Whether it’s been in attending a Big Ten game this season, scanning a team’s stats or checking out a game’s box score, an observer of Big Ten baseball has been a a witness to a season dominated by the home run. From the conference seeing more home runs per game as a whole, multiple teams on pace to eclipse 2016 long ball totals and the multitude of players projected to finish the season with double digit home runs, it’s been a power hitters season as 10 Innings digs into the numbers.
Power is up across the board
Last year, Big Ten teams combined to hit 410 home runs in 732 games. Collectively, the conference produced .56 home runs per game. With 50 home runs in 57 games, Minnesota, the Big Ten champions, led the conference in hitting .8771 home runs per game. Right on the heels of the Gophers were the Buckeyes, the Big Ten Tournament champions, with Ohio State swatting 57 home runs over the course of 65 games, generating .8769 home runs per game. Minnesota and Ohio State were the lone Big Ten teams to dial up 50 or more home runs.
At the bottom of the conference’s power output was Penn State, the Nittany Lions collected only 16 homers in 55 games, a rate of .2909 home runs per game. Penn State was one of three teams to finish with less than 20 home runs, joined by Northwestern (18) and Rutgers (19).
In seeing how many home runs conference teams have hit as a whole, already the power surge is clear.
After seven weekends of play, with all numbers through April 3, Big Ten teams have hit 245 home runs in 341 games. With teams just hitting the midpoint of the 15-week regular season, the Big Ten has already accumulated 60% of last year’s home run total. If the 13 Big Ten teams combined to play another 732 games this season, the current season’s .718 home runs per game rate would yield 525 home runs, 115 more than last season.
Where no team managed to hit at least .9 home runs per game last year, three have done just that. Leading the Big Ten with 1.166 home runs per game is Michigan State. The Spartans’ produced an NCAA single-game high of eight home runs in a 17-6 win over Illinois on March 26. That Illini team is also hitting more than one home run per game, producing 27 homers in 25 games, a rate of 1.08 home runs per game. Indiana has also hit more home runs than games played, racking up 28 round-trippers in 27 contests.
Illinois, Indiana and Michigan State are joined by Maryland as a team of pace to hit at least 50 home runs, doubling last year’s total. Another jump comes in teams on pace to hit at least 35 home runs, the aforementioned quartet is joined by Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State and Rutgers, for a total of eight, last year only had five teams.
Even the bottom of the Big Ten is projected to have more home run power, with only two teams on pace to hit for less than 20 home runs.
As a whole, here’s the Big Ten’s home runs per game rate over the last ten years.
After the 2010 season, the NCAA entered the BBCOR era. BBCOR bats were created to reduce the trampoline effect of balls off bats, have the aluminum bats behave more like wood, which significantly decreased power throughout college baseball. Another change occurred after the 2014 season when the NCAA introduced baseballs with lower seams. This change was to counter the severe decline in power as balls in flight with lower seams have lower resistance and travel further. It’s hard to compared the 2017 season to the 2011-14 period and just as hard to do so pre-2010, but in the current era of bats and balls, the 2017 season decisvely stands out in home run production over the past two years.
Who’s leading the charge
If the collective showing of the Big Ten doesn’t paint the picture of the power surge, looking at the team level may. And projection isn’t needed in some instances.
Michigan State’s 28 home runs are already more than last year’s 26, when the Spartans hit .464 home runs per game. The next home run for Illinois will allow the Illini to match the Spartans’ feat. Illinois’ 27 home runs match their 2016 total. Rutgers, too, has matched their 2016 home run output, already touching home 19 times of big flies.
Knocking on the doorstep of eclipsing last year’s output include Michigan, who need five more for 28, Iowa needed four more home runs to match last year’s total and Penn State is just three shy of their total of 16 in 2016.
If every team plays a full 56-game schedule, here’s who will increase their home run total and be how much.
Michigan State +39 (26 in 2016, projected 65 in 2017)
Illinois +33 (27, p. 60)
Indiana +22 (36, p. 58)
Iowa + 21 (26, p. 47)
Rutgers +20 (19, p. 39)
Michigan + 18 (28, p. 46)
Penn State +15 (13, p. 28)
Maryland +10 (41, p. 51)
Individual production up, too
Of course team totals are collections of individuals, and looking at the individual numbers opens more eyes.
Illinois senior first baseman Pat McInerney leads the Big Ten with 11 home runs through 25 games. If McInerney plays 56 games, he is on pace to hit 24 home runs, a 50% increase over last year’s home run champion, 16 hit by Nebraska DH Scott Schreiber.
Even so, McInerney is not running away with the home run lead, Iowa junior first baseman Jake Adams is right on his heels with 10.
Michigan junior third baseman Drew Lugbauer is solidly in third with eight home runs, one more than Rutgers center fielder Jawuan Harris. After those four, four more have six home runs, Indiana’s Craig Dedelow, Maryland’s Marty Costest and Kevin Smith and Michigan State’s Marty Bechina. Michigan catcher Harrison Wenson and Ohio State outfielder Noah McGowan each have five home runs, to give the conference 10 players on pace to hit at least 10 home runs over a 56-game schedule. That would eclipse last year’s total by four.
Focusing on McInerney and Adams, who is on pace for a 56-game total of 21 home runs, the two first baseman would reach rare air if their projections turn to production.
Since 2008, here’s the total of homers by the Big Ten’s leader and the number of players with 10 or more in parenthesis.
2016- 16 (6)
2015- 16 (4)
2014- 14 (2)
2013- 18 (2)
2012- 12 (4)
2011- 12 (1)
2010- 24 (8)
2009- 18 (14)
2008- 23 (7)
Only the 2010, 24-home run year of Indiana DH Alex Dickerson, with 19 from Penn State catcher Ben Heath, is comparable to what McInerney and Adams are set to slug their way to. But again, there’s is a drastic difference in today’s college baseball landscape and that of the pre-BBCOR era.
Why the increase?
That a great questions which probably has an answer of a confluence of reasons.
The weekend Michigan State hit eight in a game against Illinois, they hit 13 total, in warm and gusty conditions. While you never know what you’ll get in the Midwest during the spring months, power numbers usually climb up as the season progresses into warmer temperatures, Maybe Mother Nature has allowed that climb to start earlier.
As the Big Ten has emerged on the national scene, producing eight different regional teams over the last two years, maybe the team-level success has been spurred by better players and teams with more depth? Where teams in the past maybe had one or two sluggers,three if they were really good, it’s not surprising to see four, five, even six players with enough pop to drive one out.
In recent years, there’s been more of an acceptance of strikeouts than prior generations, resulting in a aggressive, feast or famine approach. No longer run production built around slapping the ball around and get on base, players are being instructed to lift the ball. Going back just to 2013, Big Ten at-bats finished in a strikeout 17.6% of the time. So far in 2017? 22.3%.
Baseball is a game of random occurrences. Maybe the 2017 season is just one of those years where there’s no particular reason. It’s not weather, the quality of players, an approach, the opposition, it’s just baseball and we should sit back and enjoy the fireworks.