Chris Carter, the home-run king forgotten by MLB, is threatening Mexico's single-season homer record
Carter, 32, is encroaching on Jack Pierce's decades-old record of 54 homers in a season
The scene occurs too often to inventory or romanticize. A batter takes a half-hearted swing on a pitch about knee-high and over the plate. On contact the ball punctures the night sky, zipping away on a steep arc. The outfielder drifts back, taking more steps than required, before conceding defeat on the warning track. Home run. The sum of a skilled hitter, an errant pitch, and a nutty ball.
This sequence isn't imagined. It played out on June 27 -- and not during a Major League Baseball or Triple-A game. Rather, the home run was launched as part of a Liga Mexicana de Béisbol contest between the Guerreros de Oaxaca and the Acereros de Monclova. The hitter responsible for the blast is well known on both sides of the border: Chris Carter, who co-led the National League in home runs a few seasons ago. These days, Carter bats cleanup for the Acereros, in between Francisco Peguero and Bruce Maxwell, two other former big leaguers with less cachet.
In the coming weeks, Carter may add to his Q score by breaking LMB's single-season home-run record. Elsewhere in Mexico, a peer is attempting to hit .400 for the year, and another is closing in on the league's first 40-40 season. LMB may not be the Show, but baseball is global -- and so too, it seems, is the belief the home run is the sport's greatest attraction. Hence league officials introducing a juiced ball this year, triggering a pitching apocalypse and putting the holiest numbers at risk.
Carter is a fitting horseman. He's the home-run king the majors forgot; the supplier of the product baseball values most, and a victim of its progress and unwillingness to pay market price.
There is no mystery in Mexico surrounding the origins of the juiced ball. LMB's CEO Javier Salinas admitted in May the league sought more offense when it switched from a Rawlings ball to a Franklin model over the offseason. The league's wish may have been made on a monkey's paw: the ball's carry has exceeded expectations. One team employee said "it looks like it has a rocket on it."
Batters are having no trouble initiating liftoff. The league's home-run rate had increased season-to-season from 1.8 to 2.7 per game at the time of Salinas's comments. He vowed the ball would be tweaked, but otherwise seemed cheery about the offensive uptick. "I think it has also worked for us, we have asked the fan and he likes home runs," Salinas said, per a translation. "But we also have to protect the pitching and we are looking for a ball that does not fly so much."
Whatever alterations made by Franklin since have caused the home-run rate to dip to 2.5 per game -- still up almost a full dinger per contest since 2017. The changes haven't hampered Carter, whose 80-grade raw power permits him to hit home runs longer than the song of a whippoorwill, from making a run at history. He entered Friday with a league-leading 43 home runs, putting him 11 away from the record with 18 games remaining on the schedule.
Carter has averaged a home run every 8.3 at-bats. For reference, Barry Bonds homered every 13 at-bats for his career. Should Carter maintain his pace, he'll finish with around 63 more at-bats -- or 50 to 51 home runs. That would leave him three or four short of tying the late Jack Pierce's record. Pierce, himself an American and onetime big-league player, established the mark as a 37-year-old in 1986, homering 54 times to usurp the legendary Héctor Espino.
Carter acknowledged in an interview with CBS Sports that there had been "some talk" about him topping Pierce. Even if he falls short, this season is more evidence he should be remembered as one of the prolific sluggers of his generation. Over the four-year span from 2013-16, Carter homered 131 times -- the sixth-most in baseball, behind essentially the who's who of power hitters from the past decade:
There's Mike Trout, of course, and David Ortiz. There's Edwin Encarnacion and Nelson Cruz. And yes, there's Chris Davis. Everyone but Ortiz remains in the league. Everyone except Davis remains productive -- and Davis can find peace in the $70 million coming his way over the remainder of his contract. Carter is the exception: the home-run king who has neither a throne nor a fortune.
Major League Baseball's philosophical shifts have cost Carter millions of dollars.
Teams used to pay for home runs. They would overlook defense and positional flexibility and write fat checks for sluggers. Not anymore, as home runs are too prevalent and defense is too important. The irony is Major League Baseball's style of play now resembles the extreme three-true outcomes approach Carter helped normalize. You'd never know based on his lack of opportunity.
Carter said he had a "couple minor-league options" available to him this offseason but "nothing too solid." He ended up in Mexico, he said, because it afforded him the chance to play daily.
