I was struck by the irony when I encountered Brian Dozier in the visitors’ clubhouse in Baltimore on May 24. As he talked to teammates shortly before batting practice, the Twins leadoff hitter wore a T-shirt that read “All Me — PED Free,” while an MLB official, checking in players who had been randomly selected for that day’s routine drug tests, sat perhaps 10 feet away.
That tableau neatly sums up the state of baseball in 2017: Home runs have flooded the game today just as thoroughly as they did when Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds were smashing records — but nobody is pointing to steroids as the reason this time.
“I don’t go up there trying to hit home runs,” Dozier, who last season set an American League record for most home runs by a second baseman, said that day, “but sometimes your swing gets just right, and they go a long way.”
They are going a long way more than ever right now. Major leaguers bashed 1,060 home runs in May, just missing the record for a calendar month, according to Elias Sports Bureau, the 1,069 that were hit in May 2000 during the height of what is commonly known as the steroids era. The Twins, who rank in the bottom third of homer-happy teams, hit 37, only the fourth time in the past 23 years they have hit so many in a single month.
Last season’s MLB total of 5,610 homers is the second most ever; again, only in 2000 (5,693 homers) was the game so awash in slugging — and the sport is on pace to smash that record this year.
The Twins might not be leading that surge, but they are not immune from the trends, either. Friday’s 11-5 victory over the Angels typified the way the game is being played today: The Twins hit three two-run homers to open a 6-0 lead. They entered Saturday with 241 runs this season, and 95 of them — 39.8 percent — scored after a homer. That virtually matches last year’s 40.3 percent of the offense provided by homers, only the second time since the Killebrew era that Minnesota so depended on home runs.
Twins manager Paul Molitor sees a generation of hitters taught to swing for the fences, without regard to striking out, as a big factor in the new homer-happy playing style. “We tolerate strikeouts more, and a lot of guys don’t know how to hit with two strikes to shorten their strokes and put the ball in play,” Molitor said. “We’ve kind of created that [type of hitter] with the acceptance we’ve given strikeouts.”
A recent Sports Illustrated article speculated that StatCast, MLB’s new data-collection system that has pinpointed the optimum launch angle and exit velocity for home run hitters, as one factor in the power surge. Swinging harder and with a greater uppercut produces more homers, an all-or-nothing approach that does indeed come with a bigger dose of strikeouts as a side effect.
Strikeouts now account for more than 21 percent of all plate appearances, an all-time high, and the game has set a strikeout record in each of the past four seasons. Whiffs might not damage a team’s offense as much as once believed, but the lack of balls in play slow the game and provide less crowd-pleasing action.
Is this healthy for the game? Molitor is not so sure.
“It just wasn’t the way I was taught. We tried to find ways to put it in play regardless of who was pitching and regardless of whether you had power,” the Hall of Famer mused. “It’s different today. I love Mike Trout, but one of the years he won MVP, he struck out almost 190 times [184 in 2014]. So you can be the best player in the game and strike out 190 times as long as you’re doing damage when you put the ball in play.”
It might be a coincidence, but offense from designated hitters this season tracks relatively closely with the AL Central standings. Here is the production, or lack of it, teams are getting from the DH spot:
Indians: Edwin Encarnacion started slowly, and his slugging remains subpar, but his ability to get on base (sixth in the AL in walks) has made up for it. And Carlos Santana’s once-a-week DH stints have been terrific, with a 1.028 OPS.
Royals: Brandon Moss was their most celebrated offseason acquisition, but he’s been a bust as Kansas City’s replacement for Kendrys Morales thus far. Moss has hit nine homers but somehow has only 14 RBI, and his .266 on-base percentage is killing more rallies than he’s starting.
Tigers: Victor Martinez is 38, and his power is fading — with only five homers, he’s not likely to approach last year’s 27 — but his ability to draw an occasional walk still makes him valuable in the middle of Detroit’s lineup. His .733 OPS makes him an average DH, at least for one more year.
White Sox: The position is an on-base nightmare in Chicago, with nine players combining for a .199 average and .271 on-base percentage. Matt Davidson has five home runs in 19 games as a DH but is hitting .231 with a .265 OBP. Free-agent signee Cody Ashe has been even worse; in 14 starts, he is 6-for-48 with two walks, an offense-killing .192 OBP.
The Twins have one of baseball’s youngest starting lineups, and the statistics show it. The most hits by players 25 and younger this season, though Thursday ( with at-bats, batting average):
232 Cubs (1,001, .232)
210 Twins (815, .258)
190 Red Sox (659, .288)
177 Padres (767, .231)
171 Rangers (734, .233)
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The Twins turned their first triple play since 2006 on Thursday, demonstrating how rare the play is. Here are the teams that have recorded three outs on one play most often in the past 20 seasons:
6 White Sox
5 Phillies, Brewers
3 Giants, Braves, Rangers, Cardinals, Rays, Indians, Pirates, Yankees
Baseball reporters Phil Miller and La Velle E. Neal III will alternate weeks.
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