Where'd all the home runs go?

If anyone out there has seen a hundred home runs wandering around looking kind of lost, call the FBI. They're missing.

If anybody has spotted a checked-swing, broken-bat, opposite-field home run on a highlight tape anywhere, please send us a copy. We're almost getting nostalgic for them.

Yes, we miss lots of stuff about baseball's good old, homer-happy days: The debates about whether anybody could hit 60, or 70, or 75 home runs. The 19-15 games. The souvenirs landing in the outfield popcorn stands every other inning.

It wasn't so long ago all that stuff was practically a staple of baseball life this time of year. But not this season.

• As recently as 2001, Barry Bonds (remember him?) awoke on June 1 to find himself with 27 home runs. This year, a mere four seasons later, only four players rumbled into June with even half that many.

• By June 1 last year, there had already been eight games in which the losing team had scored 10 runs or more. By June 1 in 2000, there had already been 17. But by June 1 this year, there had been just four such games. And all of them had taken place either in Colorado or a dome.

• The mighty Yankees don't have a home run from a cleanup hitter since April 8.

C.C. Sabathia has as many homers as the Devil Rays' cleanup men (one).

• And all the Astros' outfielders combined have hit nine home runs all season – only one more than Carlos Beltran hit last year in the postseason.

Whoa. Is this what baseball has delivered us here in the post-steroid age?

Well, let's get one thing straight: We haven't reverted to 1968. Or even 1992. But baseball has changed, in style and substance. It's hard not to notice. It's even harder not to wonder why.

You see it just in the scores that float across the bottom of your screen. Through May, runs were down about a half-run per game from the same period last season – a drop of more than 5 percent.

But the big story is The Case of the Missing Home Runs. If everything continues along at its current pace, about 600 fewer home runs will be hit this year than last year – the third-biggest drop in the expansion era (behind only 1987-88 and 1977-78).

And since this is, as you may have heard, Year One of the We're Naming Names steroid-testing program, it's easy to draw the convenient knee-jerk conclusion du jour.

But is this shift in the landscape really all about steroids (or the lack thereof)? Well, you would have to believe in the Tooth Fairy to believe none of it is. But nothing in baseball is ever quite as simple as it sounds on the talk-show dial.

So we've polled numerous players, general managers and other experts. And we've concluded that while steroid testing may be the big reason, it isn't the only reason. Let's take a look:

What It Isn't
It's not the sporting goods: Almost nobody voted for the extraneous stuff: Lousier bats, deader baseballs. The extinction of classic, asphalt-style AstroTurf. Or ballpark/equipment changes of any kind. Good thing. No one would have bought those theories, anyway.

It's not the weather: We did hear weather complaints in a few selected locales: New England, Cleveland, Detroit. But while stiff breezes and April-May temperatures that averaged 8 degrees lower than last year might help explain why the Indians didn't hit early, most teams reported that their weather was either better or the same as last year. So we won't be chalking much of this up to the wind-chill factor.

It's not the strike zone: We had a few votes from general managers suggesting that an expanded strike zone was a secondary reason for all this. But not one player thought so. The player reviews ranged from "hasn't changed at all" to "just as bad as it ever was." The strike zone is different (and more pitcher-friendly) than it was five years ago – thanks to the introduction of QuesTec in 2002 and the ouster of the old umpires' union. But has it changed enough in eight months to account for a plunge from last year's numbers? We don't see it.

It's not the pitching: Yep, ERAs are down (from 4.40 at this stage last year to 4.26). True, it's now possible to find a bunch of 20-something pitchers you could stack an All-Star team with. Granted, pitchers like Dontrelle Willis, Jon Garland, Brett Myers and Erik Bedard are having much better years than they did last season. But this isn't a study of a five-year trend. All we want to know is why numbers have changed since last year. The rookie pitching crop (Chris Young, Gustavo Chacin, Jeff Francis, Brad Halsey) has been good, but not Kerry Wood good, or Fernando Valenzuela good, or even Hideo Nomo good. And while pitching numbers across the board have been better, that's a chicken-and-egg argument. When offensive numbers get worse, pitching numbers have no choice but to get more attractive. So there's just not enough evidence for this theory to make the cut.

