Some home run hitters are easy to spot, like Zach Mathieu of the Anchorage Bucs, a 6-foot-7, 255-pound first baseman who routinely launches balls over the fence at Mulcahy Stadium during batting practice.
"They call me big donkey," said Mathieu, whose two home runs this season flew over the center-field wall at Mulcahy, 410 feet from home plate.
Mathieu is one of seven Bucs with multiple home runs and part of an early-season power surge across the Alaska Baseball League, a league not known for an abundance of homers in recent years. Led by Chase Compton's five, the Bucs led the ABL with 25 homers through July 5, dwarfing their total of eight from last season. The Anchorage Glacier Pilots were second in the league with 15 home runs, equalling their total from last season.
"They're certainly guys with a lot of pop this year," Pilots general manager Jon Dyson said. "They're guys on every team who can put a charge into the ball, and it's not your typically big strong guys who are hitting them."
Dyson said he watched Kevin Cornelius, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound infielder, hit one of the longest shots he's ever seen during a batting practice at Mulcahy. The ball carried the 410-foot wall in center field from such a high apex that it could be seen bouncing on the cement beyond the wall.
Cornelius, who leads the Pilots with three homers, said power hitting isn't all about size and strength. The key is in maintaining bat speed with a pair of quick hands.
"Try to think about going the other way more, not trying to pull the ball so much," Cornelius said. "Your bat's going to stay through the ball a little bit longer, create some lag."
Cornelius' third homer may have been the most dramatic of the ABL season, a 13th-inning walk-off solo blast that broke a 0-0 tie with the Peninsula Oilers.
"I've never had one in such a close game," Cornelius said. "It was pretty intense. It was awesome."
Home runs are always great for the game and great for entertaining the fans, Dyson said, and he has heard comments from fans who have noticed the offensive outburst.
"It gets the fans out of their seats and hootin' and hollerin' when someone hits a home run in a crucial situation," he said.
The Pilots hit more than 20 homers just twice in the last 10 seasons, reaching 30 in 2009, the same year the Bucs crushed 22 for their highest total in the last decade.
While an influx of talented hitters is certainly contributing to an increase the number of home runs, there is another theory. Warm weather helps the ball carry. Bucs catcher Tanner Rust is in his second ABL season, having played for the Oilers last summer. He hit two homers last season, but already has three this season.
"I was always cold last year," he said. "It isn't nearly as windy this year."
The wind tends to blow in at all the ABL parks, Rust said, so less wind means less resistance. Warmer is better for ideal slugging weather, but Rust said there is a temperature barrier at which the ball seems to sail.
"When I was in Kenai, I had a specific mark of 57 degrees," Rust said. "If it was 57 or higher, I knew I could wear short sleeves. We're all checking our iPhones every day to see what the weather is going to be."
Another factor possibly contributing to unexpected homers by players who aren't used to a power game involves pitching. Pilots shortstop Chris Mariscal, who pumped a couple homers in Fairbanks, said ABL pitching sometimes provides an assist he isn't used to.
"Great pitchers throw hard and that helps out a lot," Mariscal said. "You don't have to do too much."
There is a friendly competition among Bucs teammates for who can hit the most home runs, Rust said, and occasionally a bit of chatter about the second annual Home Run Derby coming up July 22, when a team of all stars will meet at Mulcahy Stadium to swing for the fences.
The league's biggest bashers so far are Kristopher Kwak of the Chugiak Chinooks and Chase Compton of the Bucs -- each has launched five home runs to surpass the three players who hit four to lead the league last season.
But they have a long way to go to reach the record of 24 set by Jim Willis of the Goldpanners in 1974 and Pat Dodson of the Panners in 1979. Of course, those were in the era of aluminum bats -- those bats inflated homer totals -- and ABL players now use wood or composite-wood bats.
Reach Jeremy Peters at email@example.com or 257-4335.