As quickly as Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Caleb Ferguson unleashed a fastball meant to hit the back of catcher Austin Barnes’ mitt, his pitch was even more swiftly sent into the left-field bleachers.
For Baltimore Orioles second baseman Jonathan Villar, it was merely the 21st longball of his season. But for Major League Baseball as a whole, it was far more significant. Villar had hit MLB’s 6,106th home run in 2019, breaking the previous season record with weeks to spare.
With the regular season now over, a majority of baseball’s 30 teams teams had top-five seasons in franchise history by home run totals — with nearly half of them either breaking or tying their respective franchise records during the 6,776-homer season.
The Minnesota Twins, who led MLB with 307 blasts, comfortably breezed past their previous record of 225 home runs set in 1963. By Aug. 31, they had already hit more home runs than any team in history to that point (268). In fact, four teams — the Twins, the New York Yankees (306), the Houston Astros (288) and the Los Angeles Dodgers (279) — surpassed that number long before the season concluded Sunday.
The cause of the massive increase? No one knows for sure.
Boston Red Sox designated hitter J.D. Martinez, who led the team with 36 home runs in 2019, told reporters in July that hitters are more equipped to deal with the increase of power-focused pitchers. Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander — a 15-year veteran who allowed a career-high 36 home runs in 2019 — theorized that the balls had been altered to generate more offense.
After 127 years without a 5,000-home run season, MLB saw nine-straight such seasons from 1998 to 2006. That period, part of what is known as the “the steroid era,” was marred by the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
After a crackdown on performance-enhancers, including performance-enhancing drug testing starting in the 2003 season for rostered players, there was a lull in home runs from 2007 to 2015. Teams combined for 5,000 longballs just once in those nine years.
But the hot bats have returned, and at least 5,500 home runs were hit in each of the past four seasons, with 2019 topping the previous record of 6,105 set in 2017. And this season, every team either matched or topped their home run totals from 2018.
Still, some teams lagged behind the pack.
The Miami Marlins closed their 2019 campaign with a meager .352 winning percentage, and their home runs (or lack thereof) match up. The Marlins finished last in home run total, joining the Detroit Tigers — who owned MLB’s worst record — as the only squads to average less than one home run per game in 2019. Last year, there were six such teams — with the Marlins at the bottom.
The Tigers, meanwhile, had the 49th best season in their franchise’s history by home run count and finished the season as the only team to not have a player with at least 20 home runs this season.
But while a handful of teams haven’t found the same success as the majority, the point stands: balls are leaving the park at absurdly high rates.
The league averaged 1.39 home runs per game in the 2019 regular season, by far the highest rate in MLB history. The previous high was 1.25 home runs per game, set in 2017.
“I think hitters are more prepared than they’ve ever been,” Martinez told reporters during the All-Star break. “I think pitchers now, it’s a power-arm league. It’s either a walk or a strikeout, stuff over command. So I think you see a lot more mistakes over the plate. The velocity and the guys trying to hit balls in the air — it’s like a recipe for a home run.”
And as the season progressed, players’ bats got hotter. In March, the league averaged 1.24 home runs per game. That figure jumped to 1.32 in April, 1.37 in May, 1.41 in June, 1.44 in July and 1.48 in August. September — when MLB rosters expand to 40 players, creating more bullpen matchup opportunities and giving less-experienced hitters opportunities at the plate — saw a decline at 1.36.
A new wave of players has been at the forefront of that hot-hitting trend.
Among the top 10 players in home runs during the regular season, nine are 30 years old or younger. Three have yet to see their 25th birthday. And sitting at the top is 24-year-old rookie Pete Alonso of the New York Mets, snapping the rookie record with 53 home runs.
On the flip side, pitching staffs have suffered through the home run surge. One day after Villar hit the record-setting home run, the Orioles surrendered two longballs to break the mark for most home runs allowed by a team in a single season. By the season’s end, the Orioles gave up 305 home runs — shattering the Cincinnati Reds’ record of 258 set in 2016.
“We all know what happened. [MLB commissioner Rob] Manfred the first time he came in, what’d he say? He said we want more offense,” Verlander told ESPN in July. “All of a sudden he comes in, the balls are juiced? It’s not coincidence. We’re not idiots.”
In May, Manfred was presented a report, per The Associated Press, that said the balls had less drag on them, resulting in increased home run numbers. He denies that the league has tampered with baseballs to achieve those results.