In an odd twist, Carter's journey out of the majors started when he co-led the NL in home runs in 2016. After the season, the Milwaukee Brewers non-tendered him. They didn't want to pay his arbitration prize, projected to be more than $8 million. (Home-run hitters are considered overcompensated in arbitration.) The next day after designating Carter for assignment, the Brewers signed Eric Thames to a three-year contract (with a club option) worth $16 million guaranteed. Months later they claimed Jesús Aguilar, a player similar in many regards to Carter. Whereas Carter had homered 41 times and posted a 113 OPS+ in 2016, the Thames-Aguilar tandem clobbered 47 home runs and finished with an OPS+ over 120 in 2017 -- all for about $4.5 million, or just over half of Carter's projected salary.
Smart business, perhaps. But there is a human cost to progress. Carter is a face of baseball's.
Carter found employment with the New York Yankees, signing a one-year deal the following February worth $3.5 million. He appeared in 62 games, but struggled en route to a career-worst strikeout rate. He ended up in the minors, playing for three Triple-A teams between 2017-18. More than two years have passed since his most recent big-league swing -- it may end up being his last. An analyst for one MLB team pegged Carter's chances of a big-league return at zero percent.
Carter admitted he thinks about the timing of his career, how things might have played out had he had arrived "a year or two later, or a year or two before." He likely would have amassed enough service time to qualify as a free agent, rather than finishing a year short. Not that it matters. Carter has been available each of the past two winters without anyone signing him to a big-league contract.
Instead, Carter is playing in a league where player salaries are capped at $10,000 per month. Officially, anyway -- LMB has cracked down on under-the-table pay, but murmurs persist about alternative compensation (enough to push a player's monthly salary into the $15,000-$20,000 range).
One agent familiar with the various foreign leagues explained the economics of playing abroad. A player with some big-league experience may make more in Mexico than if they were stationed at Triple-A. They're certainly making more than if they did a tour in the Atlantic League, where players might bring in around $3,000 a month. Said player could stand to make more money elsewhere overseas, but the cultural gap inside and outside the game is more noticeable -- and adaptation can prove challenging. Besides, Korea limits first-year salaries to $1 million (including the signing bonus and any buyouts) and Japan mimics the big-league methodology of good-play-before-good-pay.
Carter, then, might already be in the best league for him -- and in more ways than one.
"He's a monster," Octavio Hernández, an analyst for the Diablos Rojos del México, said about Carter, "but he's doing something in an environment that helps him a lot."
Hernández explained the non-ball reasons for LMB's offensive-friendly nature. Many of the ballparks are located in high-altitude areas, similar to the environments pitchers brave at Coors Field, or in the Pacific Coast League. That these areas also experience higher temperatures benefits the hitters, whose batted balls gain extra carry. The league features competitive imbalance as well, with some teams lacking the means to field rosters comparable to their richer counterparts.
Hence Félix Pié doing his meanest Tony Gwynn impersonation, complete with a .405 average and nearly a walk for every strikeout. Hence Alonzo Harris, a former New York Mets farmhand with one 20-plus-homer season entering the year, closing in on LMB's first 40-homer, 40-steal season (he's at 35 homers, 41 steals). Hence Carter turning into ... well, Barry Bonds, by leading the league in homers and walks.
One (of many) flaws with the Bonds comparison is teams could never figure out how to beat him other than to put him on base. Hernández knows how to get out Carter. "If you attack him with really live fastballs in the middle-upper part of the plate, you can get him out; he's a real patient guy, but if you throw him really tight sliders, you can get him out," Hernández said, offering up a scouting report. "The thing is, pitchers with those pitches are really scarce [in Mexico.]"
Therein is the rub. Carter may desire to return to the majors ("I always want to get back there"), but his skill set may be better suited for down south. Is it better to rule in LMB than toil in MLB? In Mexico, he can leverage his eye to wait out nibbling pitchers, knowing few of them have the velocity or spin to beat him outright. When they do come into the zone, all he has to do is make contact and leave the rest up to all the factors working in his favor -- bola de coneja; the thin, warm air; his natural strength.
To the extent a baseball player can be crafted for a league, Carter seems designed to dominate LMB. He's there for reasons beyond his control, and he may dream about a return to the majors. But from now until only God knows when, Carter is going to remain a home-run king no matter where he rests his crown. Albeit a home-run king in an era where true nobility requires more than power.
Special thanks to Martin Alonso for translation help.
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