Hitters still dig the long ball

I don’t want to make too much of this, but here it is:

  • In 1998, an expansion year when both Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa surpassed the season home run record with 70 and 66, respectively, the home run rate across the major leagues was 2.7% of all plate appearances.
  • In 2012, after 10 years of random P.E.D. testing, Miguel Cabrera led the majors with 44 HRs, and the home run rate was … still 2.7% of all plate appearances.


Outside of the PED era, only 1987 saw a higher HR% than last season. And while the 2010-11 HR% was a bit lower (2.5% each year), that figure is still higher than any year but 1961, 1987 and the PED era.

A couple of notes before we go on:

  • The HR peak of the PED era was not 1998 (2.7%), but 2000 (3.0%). 1998 was about average for the period.
  • HRs per game in 2012 were slightly below the 1998 level (1.02 vs. 1.04) — but only because there were slightly fewer PAs per game, due to declines in batting average (.266 to .255) and walks per game (3.38 to 3.03).

Comparing 1998 and 2012, HRs per hit went up from 11.4% to 11.7%, and HRs per batted ball went up from 3.7% to 3.8%.

Time for some graphs of home runs over the past 30 years:

HR pct of PA


HR pct of Hits


Sure, the leaders aren’t hitting great heights of late. Cabrera’s 44 was the highest of the last two years, whereas every full season from 1993-2007 had at least three hitters with 45+, and most of those years had at least one 50-HR slugger. The HRs aren’t flaunting themselves at the top of the heap; they’re nestled in the middle tiers. Check out the distributions from 1998-2012:

Hitters with 35 plus HRs


Hitters with 25-34 HRs


Hitters with 15-24 HRs


I’m not making the case that juicing is still rampant, though some believe it is. But whatever else the hitters are doing, when you add up the results — including the ever-growing strikeout rate — it’s clear that the intent to hit HRs is broader than ever before.

Note the distribution by batting order position for 1998 and 2012. The percentage of total HRs that were hit by each spot in the middle of the order (#3-5) went down, while every other spot went up. It’s subtle, but it’s there:

Pct HRs hit by BOP


What do you think? What other factors are involved in this trend? And do you like what it’s done to the game?

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50 Comments on "Hitters still dig the long ball"

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Great post and graphs John! Dave Cameron of Fangraphs covered this phenomenon back in August with some similar but also some different analyses if you want to read more.


However, it appears that the early August home run boom that Dave noted didn’t last. I don’t have the data calculate homeruns per 9 innings but on a per game basis August was behind June and July and essentially the same as May.


Ed, my first thought when reading John’s piece was the one you linked to also. I’ve linked to similar articles that JA had just written in the past, so I’m glad I wasn’t the one to do it this time (not implying that you didn’t do it tactfully, Ed!).

But the fact that JA independently reached the same conclusions as the well-respected Cameron shouldn’t surprise any of us.

Jim Bouldin
Now THAT is the way to ring in the new year! NO I DO NOT LIKE WHAT IT HAS DONE TO THE GAME! Indeed, I detest it and if there were a bold font, I would use it. Baseball was farrrrrrr more interesting back in the 70s and 80s when teams ran, there were definite offensive strategies, and at least a few managers (e.g. Dick Williams, Chuck Tanner, Whitey Herzog) had the guts to experiment with new ideas—and be successful with them. I really don’t watch too much baseball any more–not really worth the time required for the enjoyment returned.… Read more »
Brendan Bingham

Based on the following (admittedly simple-minded) analysis, hitting home runs was a more successful “strategy” than base stealing during the ‘70s and ‘80s. For the 20-year period 1970 through 1989, 12 of the 40 pennant-winning teams led their league in home runs, while only 8 pennant winners led their league in stolen bases. The ’76 Reds were a special case, leading the NL in both HR and SB (and also doubles, remarkably).

Mike L
Nice work. John A. Shooting from the hip, I wonder if the comparative flattening of the curve doesn’t show that a) even at the high school level, size matters, and it’s harder for smaller players and glove men to make their way through the ranks. Could you have a lot of Rich Dauers today? b) Managers becoming more creative about how they use their lineups, placing certain hitters in non-traditional power spots for their OBA, c)more of a tolerance for the strike-out and less small ball, allowing players with modest power to swing harder, d) a historical arc on types… Read more »
e pluribus munu
John, Together with your post on 1917-18 K’s, you’ve bridged changing years with intriguing mystery issues. I spent a lot of year-end time on the earlier one, without discovering anything worth contributing. I don’t suppose I can do much on this one on a foggyheaded New Year’s morning. But it does seem to me that we’ll need another year or two to see whether the 2012 HR figures are meaningful as a trend, or whether they are, as your initial two charts suggest, part of a discernible rhythm of trend/outlier years, as HR rates decline from their PED peak. I’m… Read more »

On the first chart (HRs as % of PAs), appears we are still on the downward trend from the 2000 high. Since 2002, it’s been cycles of one or two down years and one up year. In each cycle, both the up and down years have been lower than in the preceding cycle.

I’ll be entirely speculative for a moment — the following hypothesis is wholly un-testable I think. I wonder if free agency itself has added an incentive for players to move further toward power-based rather than contact-based skills. Hitters and pitchers who emphasize contact as part of their game tend to be more valuable to a select group of teams: contact pitchers tend to need good fielders behind them and contact hitters need a strong lineup around them to promote ther singles into runs. Strikeout pitchers and home run hitters, in contrast, may have more completely portable skills: every team can… Read more »

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