It's not evolution: We know that in baseball people hit for the cycle. But there are also people who believe everything in this sport runs in one giant cycle. You have ages of offense and ages of pitching, ages when six shortstops are clear-cut future Hall of Famers and ages when it's hard to find a shortstop worth writing on the lineup card. That may be true – but we're not convinced it explains this. "There is some merit to the it's-all-cyclical argument," said the Elias Sports Bureau's always-incisive Steve Hirdt. "The National League in the '60s, for example, had a class of Hall of Fame pitchers who were all in the league at the same time. … But I don't think we've seen enough evidence yet to say we're in a cycle away from power hitters. There's still a fascination with power hitters, certainly compared to when I was growing up." Cycles rarely arrive all at once. So get back to us in a decade on this one. In the meantime, here are some more logical explanations.

The Injured-Masher Theory
OK, now it's time to get down to what's really going on. So here's a little question for you: What do these names have in common: Bonds, Jim Thome, Frank Thomas, Sammy Sosa, Jeff Bagwell, Magglio Ordonez and Lance Berkman?

If you answered: "They all make more money every week than I'll make in my life," you might not be wrong. But sorry, that's not the answer that applies to this column.

The relevant answer is: They've all spent a significant chunk of this season battling aches, pains, hernias, infections and an occasional grand-jury outbreak. So you could make a case they've almost single-handedly skewed the numbers of the whole sport.

• Home runs by those seven men through May last year: 66.

• Home runs by those seven men through May this year: 10.

If you're subtracting along at home, you know that's 56 fewer home runs just among that little group. What you might not know is that the entire rest of the majors was down by just 42 – for a total early-season drop off of 98 homers.

Which means you could chalk up 57 percent of this whole gap to just these guys.

Quite a few of the people we polled noticed that. Four of them – three GMs and one player – even picked the injury epidemic as the No. 1 factor in the home run decline. Eight other voters ranked it either second or third.

In case you were wondering, if we knocked just these seven hitters out of the study, homers would be down only 2.7 percent. And had that been the case, not only would you not have bothered reading this opus, we wouldn't have bothered to write it.

But it all figures into that big picture. And what makes this theory particularly noteworthy is that this is also a group that affects more than just home run numbers. These guys are among the foremost run producers of their generation.

"Put Barry back in our lineup," Giants reliever Scott Eyre said, "and what's that worth? He's got to add a full run a game, doesn't he?"

Well, more, actually. Sabermatrician Lee Sinins estimated that Bonds created 152 more runs than an average player in the 147 games he played last year. So do that math.

But we were worried this was just an arbitrary list, spliced together only to screw up the numbers. So we made sure this theory was sanctioned by Hirdt himself.

"You could do an all-disabled list all-star team every year," Hirdt said. "That's true. But most years, you'd have some speed guys, some contact guys, some batting-average guys, some defense guys. This year, you have a list of significant power guys."

In fact, you couldn't get much more significant. Of the eight active hitters with the most career homers, just two have stayed off the disabled list this year. And one of them (how amazing is this?) is Ken Griffey Jr. The other: Rafael Palmeiro. Our Injured All-Stars include five of those eight – plus Ordonez and Berkman.

Obviously, there will be people who point the steroid finger at some of these men. But remember, all of those 400-homer guys will be 35 or older by the end of the season. So it's only fair to concede that age is as big a factor in injuries as anything else.

Nevertheless, it would also be way too simplistic to say the only thing that has changed since last year is an injury attack to one select group of players. So brace yourself. It's finally time to allow that two-ton gorilla into this room.

The Testing Theory
No matter how many deep thinkers who either believed, or wanted to believe, that the new steroid-testing monster didn't have much to do with this offensive slippage, the group that thought otherwise couldn't possibly have been more vociferous.

