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Is A 40-Homer Season A Big Deal Anymore?

The baseball world hasn’t witnessed a home run race like this since the height of the steroid era.

When Mets star Pete Alonso set the National League rookie home run record on Sunday, he joined Mike Trout, Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger in this season’s 40-homer club … in the middle of August.

According to data from Baseball-Reference.com, Alonso’s blast in Kansas City marked the first time that four hitters have reached 40 or more homers through their teams’ 125th game played since 2001, when it was accomplished by Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Luis Gonzalez and Jim Thome. It was just the third time in Major League Baseball history,1 with 1998 marking the other occasion (Sosa, Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey Jr, Greg Vaughn). Bonds hit 54 home runs through 125 games in 2001, the most in history.

Total home runs are on pace to shatter the MLB record this season, and three of the top four seasons by total home runs have come in the past four years. But until this year, individual season totals had fallen short of those of the steroid era. Though Giancarlo Stanton made it to 59 homers in 2017, the last hitters to reach 60 were Bonds and Sosa in 2001. Perhaps after 20-plus years of wondering what to do with homers of the late 1990s and early 2000s, this generation will have to wrestle how to place today’s homer binge, thought to be fueled by livelier balls and higher launch angles, in context.

Trout, Yelich, Bellinger and Alonso could perhaps challenge the 50- or even 60-homer mark this fall. But right behind them are 12 more players who have hit at least 30 homers through play Tuesday and 14 more who have hit at least 28. We could have a double-digit population of 40-homer hitters for the first time since 2006. From 1996 through 2001, at least 12 players reached 40 home runs each season, including a record 17 in 1996.

The baseball itself is viewed as a primary culprit in the game’s overall home run surge. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has admitted that the construction of the ball is producing less drag, which means that the ball can fly farther. But Alonso, Bellinger, Trout and Yelich are reminders that it’s more complicated that just the makeup of the ball. They aren’t hitting many “cheap” home runs.

Through Tuesday, the four each ranked in the top 24 of average home run distance, according to Statcast projections. Trout is fourth in the game with an average of 417 feet per homer, followed by Alonso at sixth (413 feet), Yelich at 19th (406) and Bellinger at 24th (404 feet). And five players have hit at least 25 home runs with a distance of 400 feet or more through Tuesday: Trout (29), Bellinger (28), Alonso (27), Yelich (26) and Ronald Acuña Jr. (25).

The approaches of the four home run leaders likely also have a big hand in their big numbers. Bellinger changed his swing in the offseason and has cut his strikeout rate, increased his walk rate and dramatically raised his isolated power. After being one of the most ground-ball oriented hitters in the game from 2015 through 2017, Yelich changed his approach and swing after being traded from Miami to Milwaukee last year and has enjoyed 44.6 percent of his fly balls going for home runs since July 1, 2018 — the second best mark in baseball. Trout has long been the best player in the game, but he’s quietly been evolving as he’s raised his average launch angle to a career-high 21.3 degrees this season, ranking 13th in baseball.

While record strikeout rates are one trend that could prevent individual home run records from falling, Bellinger, Yelich and Trout are proving that some batters can hit with elite power and below-average K totals — and that increased launch angle doesn’t always mean increased strikeout totals. Alonso is just a rookie, but he’s reduced the share of balls he’s hit to the opposite field in each of his past three seasons, including minor league play.

For better or worse, 40 homers might soon not mean what it used to.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Since 1908.

Travis Sawchik is a sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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