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Remember when 2016 was the new Year of the Homer, featuring the second-highest home run rate in MLB history and supplanting 1987 in terms of unexpectedness? Well, 2017 laughed at that notion and bumped the homer rate by another 10 percent, setting a new record of 1.26 home runs per team per game. So now the question is whether 2018 will surpass even last year’s “Year of the Homer 2: Electric Boogaloo.”

The most maddening aspect of guessing where offense is going in baseball is the why. A 25 percent increase in homers over a two-year period is stunning. A similar change occurred from 1992 to 1994, and even a quarter of a century later, that shift is largely unexplained. League expansion isn’t enough to account for that change, and one of the pop-science explanations — performance-enhancing drugs — would necessitate everybody discovering the benefits of PEDs in an 18-month period, because the home run rate stayed flat for most of the next decade. With no expansion teams, as well as drug testing since 2004, even those hole-filled theories aren’t available to explain the latest home run boost.

One possible theory is that the baseballs are constructed differently, something commissioner Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball have denied, though without actually providing any rebuttal to what researchers have found. One thing will be different this year: MLB has announced that all baseballs will be stored in air-conditioned rooms in 2018, to help determine if they should subsequently be stored in humidors in 2019 to standardize the temperature and humidity they’re kept in across the game. In theory, this change could ultimately result in lower exit velocities for a hit baseball; harder-hit baseballs are more likely to be home runs.

So one question that brings up is what effect this would have on the results, for both players and teams. Projections are made with certain assumptions for levels of offense around the league, and organizations are aware of those assumptions as they construct their teams. But what happens if we turn back the clock and the level of offense is more like 2015 than 2016-2017? To answer this question, I went back and ran my 2018 projections at 2015’s level of offense and looked for the largest differences. I also used playing time generated from estimated playing time based on current rosters, rather than the straight-up ZiPS projections (ZiPS is agnostic on which minor leaguers will play).

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Kris Bryant joins ex-Chicago Cubs teammates Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez in mashing debut homer

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Kris Bryant on Sunday joined former Chicago Cubs teammates Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez in making an immediate good impression with his new team.

The now San Francisco Giant hit a two-out solo shot in the third inning of a 5-3 win over the Houston Astros. Two days earlier, Rizzo crushed a 449-foot solo home run in his New York Yankees debut while Baez mashed a two-run dinger in his first game with the New York Mets the following day.

The former Cubs became the first trio of ex-teammates in the Modern Era to start the season on the same team, and then homer in their respective debuts with a new team later that season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Acquired in a trade with the Cubs for two minor league prospects just minutes before Friday’s deadline, Bryant was greeted by chants of “KB, KB, KB” when he trotted onto the field for pregame warmups and received a standing ovation before his first at-bat.

The four-time All-Star was cheered again after striking out swinging. Those cheers got louder after Bryant crushed an 0-1 pitch from Luis Garcia (7-6) into the left field stands for his 19th home run this season.

“It’s nice to really feel welcome,” Bryant said before the game. “Barry Bonds was my favorite player. I still have the autograph that my mom went and bought at the mall. Now I’m here. It’s kind of weird.”

It wasn’t a perfect debut for Bryant, who started at third base. His throwing error on Martin Maldonado‘s grounder down the line in the fifth gave the Astros a runner in scoring position with no outs. Logan Webb retired the next three batters to work out of the jam.

Still, Bryant made it clear how valuable he will be to the Giants as they attempt to stay in front of the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres in the NL West.

“It’s a bat that really lengthens our group and makes our bench better,” Giants manager Gabe Kapler said of Bryant. “It makes it more difficult to get through the top of our lineup. He’s going to be good for us.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Alex Cora encouraged as Chris Sale, Kyle Schwarber move steps closer to joining Boston Red Sox

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Boston Red Sox left-hander Chris Sale will make a fifth minor league rehab start later this week for Triple-A Worcester as he moves closer to pitching in the majors for the first time since Aug. 13, 2019.

Sale had Tommy John surgery in March 2020.

“We’ll re-address the situation after that but he’s getting close,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said before Sunday night’s game at Tampa Bay. “We’ll see where it takes us.”

Cora said Sale “felt great” one day after allowing one run over five innings Saturday for Worcester.

The Red Sox had lost four of five entering Sunday, including the first two games of a three-game series with Tampa Bay, that dropped them a half-game behind the AL East-leading Rays.

There is also encouraging news about recently acquired slugger Kyle Schwarber, who is currently out with a hamstring injury. He will take part in an off-day workout Monday in Detroit.

Schwarber will continue doing defensive work at first base where the team hopes he will be able to play at the unfamiliar position. He is nearing a rehab assignment.

“We’ll sit down on Tuesday or Wednesday and see where we’re at,” Cora said. “As far as the progress of the injury, we’re excited. The progress has been great. We’re hoping he goes on a rehab assignment sooner rather than later.”

Boston got Schwarber from Washington for a minor league pitcher last Thursday. He last played on July 2.

Utilityman Marwin Gonzalez (right hamstring strain) will also join the team for Monday’s workout and could be back Tuesday night when the Red Sox open a three-game series with the Tigers.

Right-hander Matt Andriese (right hamstring tendinitis) had a live batting practice session.

Reliever Brandon Workman, designated for assignment last Thursday, was outrighted off the major league roster and elected to become a free agent.

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New York Mets put infielder Luis Guillorme on IL with hamstring injury

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NEW YORK — The Mets placed infielder Luis Guillorme on the 10-day injured list with a left hamstring strain on Sunday, a day after he scored the tying run as a pinch-runner in a comeback victory over the Cincinnati Reds.

The 26-year-old Guillorme is batting .293 in 56 games this season. He missed six weeks earlier this year with a right oblique strain, returning on June 11.

The Mets recalled right-hander Geoff Hartlieb from Triple-A Syracuse. He has made one appearance for New York this season after being selected off waivers from the Pittsburgh Pirates on July 9.

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