Commentary

If we had a hammer ...

... we'd destroy the home run list, and restore the luster to the best stat in sports.

Originally Published: July 1, 2010
By Peter Keating | ESPN The Magazine
Getty ImagesBased on the Mag's adjustments, Barry Bonds is no longer the all-time home run leader.

This story appears in the July 12 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Managers, sportswriters and pseudosophisticated baseball fans love to extol the virtues of small ball -- all the little things that don't show up in the box score, like taking the extra base, hitting behind the runner and breaking up the double play. Well, you know what's more important than the things that don't show up in the box score? Things that do. That's why they're in the box score. And while speed and sacrifices reveal the intricacies of team play, the unsophisticated act of mashing baseballs demonstrates value.

Simply put, knocking one out of the park is the single most important skill in baseball. Why? Because home runs are dangerous, and they represent the idea that a single at-bat could turn a game upside down. That's why Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" still resonates, why Red Sox fans cringe when they hear the name Bucky Dent, and why we vividly remember Albert Pujols' majestic bomb off Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS. It's that game-changing quality that makes the home run the best statistic in sports, and a big part of why the home run record is so revered.

Of course, even taters start to lose their taste when too many are served up. And we're just now digesting a 15-year binge during which home runs were so common they began to lose their dramatic impact. From 1876 to 1994, a player hit 50 or more home runs in a season just 18 times. Between 1995 and 2002, it happened 18 more times. As the power of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds peaked, all kinds of extraordinarily rare accomplishments -- such as a player hitting 60 homers in a season -- became run-of-the-mill. By the time Bonds passed Hank Aaron's career home run mark in 2007, fear of Bonds' power by opponents had reduced his plate appearances to a series of intentional walks punctuated by mammoth blasts. Horribly enough, home runs became almost boring, and the records we once cherished were cheapened.

That's not so anymore -- scoring is down, strikeouts are up and a different young ace seems to throw a perfect game every other week -- but we still need a way to put the feverish stats of the late '90s and early 2000s into perspective. It's a little more complicated than saying power exploded and has since come back to earth. Total home runs have drifted down from their millennial peak, but what really has decreased is dominance, the ability of top sluggers to blast away from the pack. And when we account for that, we can accurately compare home runs across eras -- and finally put the home run record into proper context.

Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.