Giancarlo Stanton is on pace for 62 home runs, which sounds like a lot. But really, it's not.
Don't get me wrong, in a vacuum, 62 bombs is a boatload. But baseball isn't played in a vacuum. Or on a boat. Instead, it's played on a diamond with a small white spheroid that, depending on whom you choose to believe, may or may not be different from the small white spheroids of the past, which may or may not make it easier than ever to hit it out of the park.
In case you're just joining us, homers are up. Way up. Through Labor Day, the home run rate across the majors was at an all-time high of 3.3 percent, which is to say that about one out of 30 plate appearances ended with a bang. Compare that to the 2014 season, when the home run rate leaguewide was 2.3 percent, which works out to one every 43 plate appearances. In other words, we're seeing more than 40 percent more long balls than just three years ago.
To be sure, there's no shortage of theories as to why the home run has gone the way of the krill (with an estimated population of over 500 trillion, the tiny sea species is thought to be the most populous creature on the planet). Pitchers are throwing faster than ever, which makes batted balls travel faster than ever. In an effort to cut down on splintering bats and the danger they present, big league lumber is denser than it used to be. Thanks to defensive shifts and the negotiating rooms where home run guys get P-A-I-D, hitters have gone all or nothing, focusing more on launch angle and swinging as hard as they can instead of just trying to make contact. Said Marlins reliever Brad Ziegler: "There's a lot of reasons for the spike."
But no reason seems to have gained as much traction as the juiced-ball theory. According to the JBT, the balls that were used coming out of the 2015 All-Star break were different from the ones used before the break. There have been multiple studies that have yet to prove anything conclusive, but the facts are this: Before the 2015 All-Star Game, MLB's home run rate was 2.5 percent, just as it had been in three different seasons from 2010 to 2014 -- a five-year stretch in which the average home run rate was also 2.5 percent. After the 2015 All-Star Game, the homer rate jumped to 2.9 percent. That might not sound like a lot, but it is. In fact, the tater rate in the second half of the 2015 season rose by 13 percent over the first half.
The year after that, in 2016, 3 percent of all plate appearances resulted in a homer -- just the second time in major league history the home run rate reached that level (in 2000, at the height of the steroid era, it was also 3 percent). This year, it's up again, all the way to 3.3 percent. Beside being an all-time high, it also marks a 45 percent spike over the 2014 season.
That bears repeating: In just three years, the frequency of home runs has increased by nearly 50 percent.
Although there is no hard data, based on what players have said, the all-or-nothing theory seems to be the one that, aside from the JBT, has the most traction in clubhouses. "Home runs are up," said Orioles slugger Chris Davis, a two-time homer champ. "But strikeouts are up too." While Davis has a point, the rate at which whiffs have risen (6 percent since 2014) pales in comparison to the recent homer hike, suggesting maybe this isn't just a simple case of swinging for the fences.
"I think the balls have definitely changed," said Ziegler, a 10-year vet. "I can't quantify it, but when I pick it up, it doesn't feel the same as the ball before. Used to be, when you pushed down on the seams, there was a little give to it. Now, I'll get a ball occasionally where I'll push on the seam and it doesn't feel like it's moving at all. I'm guessing the material that the seams are made out of hasn't changed, so whatever's underneath of it is not giving as much as it used to."
Regardless of the reason, round-tripper rates -- much like the baseballs themselves -- continue to go up, up and away. Given that, just how impressed should we really be with all the mashing Stanton has been doing this season?
"Fifty is a big number, no matter where home runs are," said Marlins skipper Don Mattingly, whose 35 homers in 1985 were a career high and five fewer than league leader Darrell Evans. "What he's doing is special. I don't think anybody else in the league is there."
Truth is, nobody else in the league is even close. Through Labor Day, Stanton's 53 home runs were 40 percent more than the next closest player (Aaron Judge, 38). To give you an idea of just how far ahead of the pack Stanton is, if he's able to maintain that margin, it would be the largest gap in the expansion era (since 1961), surpassing the current high-water mark set in 1965, when Willie Mays (52) finished with 33 percent more homers than teammate Willie McCovey (39). Only 10 times in the past 56 years has the league leader outhomered the runner-up by at least 20 percent. All of which is to say Stanton is a big, strong man who can hit the ball far (duh). The question is, just how much bigger and stronger is he, relative to his peers, than some of the great home run hitters of years past?
