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The history of juiced balls and how today’s home run binge fits in

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We’ve all seen the ridiculous moon-orbiting blasts and never-ending barrage of home runs. On Sunday, the Nationals tied a record with four consecutive home runs. On Monday, the Diamondbacks and Phillies set a record by combining for 13 home runs. On Tuesday, the Braves hit four home runs in one inning. Jerad Eickhoff allowed five home runs on Monday, and Chris Archer did it on Tuesday.

Entering Wednesday’s games, 25 players had already hit 17 home runs, putting them on a 40-homer pace. The single-season record for players with 40 home runs is 17 in 1996. As recently as 2014, only one player — Nelson Cruz — hit 40 home runs.

Needless to say, MLB is once again set to shatter the record for total home runs. There were 6,105 home runs in 2017. We’re on pace for 6,566 in 2019 — nearly 1,000 more home runs than there were in 2018. It’s not just the quantity but also the apparent cheapness of many of the home runs, seemingly lazy fly balls that land in the bleachers. As Buster Olney said on his podcast the other day, “How many times have we heard announcers say, ‘I can’t believe that one went out’?”

Compared with last season, runs per game are up 0.27, and home runs are up 0.20 per game. Yes, hitters are going for launch angle and all-or-nothing swings while accepting even more strikeouts, but something is clearly up with the ball. The juiced ball of 2017 has returned with rockets attached this time.

Now it’s time for a little history lesson. This kind of dramatic season-to-season increase in offense has occurred at various times throughout major league history, with increases traced directly to changes (intentional or not) to the ball. Let’s look at some of those seasons and see what happened.

1911: Introducing cork

Runs per game: up 0.68

Home runs per game: up .07

For decades, the National League (and later the American) used a ball produced by the A.G. Spalding Company, founded by White Sox pitcher Albert Spalding in 1876 to manufacture a standard ball for the new professional league. Prior to that, balls were of inconsistent standards and quality. (The American League ball bore a “Reach” label, but Spalding was the actual manufacturer.)

That ball included a rubber core, but during the 1910 World Series, a cork-centered ball was used — yes, imagine changing the ball that had been used all season for the World Series — and the cork-centered ball became the new standard. Even though it was still the dead ball era, the increase in runs per game remains the largest year-to-year increase in any season since 1900.

The overall major league batting average increased from .249 to .266. In 1910, 15 players hit .300 across the two leagues, and only three (Ty Cobb, Nap Lajoie and Sherry Magee) slugged above .470. In 1911, 30 players hit .300 and 13 slugged above .470.

Leading the way was Cobb, who hit .419 after hitting .382 the season before. He followed with a .409 mark in 1912. He went from 35 doubles and 13 triples to 47 doubles and 24 triples. Shoeless Joe Jackson, in his first full season in the majors, hit .408. Sam Crawford, Cobb’s Hall of Fame Tigers teammate, was a 31-year-old veteran with a .305 career average. He hit .378.

The offensive gains proved short-lived, however. Runs per game went from 4.51 in 1911 and 4.53 in 1912 all the way down to 3.56 by 1916. According to John McMurray of SABR’s dead ball era committee in a 2011 New York Times article, a pitcher named Russ Ford started scuffing the ball, which soon became a widespread tactic. Add various forms of the spitball, and offense fell back to low levels.

1930: The year the National League hit .303

Runs per game: up 0.36

Home runs per game: up .08

The so-called “lively ball” era began in 1920 (runs increased from 3.88 to 4.36 from 1919 to 1920), though the initial increase wasn’t so much the result of a different ball. There were two other reasons: (A) banning the spitball; (B) using new balls throughout the game rather than dirty, scuffed-up ones. Babe Ruth began slugging home runs, and the new style of power hitting quickly took over.

The most notorious high-offense season in major league history saw an average of 5.55 runs per game, the highest of the live ball era. Next highest: 5.19 in 1929 and 5.14 in 2000. The National League averaged 5.68 runs per game and hit a collective .303. The New York Giants hit .319 as a team, and the Phillies allowed 7.69 runs per game with a 6.71 ERA.

