In the first inning of a sun-soaked Sunday afternoon at Yankee Stadium on July 9, Travis Shaw smashed a Masahiro Tanaka splitter over the right-center bullpen for a three-run, first-inning homer. With the 452-foot shot, Shaw moved into a tie with Aaron Judge for most home runs classified as "no doubters" by hittrackeronline.com.
In the following inning, Stephen Vogt hit a down-and-in Tanaka fastball over the 385-foot sign in right-center to give the Milwaukee Brewers a 4-0 lead. While Tanaka did not bother to turn to track the final destination of Shaw's blast, resigned to the outcome, he did pivot optimistically to see if the park would contain Vogt's drive.
The shots marked the Brewers' 137th and 138th home runs of the first half, leading the National League. The power is a significant reason they had a surprising grasp of first place in the NL Central entering the second half. The home runs were two of 44 home runs hit in the major leagues on July 9, and two of the 3,343 home runs in the first half of the season.
The total already exceeds the entire yearly totals of all but 22 seasons in the sport's history. Hitters are on pace to shatter the home run record for a single season (5,693), set in 2000, and easily exceeding last year's total of 5,610.
On the same afternoon, in the same game, after five innings from starting pitcher Jimmy Nelson, the Brewers turned to their bullpen. They employed four relievers who combined for four shutout innings, striking out eight. Corey Knebel entered in the eighth and closed out the game. Partly obscured by long afternoon shadows, Knebel blew a 97-mph fastball past Aaron Judge in the ninth, and ended the game by painting the outside corner with a 99-mph fastball against Gary Sanchez. Sanchez dropped the bat on his right shoulder and stared blankly ahead. Knebel is the type of power arm out of the bullpen leading to record strikeout, inning and velocity numbers across the game. Knebel leads the NL with a 43.2 strikeout percentage.
The home run and the bullpen -- well, parts of the bullpen -- have been sustaining forces for the Brewers, the biggest first-half surprise in the sport. Power, emanating from the batter's box and bullpens, are the dominant trends in major league baseball.
While the game has always evolved, rarely has it done so as quickly or so dramatically. And those teams that have exploited it, such as the Brewers, the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers, have put themselves in excellent position entering the second half. Are these trends sustainable? Is this the new normal in the league? Who is set to take advantage?