To answer the question, it's useful to look at a stat called HaRP. Never heard of HaRP? That's because I just made it up. It stands for homer rate plus. Kind of like ERA plus or OPS plus, HaRP takes a player's home run rate in any given season and compares it to the MLB home run rate in that same season to give you an idea of how they compare to the rest of the league. To figure out a player's HaRP, all you need to do is take their individual homer rate and divide it by the league rate. As an example, let's look at Whit Merrifield of the Royals, who has 17 homers in 521 plate appearances this year. That works out to a 3.3 percent rate, which just so happens to be on par with the league rate of 3.3 percent. So Merrifield's 2017 HaRP would be 3.3 divided by 3.3, which works out to 1.0. In other words, by 2017 standards, Merrifield is a league-average home run hitter. Anyone whose HaRP is less than 1.0 would be a subpar long-baller; anyone who's above 1.0 would be super-par (or whatever the opposite of subpar is).
Homer rate plus. Technically HRP, but with an "a" to make it roll off the tongue: HaRP. Get it? Got it? Good.
Now, let's take a look at Stanton's historical HaRP numbers:
As you can see, Stanton's 2.8 HaRP this season isn't drastically different from the rest of his career. In fact, when he set his previous career high of 37 home runs in 2012, the Marlins' slugger had a HaRP of 2.7, just a hair below his mark for this season. That's not to say Stanton hasn't evolved as a hitter. Clearly, moving up into the 2-hole, where he bats behind speedster Dee Gordon and ahead of Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna has helped (42 homers in 94 starts since). As has adopting a closed stance (35 homers in 65 starts since). As has staying healthy for the entire season, something Stanton has never really done before. All of which helps explain why his 2017 HaRP of 2.8 is significantly higher than the 2.3 lifetime mark he carried into this season. So hooray for him. That said, when you put Stanton's 2017 HaRP into historical context (which is the whole point of HaRP in the first place), it's really not that special.
In fact, if you take the 57 seasons since the beginning of the expansion era (including this year) and look at the HaRP of the home run leaders from each of those campaigns, Stanton's 2.8 ranks 45th, just behind Andruw Jones, who led the league in 2005 with 51 homers. In other words, relative to the rest of MLB, the 62 dingers for which Stanton is currently on pace -- impressive though it might sound -- is roughly equivalent to the 51 jacks Jones had in 2005. Or the 40 Mike Schmidt hit in 1983 (2.9 HaRP). Or the 58 Ryan Howard hit in 2006 (2.8 HaRP). Don't remember Howard going deep 58 times in 2006? Maybe that's because it happened at the tail end of the steroid era, when home runs were a nickel a dozen. And if home runs were a nickel a dozen in 2006 (2.9 percent HR rate), then they're closer to a penny a dozen now, which brings us back to the question of how Stanton and his pursuit of 61 (or 73 or at whatever arithmetical altar you worship) should be viewed historically.
"As long as you're playing the same number of games, it's hard for me to say that it's any different," said Davis, who led the majors in 2013 with 53 homers.
Based on Davis' 3.2 HaRP that season, his 53 homers would equate to 70 jacks in 2017 terms. Still, he's not about to take anything away from Stanton.
"Over the course of a full season, to hit that many home runs, it's almost doing him a disservice to say, 'Well that wasn't close to the season that Maris had.' You have to at least take a look at it," Davis said. "The game is going to change. That's just part of the evolution of the game. But what he's doing is impressive."
Just how impressive? It's hard to say. After all, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were chasing history in 1998, it seemed impressive at the time. It wasn't until years later that we were able to have the historical perspective to see those numbers were watered down. Maybe five or 10 years from now, if home run rates stay where they are and/or continue to soar, we'll end up feeling the same way about Stanton's 2017 numbers. Then again, maybe we won't. In the meantime, it's certainly a subject worth HaRPing on.
Thanks to ESPN's Sam Miller and Mark Simon for their contributions.