Home run output has taken a noticeable dive in this first season since Major League Baseball imposed penalties for steroid use and Congress threatened even stronger punishment.
The shocker: 53 games into the 162-game season, the league is on track to hit fewer than 5,000 home runs for the first time since baseball expanded to 30 teams.
Through June 2, the league rang up 1,534 home runs. For comparison: Through June 5 of last year (54 games in), 1,720 home runs were on the books.
Heading for 4,707. Baseball teams this year are hitting 13.6 percent fewer home runs per game than in 2004. At this pace, the league will hit just 4,707 home runs this season.
The home run totals since 1998, when the league expanded to 30 teams:
Now, I’ve wondered if the league hits fewer home runs in the early part of the season, when the air tends to be cooler. It turns out yes. At least last year, home run output picked up after June 1.
Cool air handicap. Through June 5 last year, the league was hitting 1.06 home runs per game. By the end of the season, it was hitting 1.12 home runs per game.
So the pace probably will pick up this season. Even so, the batters have had an especially weak start. Through June 2, the league was hitting just 0.97 home runs per game. Over an expected 4,854 games (each game counted twice – once for each team playing), that would translate into the 4,707 homes runs I mentioned earlier.
But the question is, can baseball’s sluggers use summer’s warm air to make up for their slow 2005 start and avoid the embarrassment of a season of fewer than 5,000 home runs?
Swinging for dignity. Well, let’s see. Last summer, the long-ball barrage brought the home run rate up by 0.06 per game between June 6 and season’s end. If that late acceleration happens again this year, the overall rate will wind up at 1.03 home runs per game.
How many home runs would that produce in 2005? It computes to exactly 5,006. The league might squeak by with some dignity.
It’s a 50-50 bet.