The
Chicago Cubs
bullied the
Pittsburgh Pirates
on Wednesday night with a 17-3 victory, clubbing two 20 hits, including four home runs. They’ve now won 10 of 13 and hold a 3 1/2 game lead in the NL Central. 

Let’s dig in on the home runs, though.
Anthony Rizzo
clubbed his 31st.
Kyle Schwarber
hit two, giving him 24 on the season.
Ian Happ
did this for his 20th: 

So we’ve named three Cubs with at least 20 homers on the year. Throw in
Willson Contreras
(21),
Javier Baez
(20) and
Kris Bryant
(24) and that’s six. The Cubs have been around since they were the Chicago White Stockings in 1876 and never before have they had six 20-plus homer guys. They still have 30 games left, too, though it doesn’t look like anyone else can get there (unless
Ben Zobrist
somehow hits 10 more). 

An even bigger deal here, though, is that the only player on the Cubs with more than 20 homers to be older than age 25 this season is Anthony Rizzo. He’s in his age-27 season, making him the elder statesmen of the Cubs’ power hitters. Bryant and Contreras are in their age-25 seasons and Baez and Schwarber are 24 and Happ is 22 (seasonal ages are determined by the player’s age on June 30, by the way). 

To have five players in their age-25 or younger seasons with at least 20 home runs on the same team is an all-time major-league record. 

Let’s also note that
Addison Russell
is in his age-23 season and has 10 home runs in an injury-plagued season after hitting 21 last year. 

For me, I see two big takeaways, one MLB-specific and one Cubs-specific: 

Yes, the ball is probably juiced

This isn’t all Cubs. Dayn Perry did an excellent rundown of how homer-crazy 2017 has been earlier this week. Late last year, I noted the surge in middle-infielder power hitters. As noted in my power rankings blurb this week, the
Cincinnati Reds
are about to set a club record for 20-homer players.
Giancarlo Stanton
has already set a
Miami Marlins
club record for homers in a season and tied the August record for home runs.
Mike Moustakas
is going to set the
Kansas City Royals
club record for home runs. On and on it goes. Home runs are exploding everywhere. 

I have no doubt PEDs are still around, but they are nowhere near as prevalent and the MLB testing system is the best in major professional sports. The game is cleaner than the so-called Steroid Era, I’m certain of that. 

There has been an emphasis on power in recent years. Strikeouts are sky-high, with power hitters — aside from a few like
Joey Votto
and Anthony Rizzo — refusing to shorten up on two-strike counts. Many players are getting into the launch angle craze and trying to lift the ball more instead of just making contact (such as
Yonder Alonso
this year). 

Yeah, all of these things can contribute to the rise in home runs. 

More and more, though, many believe the ball is “juiced.” 

What’s that mean? The short explanation is that the ball is more lively off the bat and pitchers can’t get enough movement on it due to things like the seams being lower and the ball being wound more tightly, giving it a harder feel. We’ve seen several veteran players and managers make note of the balls being harder with lower seams this season.
Justin Verlander
even offered up this emoji-argument via Twitter: 

No, he’s not saying steroids, guys. That’s “juice” and “baseball.” 

Both The Ringer and FiveThirtyEight have scientific studies on the matter and conclude the balls are, indeed, juiced.

The only response to the growing chorus from commissioner Rob Manfred has basically been that the balls are still within the specifications as outlined in the MLB rulebook. But, as Jonah Keri pointed out regarding Manfred’s answer at the All-Star Game, the specifications are on an incredibly-wide spectrum.

As many have pointed out, the spike in home run rate very clearly started in the second half of the 2015 season. We’ve been hearing for years from Manfred and other MLB brass that they want to continue to find ways to appeal to a younger audience and it seems to me that more home runs instead of 2-1, station-to-station games fits right in line there, no? 

Now, I’m not going to deceive here. I’m always honest and avoid sophistry. I can’t prove the balls are “juiced” nor do I even really care. The record books have already been skewed, even if many don’t want to accept that and would rather try to pare the records to their liking. Home runs are fun and probably good for the game in terms of mass appeal. I’m simply pointing out that the evidence is starting to pile up here. We’ll continue to see home run milestones the rest of this season and maybe the next few years if the balls continue to feel harder with lower seams to the players who would know. 

Let’s get back to the Cubs for now, though. 

Worries about “prospects” on the Cubs are misguided

After the trade last season for
Aroldis Chapman
and the deals this year for
Jose Quintana
and Alex Avila/Justin Wilson, the Cubs’ formerly loaded prospect stash is pretty bare, by most accounts. 

Of course, it wasn’t just trades that emptied the system. That once-ballyhooed farm system has graduated Bryant, Schwarber, Russell, Baez, Contreras, Happ and
Albert Almora
to the majors in the last three seasons. All of those guys are 25 or younger and under team control through at least 2021. Rizzo is 27 and under team control through 2021.
Kyle Hendricks
is 27 and under team control through 2020. 

Is it really that big a deal to not have many up-and-coming prospects in this situation — especially given the Cubs’ deep pockets should the need for free agent signees arise? Would some of these people worried about the farm system feel better if Happ, Almora and Baez were in the minors and highly-rated prospects? 

We all know the answer. Some people need to stop being such big prospect-huggers and realize all situations require context. The Cubs don’t have many coveted prospects any more, but they have lots of young big-league talent already getting it done. They just set a major-league record with it, even if maybe the balls are juiced. 

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