Some of the individual highlights:

— Hack Wilson hit 56 home runs with a record 191 RBIs.

— Bill Terry of the Giants hit .401.

— Chuck Klein hit .386 with 107 extra-base hits and 170 RBIs.

— Freddie Lindstrom of the Giants hit .379 and became one of the worst Hall of Fame selections ever on the strength of that season.

— Brooklyn’s Babe Herman hit .393 with 35 home runs.

— Cubs pitcher Guy Bush finished with a 6.20 ERA. He still went 15-10.

That was just in the National League.

What happened? The manufacturer insisted that nothing had changed. “There has been absolutely no change in the major league baseball in the past five years,” Spalding president Julian Curtis said that June. “There isn’t even a change in the yarn. If we bought our yarn, there might be, but we don’t. We have our own yarn mills, and there has been no change in the manufacture or quality; no change in the wrapping; no change in the covers; no change in the rubber or cork.”

Giants manager John McGraw suggested the owners needed to fix the ball. “It has taken the confidence out of the pitchers and is so lively the fielders cannot handle it,” he said. He also proposed moving the pitching distance two feet closer to home plate. Cubs president Bill Veeck offered that the fans liked all the hitting. “It’s the punch that has made baseball over in the last 10 years,” he said.

In the end, it was too much offense, even for the owners. The National League changed the ball for 1931, adding a slightly thicker cover and raising the seam. Offense fell from 5.68 runs per game to 4.48, the league average declined from .303 to .277, and home runs dropped from 892 to 493. The American League, however, apparently didn’t change its ball, and runs per game remained above 5.0, including 5.67 in 1936 — just shy of the National League’s mark in 1930.

1977: Welcome aboard, Rawlings

Runs per game: up 0.48

Home runs per game: up 0.29

A New York Times story from 1975 detailed the end of Spalding’s reign as MLB’s baseball manufacturer. With its contract set to expire after the 1976 season, the company reportedly asked for a 5% price increase per ball for 1975 and another 5% for 1976. According to the article, Spalding sold about 250,000 balls per year to MLB at a cost of $2 apiece. A 5% increase to $2.10 per ball would have increased MLB’s annual cost to $525,000.

Spalding had produced every baseball ever used in major league baseball, but it was kicked to the curb over an additional $25,000. “The reason is price,” said Lee MacPhail, president of the American League. “We’re sorry we’re ending such a long and proud relationship. But we’ve been able to work something out with another manufacturer.”

That manufacturer became Rawlings in 1977. Before it took over, however, offense nose-dived in 1976 to 3.99 runs per game. Only four players across the majors hit 30 home runs, and only 22 hit even 20. With Rawlings presumably manufacturing a higher quality ball in 1977 (plus new expansion teams in Seattle and Toronto slightly diluting the pitching), 19 players hit 30-plus home runs, and 56 hit at least 20. Among the big hitters:

— George Foster of the Reds slugged 52 home runs, the first 50-homer slugger since Willie Mays in 1965.

— Rod Carew hit .388 and slugged .570, the only full season he slugged .500 in his career.

— The Dodgers had four players hit 30-plus home runs (Steve Garvey, Reggie Smith, Dusty Baker, Davey Lopes), the first time four teammates had done that (11 teams have done it since, all since 1995).

The 4.47 runs per game in 1977 were not topped until something strange happened in 1987.

1987: The rabbit ball

Runs per game: up 0.31

Home runs per game: up 0.15

The first sentence in Frank Deford’s column in the July 27 edition of Sports Illustrated asked the question on everyone’s mind: “If the baseball is juiced up, who’s responsible?” Deford dismissed any conspiracy to change the ball — something would have leaked if that were the case, he surmised — and attempted rational explanations for the home run explosion that season. Batters were stronger, a generation of pitchers was on the defensive due to growing up facing aluminum bats and throwing too many breaking balls, and the best athletes had chosen hitting as their trade.

