On Tuesday, Nelson Cruz of the Orioles hit his 40th home run, saving us from the deprivation of not having a 40-homer guy for the first time since 1982. That year Reggie Jackson of the Angels and Gorman Thomas of the Brewers tied for the major league with 39, and what a pair that was. Dave Kingman of the Mets led the National League with 37. Those three players also ranked 1-2-3 in the majors in strikeouts -- Reggie and Kingman had 156 and Stormin' Gorman had 143, so those guys were playing 2014-style baseball 32 years ago. Ahead of their time!
Reggie had been a free agent that year and George Steinbrenner once said letting Jackson leave was the biggest mistake he ever made. That's not really true. Reggie did have a big season in 1982 but that was kind of a last hurrah. He played through 1987 -- remember that return to Oakland? -- but didn't really provide much value after '82. Of course, 1982 was the Yankees tried to win with speed -- Dave Collins! Jerry Mumphrey! Ken Griffey Sr.! -- and didn't steal that many bases and went 79-83.
While nobody hit 40 in 1982, sixteen players did reach 30. This is kind of interesting: Ten of the 16 were in their 30s. This year, only 10 players have hit 30, even though we have four more teams and generally smaller parks. It’s worth noting that only seven of those 16 players from 1982 struck out 100 times, although it's also worth nothing that four of this year’s 30-homer guys are under 100 K’s – Victor Martinez, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista and David Ortiz. Speaking of which, Ortiz doesn’t get much credit for how he’s changed his game as he’s aged. This is a guy who struck out 145 times in 2010; even though strikeouts have risen across the sport his have decreased. Anyway, of the top 40 home run hitters this season, only seven have so far struck out fewer than 100 times.
So, yes, it’s a different era. In 1982, the average strikeouts per game was 5.0; this year it’s 7.7. Overall, there are slightly more home runs in 2014: 0.87 per game compared to 0.80 in 1982. While we have fewer 30-homer guys in 2014, teams today have more power throughout the lineup. That shouldn’t be a surprise; the banjo-hitting infielders and Omar Moreno-type outfielders have basically been phased out by players who sell out to hit 15 home runs a year. With so many strikeouts (and give credit to the pitchers as well), offense is down, as we all know: 4.07 runs per game compared to 4.30 in 1982.
That decline in offense has led to many "baseball is dying" stories of late. Yes, offense is way down compared to the steroids-infused 1990s and 2000s but the difference between 2014 and 1982 is about one run every four games. Is that really noticeable until you look at the numbers?
Anyway, the first 40-homer guy was, apropos, Babe Ruth, who cracked the 40-homer and 50-homer barrier in 1920, when he joined the Yankees and swatted 54. Rogers Hornsby became the first National Leaguer to reach 40 when he hit 42 in 1922. That was pretty impressive; only one other player in the NL even hit 20 that year. Once the 40-homer had barrier had been reached, the lowest league-leading total, not including the 1981 strike season, was Nick Etten of the Yankees in 1944 with 22. But that was during the war without many of the regular major leaguers and the baseball was made out of mud or cornstalks or something. Not including World War II, the lowest total is 23 by Ralph Kiner of the Pirates in 1946. He and Johnny Mize both hit 51 the next year, so maybe the NL was still using leftover mushballs in 1946. Could be the case. Owners were cheap back then. From 1971 through 1977, the AL actually went seven seasons in a row without a 40-homer hitter. No wonder Jim Rice beat out Ron Guidry for the 1978 AL MVP Award when he hit 46.
The season with most 40-homer guys is 1996, with 17 (long live Brady Anderson and Toddy Hundley!). There were 16-homer guys in 2000. And the top 10 seasons all occurred between 1996 and 2005. So steroids are bad but baseball is dying because we don't have enough players juicing up and hitting 40 these days. Can't win.
Of course, we have nearly double the teams now as prior to the 16-team circuit that existed before the first expansion in 1961. That year saw eight 40-homer guys between the 18 teams in the majors (including Roger Maris with 61, the only year he reached 40). Plus they played 154 games before expansion, so a 40-homer season now is kind of the same as a 38-homer season in a 154-game season (one homer every four games). Using a cutoff of 38 home runs per season, most years in the 1950s saw five or six guys reach that total, so the rate of 40-homer guys back then was pretty high.
Ruth has the most 40-homer seasons with 11. Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Harmon Killebrew each have eight. Sammy Sosa and Ken Griffey Jr. have seven. The most obscure 40-homer guy? Well, probably Cy Williams, who hit 41 in 1923 for the Phillies. That was a long time ago which makes him obscure. The Phillies played in Baker Bowl, maybe the greatest hitter’s park ever, a little bandbox with a short right-field fence. Guys put up crazy numbers there and Williams hit 26 of his 41 home runs at home. Williams led the NL four times in home runs, including in 1927 when he was 39 years old, which I believe makes him the oldest player to lead his league in home runs. According to this bio, after his playing days, Williams retired to his dairy farm in Wisconsin "where he worked as an architect and started a construction business. Some of the finest buildings on Wisconsin's Upper Peninsula stand today as tributes to his architectural talent."
So, thank you, Nelson Cruz, for giving us reason to mention Cy Williams.