What is the ultimate display of power in baseball?
Is it the 500 ft. home run? A shot onto Lansdowne St.? Or a blast into McCovey Cove?
The most impressive power feat in baseball is four home runs in a single game, a forgotten achievement that has occurred only 15 times in the history of baseball.
Not since Carlos Delgado swatted four balls out with Toronto in 2003 has another member joined the exclusive club.
In an era when most starting pitchers fail to go longer than six innings, there have been two perfect games in the intervening six years. Even perfection is simpler than finding the seats four times.
The only baseball event rarer is the unassisted triple play, and two of those have happened since Delgado’s feat. At the rate the unassisted triple play is occurring, the four-home run game might soon be the most elusive merit badge.
But with the steroid era racing across headlines faster than a Tasmanian devil these days, one could wonder why the feat hasn’t been accomplished more often?
Consider that the juiced period in baseball likely reaches back to 1989, when Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco changed the way that power was used to win games. Why weren’t there more than four players who cracked the four tater barrier in 20 years? And why are none of the players who did manage four home runs among those widely suspected or revealed to have been juicers?
There are probably more than a few reasons but here are two that probably were most responsible for keeping this club so exclusive.
1. Expansion has watered down lineups
When balls were flying out of parks at record paces, one of the common excuses given was that expansion had watered down the pitching in the league. Players were able to take advantage of lesser arms on the mound and perform better at the plate.
Ignored in that argument were the lack of .400 hitters and the missing 40-plus-game hitting streaks that should have naturally followed such a dramatic drop in pitching talent.
Also missing was the examination of the effects that the same expansion had on lineups across baseball.
If you go back to before 1961, when the expansion era really began, there had been eight players who had hit four home runs in a game. It wasn’t happening every day, but every few years, another player would chisel their name on the plaque.
When ball clubs started popping up around the country, that consistent addition slowed to a trickle.
In 1961, Willie Mays became the last player for 15 years to leave the yard four times. It took another ten years between Mike Schmidt and Bob Horner.
Why? As more players entered baseball, the ability to protect power hitters in the lineup disappeared. No longer were lineups stacked from top to bottom and able to deter the practice of pitching around a hitter.
When hitters lost their protection, pitchers knew they didn’t have to give the feared hitters anything to swing at. Or they could just walk them to avoid tempting fate.
And with those lost at-bats, so went the chance for immortality.
2. Pitcher specialization
While expansion cooled down hot lineups, it also ushered in the era of pitcher specialization.
Starters stopped consistently throwing eight innings. Instead, the bullpen specialist became commonplace in baseball.
Where once the bullpen was a place for washed up starters, now players trained their entire career to face certain types of hitters and counteract their strengths.
It isn’t as if hitters couldn’t have continued to pound the ball against these relievers, but it is much harder to homer off of a guy who comes in specifically to pitch to your weak points than to a face a starter who is down seven to 10 mph on his fastball later in the game.
As these players—the single-out pitchers who faced an opponent’s best hitter—became more frequent faces in bullpens, the four-home run games dropped off.
It should be noted that the juiced era did provide an uptick in the number of four-home run games. From only three occurrences in the 28 years from 1961 and 1988, the pace quickened to four times in the 15 seasons, ending in 2003.
In no way is that an indictment against Mark Whiten, Mike Cameron, Shawn Green, or Carlos Delgado. Until proved otherwise, it is best to believe they accomplished what they did without artificial enhancement.
They just happened to do it during what became one of the most scrutinized periods in baseball, and one during which you would have expected this feat to become as commonplace.
It is impossible to say that the four-home run game will never happen again, but it seems the heyday of this achievement has passed.
While the steroid period did briefly shine a light on this achievement stuck in the dark, the plug has now been pulled.
Most likely, baseball will go back to the long droughts between occurrences that it saw from 1961 to 1993.
That should place player No. 16 on track somewhere between 2012 and 2016 – a long time to wait for the next ultimate display of power.