SAN DIEGO — The day after Giancarlo Stanton’s personal fireworks display lit up Petco Park in the Home Run Derby, commissioner Rob Manfred faced a volley of questions about Major League Baseball’s sudden power surge, and what might be behind it.
Stanton is one of the strongest players in the sport, at a chiseled 6-6, 245 pounds, and seeing him launch long drives over 450 feet is nothing new. But league-wide, teams are mashing home runs with much more frequency this season, one every 30.7 at-bats, down from 34.9 a year ago and 40.7 in 2014.
While fans certainly love the long ball, that type of statistical swing also tends to drum up suspicion MLB has worked to squash since the installment of more stringent testing for performance-enhancing drugs. So Manfred, speaking Tuesday with the BBWAA, found that loaded issue once again in his lap before the All-Star Game later that night. And then quickly tried to create as much distance as he could between the modern game and the pre-testing era.
“Look, the increase in the number of home runs takes place against a very very different backdrop, right?” Manfred said. “It takes place against the backdrop where Major League Baseball does 22,000 drug tests a year. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has said that Major League Baseball has one of the best testing programs in the world, let alone in professional sports.”
MLB’s biggest PED bust, however, came without a single positive test when Manfred, acting under then-commissioner Bud Selig, helped suspend 13 players for their involvement with Biogenesis — including Alex Rodriguez’s 162-game ban. No drug testing program claims to be perfect. Still, Manfred offered a number of other explanations, saying it was a relatively small sample size for an uptick that he insisted actually began last August.
“If it was performance-enhancing drugs, you would be much more likely to see it start at the beginning of the season with the offseason being a period of temptation,” Manfred said. “We think it has to do with the way pitchers pitch, the way hitters are being taught to play the game . . . because we are comfortable we’re doing everything possible on the performance-enhancing drugs front.”
The Blue Jays’ Josh Donaldson, the reigning AL MVP, attributes the rise to more pitchers throwing 95 mph or higher. The ball becomes more difficult to hit, but when contact is made, it tends to go farther.
“That’s science,” Donaldson said Tuesday.
Donaldson, with 64 home runs since the start of last season, goes deep once every 14.9 at-bats. Manfred also said that teams are using lineups that deploy their power bats higher in the order, thereby giving them more chances to do damage than ever before. When specifically asked if the baseball was juiced, Manfred dismissed the possibility.
“We’ve tested the baseball extensively,” Manfred said. “There’s certain mistakes in life that if you pay attention to what’s going on around you, you are not inclined to make. There was actually a scandal in Japan about the baseball being changed that cost a commissioner his job. I like my current gig, so I think you can rest assured . . . the baseball is the same as it was last year.”