It Mean Anymore?

Nelson Cruz is currently sitting at 37 HR, closing in on his 3rd-straight 40 home run year.
Nelson Cruz is currently sitting at 37 HR, closing in on his 3rd-straight 40 home run year.

40 Home Runs.  This used to be an incredibly difficult number to attain, one that meant you had reached the stratosphere of the strongest players who had ever lived.  If you were a guy who routinely hit 40 home runs, you made national headlines and your power was spoken about in tones of hushed reverence from other teams’ fans.

From 1981 through 1986, a total of six seasons (one strike-shortened), four players in the Major Leagues hit 40 home runs and it never happened more than once in a season.  In fact, between 1981 and 1992, there was only one season that witnessed more than two guys hit 40 homers in the same season (1987, when four did it… two of whom were Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire).

The Steroid Era tainted our respect for guys who hit 40 home runs.  But here’s the thing:  Since the Mitchell Report, we’ve seen a return to the reality that 40 home runs is hard, REALLY hard, to get to.  You may have read or heard that home runs are up this year, but with nobody flirting with 50 or 60 home runs as used to be the norm, it’s difficult to wrap your head around the concept that dingers have jumped.  Plus, that aforementioned Steroid Era made 40 home runs *feel* less impressive when we hear about that number, even if the luster of being a 40-home run hitter may be empirically back to where it used to be.

To illustrate the point, here are the number of 40 home run hitters we’ve seen during the decade of the 2010’s:

 

Year Players
2016 (So far) 4
2016 (Potentially) 12
2015 9
2014 1
2013 2
2012 6
2011 2
2010 2

 

This year has seen the most home runs hit since the Steroid Era.  We saw this trend start in the second half of last season, a year that saw nine players hit 40 or more home runs.  This was the first time more then six guys hit 40 round-trippers since 2006, when eleven players achieved that feat.  Since The Mitchell Report came out, we’ve routinely only seen just two players a year knock 40 out.  This uptick in home runs has already garnered a lot of attention, but I bet after the season is over there will be steps taken to mitigate the increase in power numbers.

For reference, though, here are the number of players who hit 40 homers in Major League Baseball from 1996-2001:

2001 12
2000 16
1999 13
1998 13
1997 12
1996 16

We were idiots for not thinking something was up.  Do I think we’ll look back on this current era and think we were idiots?  No.  I don’t think 2015 and 2016’s jump in home run numbers is steroid-based, I think it’s player style-based.  Just like 5-man rotations and specialization have increased the number of guys who can throw 98-99 mph but can’t go more than one inning (coughAROLDISCHAPMANcough).  The way players are swinging, the science behind contact and risk-reward of striking out vs. hitting a ground ball when runners are on base, things like that are making the Homer-or-Strikeout mentality more desirable than it used to be.  The game of baseball has an elasticity to it that means there will almost certainly be a regression back to the mean within the next year or two, and maybe we’ll get back to a game where 37 home runs leads the league in one league, and just 40 is the top mark in the other.

By the way… the year that happened was 2014.  Just two short seasons ago.  Not exactly a bygone era we have no hope of returning to.

Joel Fry
Joel Fry is a former radio show personality who hosted "The Saturday Night Sports Special" in Des Moines, IA. He also was a producer and guest host for "Out of Bounds" on ESPN 1700 out of Des Moines. He now writes for MLBMayhem.com and can be found posting an irritatingly high amount of sabermetric data on Twitter @JoelFryShow.
http://mlbmayhem.com

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