Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Quest for Quarter-Million

I was making my daily visit to baseball-reference.com when I noticed a new feature on the main page: an all-time major league home run tracker. Would you believe that through the games of August 25, 2008, there have been 249,650 home runs hit since 1876? Personally I found that number to be a bit low, but I suppose when you're dealing with numbers that large, they can be deceiving. Let's take a look at the history of the home run, and see if we can't project where and when the historic homer might come.

According to the SABR Encyclopedia, the first major league home run was hit on May 2, 1876 by second baseman Ross Barnes of the Chicago White Stockings. Barnes hit just two home runs while playing in the National League; he had played for Boston in the amateur National Association (the precursor to the NL) prior to 1876. The inaugral home run came off of Cherokee Fischer of Cincinnati in the fifth inning. This was the only full season in which Fischer appeared in the NL, he threw 229.3 innings as the Reds' backup pitcher. The home-run came in the fourth game of the season for Chicago; by my count this was the eleventh league game of the season. Just forty homers came from the National League's first season, led by George Hall with five.

Most fans are familiar with the home run environment until Babe Ruth's uppercut swing changed baseball in the 1920s. Indeed, it was not until after the beginning of the American League that the 10,000th home run was hit, in 1903. (Baseball-Reference estimated which home run was hit based on the start of game times and the inning in which they were hit.) It was Joe Tinker, of Tinker-Evers-Chance fame, that knocked a homer off the Cardinals' Mordecai Brown in he 8th inning of a game on September 5. Interestingly, the early seasons of the 20th century saw a sharp decline in home runs. To illustrate this, I've plotted the first fifty years of the NL with respect to At Bats per Home Run:

As we've covered here before, there was a major rules change in the National League at the turn of the century; for the first time, a foul ball counted as a strike. The result was a large jump in strikeouts and a huge drop in total offense, home runs included. For comparison, the 1902 American League saw 147 at bats between home runs, while the National League averaged more than double-- 389 AB/HR. The following year, while the American League tried out the new foul rule experimentally, the numbers were much closer: 203 AB/HR for the AL and 251 AB/HR in the NL. The American League continued to show a slightly higher home run rate throughout the Dead Ball Era. One thing that's interesting is that the precipitous drop in HR rate occured in both leagues around the time Babe Ruth started playing first time. This suggests that although Ruth was certainly transcendent, his approach was not unique in baseball at the time.

It was around this time that Wally Pipp hit the 20,000th ML home run, off of the Senators' Joe Martina in the eighth inning on May 3, 1924. With the Live Ball Era in effect, each of the next ten thousand home runs took eight years, bringing us to the 50,000th home run, hit on June 30, 1948. It was the Giants' Johnny Mize, knocking one off of the Braves' Bill Voiselle in the sixth inning. The Pitchers' Heaven mini-period interviened and slowed homer rates a bit in the 1960s, but with the lowering of the mound in 1969, combined with expansion, baseball was primed for its 100,000th home run.

Entering play on April 30, 1970, the number was very close to 100K, and with 22 homers hit that day, the best estimate is that Atlanta Braves catcher Hal King hit the historic round-tripper in the second inning of a game against the Cubs. The Braves started their game at 8 PM and actually had a home run in the first, by Rico Carty. Fifteen batters came to the plate before King, and the entire game took just 2:33, so perhaps his homer was hit somewhere between 8:30 and 8:45. Five homers were in this game, two by Carty, and one by someone you may have heard of-- Hank Aaron. Unfortunately, the start time of the other games that day are unavailable, so it is unclear how close we came to the milestone being held by one of the best ever.

The second hundred-thousand home runs took considerably less than 90 years, it would come in 1999, in an interleague game. According to baseball-reference, it was in this game, when the Yankees' Paul O'Neill hit one deep to right centerfield, clearing the wall at Dolphins Stadium to lead off the top of the fourth inning. Livan Hernandez was the victim, and also gave up two other homers in the game. Incredibly, forty-eight home runs were hit on June 12, 1999, eleven of which came in day games (the Marlins-Yankees game started at 7:06 EDT). There were a number of early home runs in the night-games, but b-r.com feels that O'Neill's home run is the milestone.

This year, home runs have fallen from their incredible pace in the late-1990s. In 2007, the AL hit homers at a rate of 33.1 AB/HR, and the NL at 34.8 AB/HR. The rates are similar this season, and work out to almost exactly one per game for each team. So with 350 home runs to go for a quarter-million, will the milestone be passed this season? Through August 25, teams have played 3,928 games of the scheduled 4,860 (remember, I'm counting each contest twice, once for each team playing). With about 932 games left to play, it's almost certain that the milestone will fall sometime in September. Can we pinpoint this?

Based on the number of scheduled games according to mlb.com, there will be 342 games played between August 26 and September 7. If the number of homers continues at an average rate, it's likely that the milestone will occur sometime that Sunday afternoon. If that's the case, count on Immaculate Inning to do a liveblog of the events of the day, remote in hand. (Of course, with my luck it will happen on Fox Blackout Day...)

In the meantime, follow along with the Quarter Million Homer Widget, now featured in the sidebar.

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