The MLB home run explosion of 2016: Are juiced baseballs to blame?

July 20, 2016, 9:20 AM

— -- The day before the All-Star Game, Max Scherzer was in a good mood. He talked about University of Missouri football, how the curveball he developed in 2013 took his game to the next level and the new cutter he's starting to throw. Then he was asked about the home run spike across the majors.

"I'm not going to throw that stone and make accusations," he said with his agitation showing. "But it would be interesting to see what Major League Baseball says. Do they have any opinions or thoughts or reasons? You don't see year-to-year jumps like this. Usually, everything stays within itself unless something drastic happens, like moving the fences in around the league, and that didn't happen."

About the ball ...

"Even if they did make a change," Scherzer said, "I wouldn't be able to feel anything different."

With a National League-leading 21 home runs allowed, maybe Scherzer is simply a little sensitive to the topic of home runs. But he isn't the only pitcher serving them up. Entering Monday's games, MLB was on pace for 5,584 home runs. That would be 675 more than in 2015, a 13.8 percent increase, and a staggering 1,398 more than in 2014, an increase of more than 33 percent. The only season with a higher rate of home runs hit was 2000, in the heart of the steroid era.

Players live in a sort of baseball bubble, hyper-focused on the day-to-day and often unaware of the bigger trends, but the rise in home runs is a hot topic in many clubhouses.

"One conspiracy theory is that the cork is different," Orioles closer Zach Britton said. "The balls are flying, so as players, we're like, 'There are two things that fans really like: strikeouts and home runs.' You're getting a lot of that this year. Some players -- not just on our team, we were talking to other players in general -- we wondered if the cork was different. I know MLB wanted to get more offense in the game, so you can do that without changing a strike zone or something in general? You can somehow change the cork maybe."

Blue Jays starter Marco Estrada has talked about this with teammate R.A. Dickey.

"I don't know if it's true or not, but he thinks they're winding the balls a little tighter this year," Estrada said. "It kind of makes sense, because it feels like guys are hitting home runs left and right this year."

Astros pitchers were aware early on, reliever Will Harris said.

"I know in April, it was ridiculous the amount of home runs that were being hit," he said. "You saw the big innings, a lot of six-, seven-run innings and guys hitting the balls out of ballparks, so I don't know what's up. Scouting reports, advanced scouting, all that kind of stuff, I don't know. Global warming? Maybe it's a little hotter in these ballparks."

Maybe the balls are slicker this year, Britton said: "They definitely don't rub them down as much. That's been an issue we talk about all the time as pitchers. It's so hard to grip baseballs."