Or this: “The last incredible generation of pitchers — Gibson, Marichal, Koosman, Seaver, Palmer, Sutton, Hunter, John, Jenkins, Carlton, Tiant, the Perrys and the Niekros — was the product of that postwar time when traditional philosophy still prevailed: discipline and dedication, the Protestant ethic and the commitment to the long haul.” Pitchers weren’t tough enough. Or something. George Will went with the aluminum bat theory and increased weight training. Pirates GM Syd Thrift said pitchers were being rushed to the majors. Braves catcher Ozzie Virgil said the bats were better.

OK … except the 1988 season saw one of the biggest drops in offense in the game’s history. Runs per game fell from 4.72 to 4.14, not just below 1987 figures but well below 1986 or 1985 or 1984. There were 3,813 home runs in 1986 (which was a record for total home runs, though not quite the highest per-game average), then 4,458 in 1987, then 3,180 in 1988. The MLB-wide batting average went from .258 to .263 to .254.

It was the ball. That was the prevailing theory from those in the game. Tigers manager Sparky Anderson referred to the “nitroglycerin ball.” Astros pitcher Mike Scott said the balls were going farther. Reds manager Pete Rose said the ball was definitely livelier.

Indeed, some individual numbers were eye-popping. A’s rookie Mark McGwire hit 49 home runs. So did Andre Dawson. Twenty-eight players hit 30-plus home runs, compared with 13 in 1986. Singles- and doubles-hitting Wade Boggs, who hit 22 home runs the previous three seasons, hit 24; he never hit more than 11 the rest of his career. Tony Gwynn hit .370, Boggs hit .363, and Paul Molitor hit .353 and had a 39-game hitting streak. Larry Sheets hit .316 with 31 home runs for the Orioles. (He finished at .266 and 94 in his career.)

Four of the six highest individual home run seasons in the 1980s came in 1987. Eight of the top 14 OPS seasons in the decade came in 1987. As Matthew Pouliot pointed out in an article several years ago, perhaps no player benefited from the 1987 rabbit ball more than Dawson. He won MVP honors for a last-place Cubs team on the strength of those 49 home runs and a league-leading 137 RBIs. His second-highest home run total in his career: 32. Without that 49-homer season and MVP award, he might not have made the Hall of Fame.

Then, just like that, the ball was dead. In 1987, only four starting pitchers had a sub-3.00 ERA. In 1988, 20 pitchers achieved that mark. The sport entered a five-year span with a relative lull in offense.

1993: Juiced players or juiced ball?

Runs per game: up 0.48

Home runs per game: up 0.17

After the lull came the explosion. In a two-year span, runs per game went from 4.12 to 4.60 to 4.92. Home runs per game increased from 0.72 to 0.89 to 1.03. Yes, the Rockies joined the National League in 1993, helping to create more offense, but that alone hardly explains a half-run per game increase. Indeed, the American League — without games in Colorado — went from 4.32 runs to 4.71 to 5.23. No doubt, PED use was starting to spread across the sport, but the PED theory assumes the unlikelihood that everyone started using all at once.

So it was the ball. Something changed in the 1992-93 offseason. The full impact was felt more intensely over two seasons, but some of the individual increases in 1993 were dramatic:

— In 1992, 10 players hit 30 home runs, and two hit more than 35: Juan Gonzalez (43) and Mark McGwire (42). In 1993, 22 players hit 30 home runs, and 10 hit more than 35.

— Seven players in 1993 posted an OPS above 1.000. Over five seasons from 1988 to 1992, only five players topped 1.000.

— Barry Bonds slugged .677 in 1993, the highest figure since Mickey Mantle in 1961.

— Andres Galarraga hit .370 (in Colorado), and John Olerud hit .363 with 54 doubles for the Blue Jays.

— Ken Griffey Jr. went from 27 home runs to 45.

In 1994, things went completely nuts:

— When the strike hit in August, Matt Williams (43), Griffey (40), Jeff Bagwell (39) and Frank Thomas (38) were trying to chase down Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs.

