Weekly Hit Ground Ball: 50 still an impressive feat

The Baltimore Orioles’ Chris Davis stood in the batter’s box against the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday in an important spot. His team was tied 3-3 in the top of the eighth and were desperate to add another win to their playoff push.

As he had done so many times before this season, Davis didn’t let the moment slip past. He took a 2-2 pitch into the left-centre seats at the Rogers Centre to help his team to a 5-3 victory.

The trip around the bases only added one home run to his total, but its impact was greater from a symbolic perspective.

Davis had made the leap from 49 home runs, joining a select group of players to have hit at least 50 home runs in a single season. Over all of the many thousands of individual hitting seasons in MLB history, it was only the 43rd time in which a player had rounded the bases having made it to 50 home runs.

It somehow doesn’t feel quite as rare as it should, though.

Firstly, there have been 36 occasions when a hitter has exceeded 50 home runs in a single season, most recently the 54 swatted by Jose Batista in 2010, so whilst it’s a landmark worthy of a curtain call it’s not a figure that necessarily will live long in the memory of the casual baseball fan.

Secondly – as you may well have already thought to yourselves – it’s something that we’ve seen with a certain amount of regularity over the past 20 years. Indeed, it’s the 25th time since 1995 that we have witnessed the same moment.

Babe Ruth was the first man to get past the big five-zero and it’s difficult to imagine just how mind-bendingly incredible it must have seemed when he ended up with 54 in 1920, his first season with the New York Yankees.

The Babe’s total was 25 more than had ever been hit before – his own record of 29 from the previous season – and 35 more than the next-best of the season, George Sisler’s 19. Not only that but, in one of the great pieces of Ruthian trivia, it was a number that only one team (the Philadelphia Phillies with 64) was able to surpass combined.

There’s being the best and then there’s being so outstanding that you completely shatter previously held ideas on what is possible.

Ruth’s 1920 season was truly extraordinary and yet perhaps 50 was already made to seem a bit ‘old-hat’ just twelve months later when the Babe came achingly close to breaking into the 60s, falling one home run short.

Even though Ruth did finally get out of the fifties with his 60 longballs in 1927, the efforts of the great sluggers over the many decades to follow showed that getting to 50 was still a remarkable achievement. When George Foster hit 52 in 1977, it was only the 17th time it had been done in over a half-century since (and including when) Ruth did it first.

There was then a 23 year gap before the 18th occasion, Cecil Fielder’s 51 in 1990, and another five years before the 19th, Albert Belle’s round 50 in 1995. Two 32 year-olds then did it the following year and both are associated with hailing a new and controversial era in MLB history.

Mark McGwire hit 52 before heading off on his rollercoaster of being hailed whilst breaking Roger Maris’s single-season record of 61 and then brought down by accusations, and eventual admission, of steroid use.

The other man to hit 50 was Brady Anderson who achieved the feat as a Baltimore Oriole and who, prior to Chris Davis’ blast on Friday night, held the record for most homers in a season by an Oriole. Anderson has come to personify the muddied waters of MLB’s recent history. His previous season best was 24 home runs and the huge jump to 50, at a time in his career when you would expect him to be declining past his peak, is such a big outlier that it’s difficult not to seek an explanation that goes beyond a mere late career year.

Anderson never failed a drugs test, but he never took one either. It may have been a combination of different factors – better conditioning through non-drug measures, a hitter bubbling over with confidence, pitchers pitching him differently as the season wore on etc – that produced a genuinely magical season. It’s not going to go down in history that way though, regardless of Anderson’s continued protestations of innocence.  That may be grossly unfair on the player, yet that’s the hand dealt to all sluggers of recent vintage.

Chris Davis himself jumped into the controversy earlier in the season by stating that he held Roger Maris’s mark of 61 to be the true single-season record, discounting the six occasions this has been surpassed combined by Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

Unless Davis goes on an almighty outburst over the next two weeks, we’re not going to have to worry about that contentious issue this season (my personal view is that we all saw Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001 and, whether you like it or not, pretending that he didn’t doesn’t really help anyone, least of all the next player to hit his 62nd home run of a season).

However, even getting to 50 is still a notable achievement in the history of the sport and one that shouldn’t be diminished by the recent frequency of it and all of the suspicions around the so-called steroid era.

Don’t let Chris Davis’ feat pass you by. It’s something well worth acknowledging.

Writing about home run seasons is made so much easier by the wonder that is Baseball-Reference.com. I guess the greatness of that website is almost taken as read by any writer or reader, but it’s a superb resource and one none of us should ever take for granted.

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