What’s that old saying about some people can never be satisfied? Unfortunately it also remains a true saying. That’s whether baseball’s get-off-my-lawn contingency complains about not enough hitting (in 2014) or too many home runs (this year), or whether Orioles fans look the proverbial gift horses in the mouth because of a choice of . . . uniform.
This year’s epidemic of home runs includes such side effects as strikeouts rising, singles falling, stolen bases on various endangered species lists, and howitzer-armed bullpens turned to arson squads.
It’s not unreasonable to lament the large percentage of game action that involves home runs. The absolute flip side of the proverbial coin would be a game full of nothing but singles and a crashing bore unless the pitchers are virtuoso charismatics and the fielders resemble the Flying Wallendas. (Only nine percent of this season’s fielding assists so far involve turning double plays. Ground ball pitchers, where are thy stings?)
I happened to be in Angel Stadium Thursday night, treating my son, Bryan, and his girlfriend, Emily, to a game, the first of a weekend set between the Angels and the rival Athletics, to finish their final home stand before the All-Star break. (They hit the road to meet the Rangers and the Astros to finish the season’s first half.)
The occasion was a gift for Bryan’s graduation from southern California’s North Orange Continuing Education program in which disabled students make their transitions gradually but affirmatively to whatever full collegiate work they can perform toward the level of independent life they can attain.
Bryan is speech-language impaired, and the only one in the house more proud of the courage he shows living, laughing, and persevering through his disability is his father, to whom Bryan is a hero every day, not just those during which he graduates or helps his Special Olympics team nail a silver medal in softball, as he did at last year’s national games in Seattle.
(P.S. In his first ever plate appearance in a national Special Olympics, Bryan socked a home run. In baseball, 118 players have homered in their first major league at-bats. The most recent: Lane Thomas, Cardinals, 19 April.)
And lo! Come Thursday night, the Angels defeated the Athletics, 8-3, to open a weekend set. From our nesting at field level down the right field line, we saw the runs score on:
* A second-inning home run. (A’s center fielder Ramon Laureano, leading off.)
* Another second-inning home run. (Kole Calhoun, a two-run shot that ricocheted off the rocks behind the left center field fence in the bottom of the inning.)
* A third-inning home run. (Shohei Ohtani, the defending American League Rookie of the Year, resuming designated-hitter duties if not pitching as he continues recovering from Tommy John surgery, hitting one clean over the center field fence.)
* A pair of third-inning RBI singles. (Hall of Famer in waiting Albert Pujols, driving home Justin Upton; and, Luis Rengifo, driving home Calhoun.)
* A fourth-inning home run. (Matt Olson of the A’s, leading off the top.)
* A sixth-inning single. (Mike Trout, the Angels’ all-everything center fielder, sending home Andrelton Simmons, the flying shortstop freshly restored from the injured list.)
* An eighth-inning single. (Oakland’s Marcus Semien, sending home Robbie Grossman.)
Of the game’s seventeen hits (the Angels had twelve), 24 percent of them sailed over the fences. Through this morning’s writing, major league games this season have featured 3,390 home runs out of 21,265 hits. That, folks, is 16 percent of this season’s hits. Last year, 14 percent of baseball’s hits were home runs. Oh, the horror.
Fume all you like about the home run epidemic, if epidemic it is, but doesn’t it seem peculiar that such an epidemic accounts for that small a percentage of baseball’s hits? Thirty-six percent of this year’s hits are doubles; two percent are triples. But we don’t hear either loud complaints about the epidemic of doubles or the near-extinction of triples as much as we hear about the bombs bursting in air at record levels.
On Thursday night, except for Trout’s RBI knock in the sixth, knowing that this guy gets standing ovations just taking his position in the field to open a game (a cursory look around the park tells you Trout remains the single most popular Angel based on jerseys and jersey-reproducing T-shirts with Ohtani a close enough second), guess which hits got the loudest ovations, even among the A’s fans who scattered around the stands?
Hint: it wasn’t the four RBI singles.
(A note on the Angel Stadium video display when Laureano batted midway through the game: he’s the first Athletic in their entire franchise history—going all the way back to the birth of the Philadelphia Athletics—to have made his first major league hit a game-winning RBI hit. Ever. Not even the franchise’s celebrated Hall of Famers—not Home Run Baker, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, or Reggie Jackson—did that. Laureano did it in 2018.)
Once upon a time, Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith bragged (if that’s the correct word), “The fans love home runs, and we have assembled a pitching staff that is certain to please them.” This year, commissioner Rob Manfred all but brags that since the fans like home runs, baseball has introduced a ball that was certain to please them. Apparently, the “pill” at the ball’s center is being centered more accurately. Makes some people want to reach for the nearest bottle of pills.
Pitchers may not be pleased as greatly as the fans seem to be. Rangers pitcher Drew Smyly picked the wrong year to return from Tommy John surgery: he surrendered nineteen bombs in 51 and a third innings before the Rangers released him last week. And until Phillies pitcher Jared Eickhoff landed on the injured list, he’d pitched 58 and a third 2019 innings and eighteen services landed on the far side of the fence.
ESPN’s David Schoenfield says Smyly’s home run rate per nine innings this year (3.3) was baseball’s worst and Eickhoff’s (2.8) the seventh worst, but don’t get him started on those who’ve been nuked worse in fewer innings. Poor souls such as Alex Cobb (nine bombs in twelve and a third), Edwin Jackson (twelve in 25.1), or Dan Straily (22 in 47.1).
And, yet, Schoenfield continues, overall scoring per game remains “within historical norms” at 4.78 runs a game, which he says is the highest since 2007’s 4.80. Apparently it’s how you score that matters yet again. If the game levels itself out in due course (as it always seems to do, never mind the periodic equipment tinkerings) and the runs begin coming in singles-, doubles-, and triples-hitting droves, brace yourself. The death of the home run will be pronounced loud and long, too.
I mentioned the Orioles earlier. Back to them. How does this strike you—the Orioles, who are on a pace Schoenfield says will see them surrender 324 home runs for the full season (or, if you’re scoring at home, an average of 36 homers per lineup spot against them), spent Friday and Saturday doing what no team before them has done: back-to-back shutouts in which they themselves scored thirteen runs or more.
The Indians were the victims. On Friday night, John Means and three Orioles relievers kept the Indians to six hits against Mike Clevinger and three Indians relievers surrendering sixteen hits—only (count them) two of which were home runs. On Saturday night, Andrew Cashner and one reliever kept the Tribe to five hits against Zach Plesac and four Indians relievers surrendering thirteen hits—only four of which were home runs. That’s back-to-back home run percentages of 13 and 31 percent per game, and 21 percent for the two games.
But Oriole fans couldn’t even enjoy that rare a two-night spread without finding something to complain about. In this case, the Orioles’ uniforms Saturday. Commemorating Maryland Day, a state holiday, the Orioles’ jersey sleeves and cap visors displayed the image of Maryland’s state flag. “Hideous” was probably the least indignant adjective applied.
Well, as I was saying, some people can never be satisfied. Thank God and His servant Jackie Robinson that my son and his lady aren’t among the perpetually dissatisfied.