One GM said there was no reason to list other explanations because there was "no question" you could hang this change on the testing program. Another GM was so uninterested in any other theories, he advised us to "forget the rest."

But no one laid this out more simply than Giants shortstop Omar Vizquel.

"The biggest reason is steroids, obviously," he said. "Second is [less use of] supplements. Third is injuries. And anything else is all a bunch of bull."

When our panelists talked about how the assault on steroids had changed the game, they talked in part about the stuff we all see: smaller physiques and a downturn in "accidental" home runs (checked swings, broken bats, etc.) But some of what they see is not so obvious to the casual eye.

"The big thing," Phillies closer Billy Wagner said, "is the effect on confidence. [Not being able to hit on steroids] takes the confidence out of the hitter."

But it isn't just the hitters' psyches that are different. There is evidence the changes in hitters have done wonders for the confidence of some pitchers, too.

Brewers GM Doug Melvin said he sees pitchers working the outer half of the plate more "without fear of the smaller hitters hitting it out to the opposite field."

Marlins pitcher Al Leiter thinks lineups have suddenly become "more manageable." Where once these same orders seemed to be stacked with four and five scary power bats, now "pitchers don't have to pitch around more than a batter, or maybe two," Leiter said.

And the stats, if you look closely enough, vividly reflect that. It isn't just the power numbers that have shifted, Hirdt said. Walks are down to 6.4 per game, which would be their lowest rate over a full season since 1989. And strikeouts are also down to 12.4 per game, which would be the fewest whiffs since 1994.

The moral of that story is pitchers suddenly aren't as afraid of contact. Leiter said pitchers see they now "have areas to throw to, and the ball is staying in the park. And in many instances, it is now taking three consecutive hits to score a run."

As opposed to yesteryear, when it often took one hit to score three runs.

But the more people we surveyed, the more we realized it wasn't just steroid use per se that has been altered by the new testing program. It's the use of everything – supplements, protein shakes, even vitamins.

One prominent agent said he has told his players this year, "The rule is simple: You can't take anything."

"That's what I'm telling guys," he said. "No supplements. No vitamins. No anything, because you just don't know what might cause a positive test."

"Guys are definitely being more careful," Eyre said. "You just have to look at me to know I should take more vitamins, but I'm scared to take them. I don't want to take any kind of supplements, because I don't know what I can and can't take. They need to give players a list. Not a list of seven-syllable ingredients, but a list of actual products. Can I take GNC Vitamin B-12, or not?"

In our poll, 12 different panelists – nearly half of them players – said the decline in supplement use is having nearly as big an impact on offense as the drop in steroid use, if not bigger.

"The reason guys take supplements is to give them energy the next day," Vizquel said. "But some of these guys who are afraid to use them are coming in tired the next day. They don't feel the same. So it's not only because of steroids. It's all the other stuff they're afraid to take. They believe they can't hit the ball the same as they used to, because they feel weak, or not strong enough."

If you listen to these words, how can there be any doubt that there has been a significant shift in baseball's seismographic chart? But let's keep it in perspective. This is no 9.0 on the Richter Scale. It's more like a 5.0.

The home run rate for the first two months this year is almost identical to the rate, at the same stage, in 2002, and 1997, and even 1998. And nobody looked on any of those seasons as The Return of the Dead Ball Era. In fact, all three of them produced multiple 50-plus homer guys. And you know how 1998 turned out.

That rate won't be shrinking, either. We've already seen it rise substantially from April (1.89 per game) to May (2.04). And those numbers almost always inflate even more once summer hits.

So no matter what you see or hear or suspect, we're not going back to those run-and-gun track teams of the mid-'80s. We're not returning to the age of the 1.12 ERA. It's all relative.

But it's also clear baseball is living now in a different world. And if that means you get to make it home from a nine-inning night game before 1 a.m., we also know it will be a world well worth living in – and playing in.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your Useless Information to uselessinfodept@yahoo.com.