: August 25, 2008
Nothing to Blame But the Ball: Remembering the Home Run Surge of 1987 by Tommy Szarka
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Home run totals often fluctuate from season to season, but 1987 saw an unusual power surge. Tommy Szarka wrote this article which appeared in the BBL on April 25, 2002. We\'re not sure his conclusions are correct, but he\'s right when he says something was going on that year. Even Wade Boggs hit 24 homers, a career high that more than doubled the total of his next best HR season:
In the past few years every time baseballs start flying out of ballparks at ridiculous rates, the media, broadcasters, and former and current players start talking about the degradation of pitching through expansion, smaller parks, muscle-enhancing supplements and all the other popular explanations for an increase in home runs. Most of the time, all of the points are valid to some degree.
Back in 1987, the only thing that was talked about was the introduction of a new, livelier ball. Expansion pitching couldn\'t be to blame; the majors hadn\'t expanded in 10 years. There weren\'t any new ballparks with bandbox-dimensions at which to point fingers and muscle-enhancing supplements were still called steroids. Without these now normal explanations, all the experts could blame was the ball.
And blame the ball they did.
"I don\'t know that major league baseball said that we want to order balls that are harder, tighter wound so that they will fly more and create more offense, but I wouldn\'t discount it," said former Astros pitcher and current Houston announcer Jim Deshaies. "I would argue though that it might not have been the conspiracy everybody thought it was. There are some parameters that these balls are supposed to be made and the specifications are that they are wound this tight and it may be in certain years that they are pushed toward the top end, say, of how tightly the balls are wound and therefore they may fly a little better."
Not surprisingly, the baseballs in the American League flew out with more regularity. Batters in the A.L. swatted 2,634 home runs in 1987, almost 350 more than the previous year and more than 700 above the figure posted by the league in 1988. Of 124 every day players with 300 or more at bats, 44 enjoyed seasons in which they reached their respective career-high home run totals. While the figures were larger in gross numbers in the American League, the percentage of increase was actually greater in the senior circuit. Home runs increased by 301 from 1986 to 1987 (1,523-1,824) in the National League and fell by almost 43 percent in 1988, down to 1,279.
Another interesting bit about the 1987 season was that only three teams, all in the National League, produced more home runs in 1986 than in the \'87 season. Houston and Los Angeles nearly matched their 1986 home run totals the following season, but San Diego actually fell by 23 home runs. The only team without an every day player posting a career high in home runs was the Pittsburgh Pirates, and catcher Mike Diaz enjoyed his finest season as one of the team\'s catchers, making an unimpeded trip around the bases 16 times in 241 at bats.
While nearly every season can boast a few breakout or comeback performances from rising or returning stars, the 1987 season produced some absolutely shocking offensive outbursts, including the two leagues\' Most Valuable Player Award winners, George Bell of Toronto and Andre Dawson of the Chicago Cubs. Bell popped 47 home runs in his MVP campaign. While it wasn\'t surprising that Bell was among the A.L. home run leaders, it was surprising that he nearly reached 50. Bell hit between 26 to 31 home runs from 1984-1986 and followed his MVP season with 24 home runs in 1988, including three bombs on opening day. He would never hit more than 25 in a season again.
Even more surprising was the MVP winner in the senior circuit, Cubs\' outfielder Dawson. He bashed a National League-leading 49 home runs in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. After hitting just 20 home runs in 1986, many felt Dawson\'s rejuvenation was due to his new park for both its short fences and natural surface for his ailing knees. However, Dawson failed to produce at such a high level the next season, belting just 24 taters in 1988.
Dawson wasn\'t the only N.L. veteran to make a comeback in 1987. Two-time MVP Dale Murphy hit a career-high 44 in 1987, but followed up with just 24 in \'88. Teammate Ozzie Virgil hit 27 home runs but hit just 10 more over the next three seasons.
Young players in the American League seemed to be the major beneficiaries of the supposed "lively-ball." Up and coming players like Milwaukee\'s Dale Sveum (25 home runs), Matt Nokes (32) of Detroit, the Yankees\' Mike Pagliarulo (32), Larry Sheets (31) of Baltimore, Cleveland\'s Brook Jacoby (32), Seattle\'s Jim Presley (24), Ivan Calderon (28) of the Chicago White Sox, and California\'s Wally Joyner (34) all enjoyed excellent seasons early in their careers but never again came close to matching their 1987 power totals.
There were some very strange seasons enjoyed by journeymen players in 1987 as well. Dodgers\' outfielder John Shelby swatted 22 home runs in 508 at bats. In his other 2,582 career at bats, he hit just 48. Cubs sparkplug Bob Dernier hit eight home runs in 188 at bats, but belted just 15 more in his other 2,284. Teammate Manny Trillo also hit eight home runs in his 214 at bats. In nearly 6,000 other at bats, Trillo managed to belt only 53 balls out of the park. With home runs leaving the bats with such frequency from everyday players of all kinds, more pitchers than ever were labeled as "gopher ball" pitchers. Eighteen pitchers in the American League allowed 30 or more home runs, led by the 46 given up by Twins ace Bert Blyleven. Blyleven allowed 50 in 1986, but was one of only 13 pitchers to give up 30 or more home runs in the majors that year.
Besides Blyleven, several other prominent pitchers were often victimized. Tigers ace Jack Morris allowed 39 home runs, Don Sutton of the Angels gave up 38, and Rangers knuckleballer Charlie Hough watched 36 floaters leave the yard. Floyd Bannister of the White Sox and Curt Young of the Athletics gave up 38 home runs and Red Sox hurler Bruce Hurst allowed 35 homers.
Excluding 1987, major league pitchers allowed 30 or more home runs 23 times from 1985-1989. Twenty-one pitchers gave up 30 or more in 1987.
A year after the record-setting season of 1987, Peter Gammons wrote an article in Sports Illustrated with theories as to why the home runs trots reduced after the calendar turned to 1988. The reasons varied from weather to pitcher adjustments and maturation to a different strike zone. Even the theories like the newly enforced balk rule and a reduction of corked bats came to mind. And most importantly, Reggie Jackson retired.
No matter how many statistics are presented there will be some who say nothing was different, that the year was simply an aberration in major league history.