— Three players — Bagwell (.750), Thomas (.729) and Albert Belle (.714) — slugged over .700, which had been accomplished just three times since World War II (Ted Williams, Mantle and Stan Musial). Bagwell’s .750 mark was higher than anybody’s since Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in 1927.

— Tony Gwynn hit .394.

And so on. So what happened? One suggestion is that it was around this time that Rawlings switched from hand manufacture of the core to machine manufacture, which resulted in more tightly wound cores. The offensive gains were only partially realized in 1993 due to some leftover balls from 1992 still existing in the pipeline.

The owners certainly realized what was happening. The fans loved the long ball. Attendance increased from 26,529 fans per game in 1992 to 30,964 in 1993 to 31,256 in 1994.

There’s your history lesson. It’s a reminder that a baseball is a lot more complex object than it might appear.

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Nats’ Turner hits for another cycle against Rockies

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WASHINGTON — The Rockies bring out the best in Trea Turner.

On Tuesday night, the Nationals shortstop hit for the cycle during Washington’s 11-1 win over Colorado, the second time in his career that he’s accomplished the feat versus the Rockies. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he’s just the third player in MLB history to hit for the cycle multiple times against the same team. Fred Clarke of the Pittsburgh Pirates had two cycles against the Reds (1901, 1903), and Christian Yelich did it twice last year, also against Cincinnati.

Turner led off the bottom of the first with a solo home run against Colorado starter Peter Lambert. In the second inning, he grounded a single off Lambert for a single. Facing Lambert again in the fifth, Turner hit a liner down the right field line that glanced off Charlie Blackmon’s glove and rolled into the corner for a triple. After grounding into an inning-ending double play against lefty reliever Sam Howard in the sixth, Turner came up in the seventh against righty Jairo Diaz and laced an RBI double to the gap in right-centerfield.

Turner is the 26th player in major-league history to hit for multiple cycles in his career. He previously did it on April 25, 2017 at Coors Field. In 18 career games against Colorado, the 26-year old speedster is now batting .386 with 16 extra-base hits.

Of the 10 cycles that the Rockies have now allowed in their history, Turner’s is the first one to be accomplished away from Coors Field.

Earlier this season, Turner missed six weeks due to a fractured right index finger that he suffered as the result a hit-by-pitch. In 60 games with Washington this year, he’s hitting .286 with eight home runs and 20 stolen bases.

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Padres vs. Mets – Game Recap – July 23, 2019

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NEW YORK — Robinson Cano hit three home runs, breaking loose from a season-long slump in a huge way and leading Jason Vargas and the New York Mets over the San Diego Padres 5-2 Tuesday night.

The 36-year-old Cano drove in all five runs and went 4-for-4. Vargas pitched one-hit ball for six shutout innings, possibly enhancing his trade value.

Cano began the day batting just .243 with six homers in his first season with the Mets. Yet before the game, manager Mickey Callaway expressed confidence that Cano would produce, putting him in the category of “Hall of Fame hitters.”

Cano homered three times in a game for the first time in his career. It was just the third three-homer game ever by a Mets player at home — Lucas Duda and Kirk Nieuwenhuis both did it in July 2015.

After singling in the first, Cano made it 1-0 in the fourth with his first home run at Citi Field since early April.

Cano hit a two-run homer off Chris Paddack (6-5) in the sixth and a two-run shot in the seventh off Logan Allen — both drives sailed into the second deck.

Of Cano’s nine homers this year, five have come since the All-Star break. This was his 23rd career multihomer game and first since 2017 with Seattle.

Yoenis Cespedes was the previous Mets player to hit three homers, doing it in 2017. The feat has been accomplished by 13th different Mets players, with Cespedes doing it twice.

Vargas (5-5) put on a pitching clinic, getting the San Diego hitters to consistently flail.

The 36-year-old left-hander gave up only a single to Eric Hosmer in the fifth, struck out eight and walked three. Rookie Fernando Tatis Jr. struck out three times and Manny Machado swung at a strike three that bounced.

