With home runs up to a level not seen since the height of the Steroids Era, baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred says he is not worried performance-enhancing drugs are a reason for the increase.
There was an average of nearly 2.32 home runs per game before the All-Star break, up from 1.90 in the first half of last year and the most before the break since 2.56 in 2000.
“The increase in the number of home runs takes place against a very, very different backdrop,” Manfred told the Baseball Writers’ Association of America prior to the All-Star Game in San Diego on Tuesday. “It takes place against the backdrop where Major League Baseball does 22,000 drug tests a year.”
Thirteen players have been suspended this year under the big league drug program, including N.L. batting champion Dee Gordon of the Miami Marlins, nearly double the seven suspensions issued in all of 2015.
Offense started perking up during the second half of last season, and last year’s home run average ended at 2.02.
“If it was performance-enhancing drugs, you’d be much more likely to see it begin at the beginning of the season, right, with the offseason being a period of temptation,” Manfred said. “So we think it has to do with the way pitchers pitch, the way hitters are being taught to play the game. We’ve seen some unusual developments in terms of what you traditionally thought of as home-run hitters being moved up in the lineup, just to get them more at-bats.”
Toronto manager John Gibbons at times pushed Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion to the top of his batting order.
Manfred rejected the notion baseballs might be juiced and referred to the resignation in 2013 of Nippon Professional Baseball Commissioner Ryozo Kato after a change in the manufacturing of balls for the Japanese leagues.
“There are certain mistakes in life that if you pay attention to what’s going on around you, you are not inclined to make,” Manfred said. “I like my current gig. So I think you can rest assured … the baseball’s the same as it was last year.”
In other news by Manfred:
The league intends to allow law enforcement to gather information regarding the sexual-assault allegations against Pirates third baseman Jung Ho Kang before determining a punishment.
In a response to a lawsuit filed by Minor leaguers two years ago that claimed their pay violates federal and state minimum wage and overtime laws, Manfred said MLB doesn’t think minor leaguers should be entitled to overtime.
After the firing of Fredi Gonzalez by the Braves in May, Manfred called the lack of Latino managers “glaring.”
Manfred said the dates of the Tokyo Games, which are scheduled from July 24-Aug. 9, are “not ideal” for MLB.
The Athletics and the Rays are in need of new stadiums. Oakland’s search will be confined to Oakland. The Rays were given permission by the St. Petersburg to search for sites in the area outside the city.
Manfred thinks the Orioles eventually will be forced to take their television dispute with the Nationals back to a committee of baseball executives. New York Supreme Court Justice Lawrence K. Marks in November threw out an arbitration decision that said the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which is controlled by the Orioles, owes the Nationals about $298 million for the team’s 2012-16 television rights.
Manfred said if baseball players want to shorten the schedule, they should accept a reduction in pay since more off days could mean “significant economic ramifications.”
MLB honors Carew
The league announced before the All-Star game that the A.L. batting title will be officially named the Rod Carew Award after Hall of Famer, former Twin and seven-time batting champion Rod Carew. Carew, who barely survived a heart attack last November, is awaiting a heart transplant.
The league also said the N.L. batting title award would be named after San Diego’s native son, the late Tony Gywnn.
Strike zone talk
Wade Miley hears the talk about lifting the bottom of the strike zone in an effort to spark offense and insists there has been too much tinkering already.
“I don’t know why they just can’t leave the game alone,” the Seattle pitcher said. “Can’t we just go play and try to get three outs and go from there?”
Concerned about the drop in offense in recent years, MLB has studied whether to restore the lower edge of the strike zone from just beneath the kneecap to its pre-1996 level – at the top of the kneecap. Any change for 2017 would require an agreement with the players’ association, which is skeptical. Membership is split.
“I think it’s kind of outrageous what they’re trying to do with the strike zone,” Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Alex Wood said. “Obviously, I’m biased. I’m a pitcher. But at the same time, it’s shrunk drastically, maybe even in the last five or six years.”
Baseball people talk about the strike zone the way most discuss the weather: constant complaints about hard-to-fathom change.
Wood threw 11.9 percent of his pitches last year at the bottom of the strike zone, according to Fangraphs, which defined the lowest portion as between 1.5 and 1.75 feet off the ground. That was the highest-percentage in the major leagues, just ahead of Minnesota’s Kyle Gibson at 11.3 percent and Miley’s 11 percent.
When the strike zone was last changed, umpires took years to adjust.
MLB has used computer software to track umpires’ strike zones since 2001, which has helped bring the umpiring staff into closer alignment on balls and strikes. Umpires receive a grade now after every game worked behind the plate, and that has resulted in an expansion of the strike zone over much of the past decade.
Braves catcher Tyler Flowers is expected to miss about six weeks because of a fractured bone in his left hand. Flowers originally injured the hand when he was struck by a pitch on July 1 at the Marlins. He aggravated the injury while checking his swing during his first at-bat at the White Sox on Saturday.
The Braves plan to promote veteran catcher Anthony Recker from Triple-A Gwinnett to replace Flowers on the roster. The Braves resume their schedule on Friday following the All-Star break.
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