Forgive me, I grew up in an era where little guys stole bases, skinny guys hit doubles, and the big fat guys with mustaches hit home runs. If little guys hit homers it was a wind-aided fluke, and the skinny guys could hit a couple when they got under their line drives enough. But the HR title was reserved for the massive guys, the Cecil Fielders and Mark McGwires and Rob Deers of the baseball world.
Well, the home run itself has been much afflicted in the past 20 years by artificial growth of muscle tissue. Hitting lots of HRs meant a bigger payday and greater fame, and the skinny line drive hitting guys could choose to use steroids to turn into musclebound guys and crank out dingers. Thankfully that era has passed, and there are fewer players in MLB who have ever used enhancements at any level. And a funny thing is happening - the HR king has changed his shape.
Steroids have been in baseball since before 1996, when Ken Caminiti admitted that he used them during his MVP season. A memo by Commissioner Fay Vincent in 1991 stated that the use of illegal substances could result in suspension or banishment from the game. During the end of the "just say no" social era the assumption was that the memo was aimed at cocaine and other amphetamines, but it also mentioned steroids. I've had my own suspicions as far back as 1986, when a scrawny little kid named Kirby exploded with muscles and added 150 points to his slugging average in one year.
But now there is drug testing, and there is compliance, and the artificial power boosts are all but eliminated from the game. There are still big guys running around - Adam Dunn, Albert Pujols, Giancarlo Stanton - but the playing field has been leveled again, and home runs are once again produced by not only pure size and power, but also bat speed and accuracy.
And that brings us to Ryan Braun, who in my eyes (tainted as they are by watching 20 years of steroid ball) looks like a skinny kid crushing home runs at a pace his body shouldn't typically be able to sustain. It's hard to tell exactly how big people are by looking at them on TV, especially when the only people you have to compare them against are usually crouched down behind the plate. So I looked up Braun's numbers to make sure: He's listed as 6 feet 1, 200 lbs. That's not very big.
Over in the American League they have a real home run champion, a big burly guy named Jose Bautista. Yeah, he's a bit thin, but he's got a big wingspan like Dave Winfield, I'm sure. Yeah, looking up his numbers you can see he's... 6 feet, 190 lbs? Wait a minute, what the hell is going on here?
My secret fear is that they've discovered a new supplement. Something space-age, sits in your body for only a couple of hours, is invisible to tests, and grants you artificial superhuman strength and reflexes. It will be a Caminiti-length generation later when Braun, on his early deathbed, covered in unexpected purple pustules, admits to using this secret gene-spliced extract of mountain goat cartilage to boost his home run total. I need to fight this fear, I need to put it to rest.
Do home run guys need to be big? Does size really have anything to do with hitting home runs? More to the point: Can you look like an accountant, and crush homers like Atlas?
Well, I did some research. The purpose was to give myself some peace of mind that you didn't need to be a physical giant in order to have giant power numbers, and I expanded it a little out of curiosity to see what kind of totals had ever been acquired by players with different combinations of height and weight. The initial result is the table below.
What I did was search for the best HR seasons ever by people who fit the height/weight combination. The numbers represent the amount of HRs you needed to hit to make the top 20, and the names are examples of players who fit the physique.
I understand that height/weight figures in B-Ref aren't necessarily accurate (I doubt Sammy Sosa stayed under 175 lbs, for example) but they aren't far off. And it makes me feel a lot better to see that a guy Braun's size hitting a ton of homers is not only plausible, it's well within historical expectations. He's actually a bit bigger than Lou Gehrig and Hank Aaron, and nobody ever questioned whether those guys were juiced.
So I feel much better now, and as long as I went to the trouble of making this chart I'll leave it with you to discuss and think about.