Several scouts were at Citi Field, and no doubt the performance Vof argas piqued their interest as the July 31 trade deadline approaches.

Vargas’ hardest fastball was clocked at 84.6 mph — Paddack’s slowest changeup came in a tick faster 84.7.

The anticipated showdown between rookie stars Pete Alonso and Paddack didn’t amount to much — the slugging Alonso walked twice and grounded out against the young fireballer.

Edwin Diaz relieved with two on in the ninth and got his 22nd save in 26 chances, giving up an RBI double to Tatis before retiring Manuel Margot on a lineout with two on to end the game.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Padres: LHP Adrian Morejon “should be available” to pitch in relief during this three-game series, manager Andy Green said. The 20-year-old Cuban made his major league debut Sunday at Wrigley Field, giving up one run and three hits in 2 1/3 innings. Green said the Padres would consider using him as an opener over the weekend at home vs. the Giants.

Mets: Major league batting leader Jeff McNeil was hit in the right elbow by a Paddack pitch in the fifth. McNeil was checked by a trainer and stayed in. … RHP Zack Wheeler (shoulder impingement) threw batting practice on the field and could be activated Friday to pitch against the Pirates. “I’m 100%. Ready to go,” he said. Callaway said Wheeler, who last started on July 7, will be on a pitch count of 75-85 pitches. Wheeler (6-6, 4.69 ERA) has been the subject of trade rumors leading up to the July 31 deadline. “Last year was the same way,” he said.

UP NEXT

Padres: RHP Dinelson Lamet (0-2, 5.14 ERA) makes his fourth start of the season. He won his major league debut in 2017 at Citi Field and went 7-8 overall, then missed last year after Tommy John surgery.

Mets: RHP Noah Syndergaard (7-4, 4.36) is 4-0 in his past nine starts.

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Nationals’ Scherzer on track for Thursday return

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WASHINGTON — Nationals ace Max Scherzer is expected to return from the injured list Thursday.

“He felt good today,” manager Davey Martinez said of Scherzer, who threw a bullpen session Monday prior to the opener of a four-game series between the Nationals and Rockies getting rained out. That contest has been rescheduled as part of a doubleheader on Wednesday, with the finale coming Thursday afternoon.

Assuming Scherzer doesn’t suffer any setbacks between now and then, he would take the hill in the finale.

Scherzer has been dealing with an inflamed bursa sac below his right shoulder and has not pitched since July 6, when he tallied 11 strikeouts over seven scoreless innings against the Kansas City Royals. One week later, the Nats placed him on the injured list, retroactive to July 10.

On Tuesday, Martinez said the Nationals considered the calendar for the remainder of the regular-season schedule, as well as the postseason, before landing on Thursday as the likely return date for Scherzer.

“We actually sat down and looked at the schedule, and that’s basically how we came up with Thursday,” said the Nats’ second-year skipper. “I went all the way ’til the wild-card game. I’m hoping that we’re not the wild-card team. But we sat down and mapped everything out from that day.”

Washington began the day 6.5 games behind the first-place Atlanta Braves in the National League East, and in possession of the top wild-card spot in the NL. If Scherzer is able to go on Thursday, he would then line up to start in all three of his team’s remaining series against the Braves, as well as in Washington’s lone remaining series against the third-place Phillies. He’d also be in position to take the mound in a potential NL wild-card game.

A three-time Cy Young winner, Scherzer has been one of the game’s most durable hurlers, having made at least 30 starts in all 10 of his full seasons since debuting in 2008. Since signing a seven-year, $210 million contract with the Nationals prior to the 2015 season, the 34-year-old righty had made only one other trip to the injured list, in August of 2017.

This season, Scherzer is 9-5 with a 2.30 ERA. In 129.1 innings, he has recorded 181 strikeouts, most in the National League. In June, prior to hitting the shelf, he went 6-0 with a 1.00 ERA and was named the NL Pitcher of the Month.

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