Homers began the year with a bang but ended with a (relative) whimper
Even though he makes his living as a slugger, Dodgers left-fielder Gary Sheffield takes a benign view of the decline in home runs during the second half of this season. "The perception [today] is, when you see guys hit 60 or 70 home runs, there must be something wrong with the baseball and everybody should be hitting homers," says Sheffield, who finished with a career-high 43 dingers, tying the franchise record set by Duke Snider in 1956. "But if you look at it, everything is back to normal now."
Not quite—the 5,693 home runs and the rate of 2.34 homers per game this season eclipsed the records of 5,528 and 2.28 set in 1999. Still, the home run blizzard raging at the All-Star break, when a record 58 players were on pace for 30-homer seasons, became more like a squall down the stretch. Before the break four-baggers occurred at a rate of 2.56 per game; in the second half the average was 2.10. A post-midpoint decline isn't unusual, given that the home run rate has dropped after the All-Star break in six of the last 10 full seasons, but this year's falloff was precipitous. The decline of 0.46 homers per game was the largest change, plus or minus, from one half to the next in the game's history.
As that statistic would suggest, the second half saw many first-half power hitters lose their clout. Of those 58 players on pace for 30-homer seasons, only 47 accomplished the feat, which still broke the record of 45 set last season. Of the 37 players who mashed at least 20 taters in the first half, only 8 matched or exceeded that number in the second.
Where did all the homers go? The drop can be attributed to several factors:
?Improved pitching. Says Dodgers third baseman Dave Hansen, "I've seen better command from pitchers since the All-Star break. Guys aren't making that pitch down the middle anymore." This hypothesis is supported by nonhomer numbers: The overall big league batting average dropped from .272 in the first half to .269 in the second; walks decreased from 7.7 per game to 7.3.
?Injuries. Several of the game's biggest boppers played hurt or sat out for significant stretches of the second half. The Cardinals' Mark McGwire (30 homers at the break) had just 13 at bats and two home runs in the season's final three months because of severe right knee tendinitis. The Reds' Ken Griffey Jr. (28) was bothered by a sore left hamstring down the stretch and ended up with only 12 second-half dingers. The Rangers' Ivan Rodriguez (26) didn't play after fracturing his right thumb on July 24, and Blue Jays outfielder Raul Mondesi (23) missed three months after midseason surgery to remove bone spurs from his right elbow and hit one home run after returning to action.
?The ball? Proving again that baseball is fertile ground for conspiracy theories, some players and coaches suspect a mid-season de-juicing of the old cowhide. "It's awful coincidental that they had that meeting about how balls are made," says Brewers pitching coach Bob Apodaca, referring to the June summit between the commissioner's office and Rawlings, manufacturer of the major league ball, "and then, all of a sudden, home run production goes down."
Our Award Alternatives
Much attention rightly will be paid the recipients of baseball's major awards, but there are others who won't come close to winning an MVP or Cy Young but deserve recognition nonetheless. Here are the winners of our dubious honors: