Why you should care
Because, finally, steroids are not the answer (we think).
The 112th World Series kicked off this week with two of Major League Baseball’s most historic and plagued — and, well, historically plagued — franchises battling for each organization’s first title in a combined 175 years. It’s been 68 years since the Cleveland Indians bested the then–Boston Braves. Cleveland’s current adversaries, the heavily favored Chicago Cubs, have not even played in a World Series since 1945. The Lovable Losers last won it all in 1908.
Commemorated misery and a couple of Great Lakes are no longer the only connections between these two tortured programs. These days, both clubs feature rosters that are part of a current macro movement: the power-hitting middle infielder. For the Cubs, there’s Addison Russell (shortstop, second base, 21 home runs) and Javier Báez (third base, shortstop, second base, 14 HR). Cleveland’s Jason Kipnis (second base, 23 HR) and Francisco Lindor (shortstop, 15 HR) also enjoyed terrific individual seasons.
Twenty-six middle infielders hit 20 or more home runs this season, doubling the previous record of 13 (1999 and 2007).
They were part of a power season that saw MLB players tag 5,610 home runs, which works out to 1.155 bombs per team per game. For fans raised in our modern long-ball era, that stat may not sound too impressive, but it’s actually second only to the year 2000 for the all-time highest per-game total. The 2001 season, which featured an asterisk-flagged record-breaking run by San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds, ranks only fifth. Setting aside the current campaign, the most recent top-five home-run season was 2004.
What’s truly remarkable about 2016 is the number and diversity of home-run hitters — 111 players smacked 20 or more long balls, including players at positions that historically have featured anemic hitting: shortstop and second base. Twenty-six middle infielders hit 20 or more home runs this season, doubling the previous record of 13 (1999 and 2007). What’s going on? And the offensive outburst isn’t limited to the long ball. These athletes are also anchoring their teams by hitting for average: Six of the top eight leaders in batting average this season were middle infielders. Shortstop and second base are difficult positions and traditionally have featured athletes with vast range who can turn the double play and cover half of the infield. As such, middle infielders, along with center fielders, are the quickest, most agile athletes on the team. They’re also usually smaller players not known for their ability to drive in runs.
According to former Mets star Ron Darling, those times, they are a-changin’ because of the infield shift, an increasingly popular strategy in which a defense realigns to cover a hitter’s preferred side of the field. In a shift, the shortstop and second baseman actually are standing in the shallow outfield, providing the fielders more time to react and giving them less ground to cover. “The infield shift allows bigger, less agile athletes to play up the middle,” Darling tells OZY. “Players with less range who would normally be corner infielders are playing middle infield now because they can field ground balls 140 feet from home plate.” A couple of prominent beneficiaries of this trend, according to some experts: Daniel Murphy of the Washington Nationals and Neil Walker of the New York Mets, both of whom are big power-hitting second basemen with subpar range.
Of course, the shift can’t account for all of the recent power surges. One glance at each World Series middle infield is enough to see that many of these athletes are world-class defenders. Plus, as St. Louis Cardinals minor-league hitting coach and former big-league catcher Erik Pappas tells OZY, “managers still are not shifting on most batters.” Nor do they play the shift with runners on base. Pappas thinks that baseball culture can explain the trend in the middle infield positions. “There has been a generational change in approach,” he says. “Batters today accept more strikeouts in search of home runs.” Plus, Pappas believes that players today are simply stronger, an idea seconded by baseball’s all-time hits leader, Pete Rose. “Middle infielders are stronger than ever before and athletic,” the Fox MLB analyst tells me on a conference call. “The strength training has reached a whole other level. That’s why there are more home runs. Not because of some shift!”
Ah, nothing like getting chewed out by Charlie Hustle. Whatever the reason, expect to watch a lot more bombs launched by the middle men.