Will Pitching Finally Slow Down Home Runs, Run Production in American Association
American Association Daily provides insights, features, and recaps of the action from around the American Association of Professional Baseball League, as well as player and coaching profiles and transactions. In today’s edition, Robert Pannier asks if this could be the year where pitching finally catches up with the hitters as the American Association has been trending to ever increasing offense over the last six seasons.
Where Offense Is King
When the home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa was dominating headlines in 1998, the joke became that “Chicks loved the long ball.” The truth was that everyone was loving the home run chase and that continued through the early hears of the next century as Barry Bonds led a pack of players who were putting up huge offensive numbers.
It was not long before many discovered that the surge in home runs was due to performance enhancing drugs, and soon Major League Baseball was clamping down on the illegal practice. In fact, many Hall of Fame voters have still held the use of these drugs against those accused of using PEDs, keeping them from receiving baseball’s highest honor.
The game is clean now, but that doesn’t mean that home runs have suddenly disappeared. That is especially true in the American Association where the long ball has dominated as run production has risen significantly since 2019.
Let’s Check the Stats
Prior to 2021, the biggest offensive season in American Association history was 2011, when there were 7996 runs scored and 1049 home runs. This came a year after the league had a low mark of 5379 runs scored and 749 homers (2020 is not included because only six teams played). It took three seasons for these numbers to start to reach some form of normalcy, as the league reached 918 homers in 2013 with 6614 runs scored and then saw 867 homers hit the next season.
Two years later, the league was back in the 900s for homers, as this became the standard from 2016 through 2019. All four of these seasons there were fewer than 6000 runs scored with a high of 5972 in 2016.
This was the standard. However, Covid-19 and the contraction of the minor leagues has drastically changed the home run totals in the league. In 2021, the league produced 6484 runs and increased that total to 6667 in 2022. However, home run totals ballooned. In 2021, there were 1218 homers hit in the American Association and that number grew to 1345 this last season.
It was not just a matter of how many home runs were being hit, but how many teams were hitting them. In 2016, there were two teams that hit 100+ homers. That number increased to four in 2017, but fell to one in 2018. There were three teams that hit at least 100 homers in 2019, but seven teams hit that many in 2021, and nine hit that many this past season, including the Kansas City Monarchs, who set a league record with 165.
What Led to the Increase?
The run production has not reached the level set in 2011 and 2012, but those numbers may have been inflated by PEDs. Major League Baseball began testing for Human Growth Hormones in 2012, and it is possible that there were still many playing professional baseball who were using PEDs, even in the American Association. This is not to state that these types of drugs were being used, but it is possible.
As the drug policy began to deter players from taking risks, the number of home runs and runs produced began to decline and reach a steady level. However, the last two seasons have been crazy, begging the question – what happened?
The truth is that several factors are playing a part. The first is that the level of player joining the American Association is better than ever before. Where it may have been that four or five teams had a former Major Leaguer on their roster six or seven years ago, now it is likely that every team has three or four former big league guys and nearly a dozen former AAA players. These guys hit and turn on mistakes.
In addition, the truth is that the contraction of the minor league system did not lead to an influx of available players, especially high quality pitchers. Many hitters may have been set free but that is not true of pitchers. In fact, a lot of the top pitchers from Partner League Baseball have been pillaged by affiliate clubs, depleting the pitching talent in the league.
One factor that is being missed is that scouting is better than ever, even in partner leagues. The book is out on most pitchers, and hitters know what to expect from a pitcher. As long as he has played in professional baseball or at a top tier university or college, there is a scouting report and rarely is a steep learning curve required.
There is also one additional factor that must be considered. Major League Baseball has become obsessed with guys throwing 95+ mph, who are 6-2 or taller. They have become obsessed with spin rates and velocity that they simply do not teach pitching any more. Pitching is becoming a lost art and, if a pitcher does not throw 96 mph, he is going to struggle. He is going to get blasted in the American Association because there are professional hitters who know how to crush a 92-mph fastball and do it on a regular basis.
Could This Be the Year That Things Change?
Offense has dominated the American Association the last two seasons, but could that trend end this year? Could this be the year where there is not an average of more than 11 runs scored and 2.24 homers hit per game?
That could very well be the case. On paper, there is not the vast number of top resumes we have seen the past two seasons for hitters, and the quality of pitching looks better than what has been seen the last few seasons. This could be the year that the offensive production begins to slow, maybe even seeing a sharp decline.
That will be a welcome site for many, especially for pitching coaches and managers. It will also be a welcome change for those running PointStreak each night.
By Robert Pannier