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June 18, 2010

Seidnotes

Wait, WHO has 18 Home Runs?

by Eric Seidman

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Simply put, home runs are sexy. No matter one’s take on advanced statistics or what constitutes the true worth of a player, the dinger tally impresses fans more than most other numbers. Wallops surface in various forms, too, be it through the miss-or-mash style of a Mark Reynolds or Rob Deer-type, or the smash-the-ball-all-over-the-place repartee of an Albert Pujols. Regardless, the usual suspects often find themselves atop the leaderboard, deeming a high total for the likes of Ryan Howard or Adam Dunn as more expected than impressive. This year, a fairly curious player is within an arm’s reach of the top spot on the home run charts in the American League, inducing more of a jarred reaction from onlookers than anything else. That player is journeyman Jose Bautista, now of the Blue Jays, who exited play this past Tuesday with 18 home runs, a sum good enough for the second spot in the league.

Let that sink in for a moment. While Bautista has been raking for the entire season, anyone who claims to have pegged the former Pirate, Royal, Ray, and Oriole as a potential breakout candidate capable of amassing power figures of this ilk best quickly stop, drop and roll, else risk the fire from his pants spreading all over. Seriously, few thought Bautista would hit 18 home runs over the course of the entire season, let alone in his first 56 games and 234 plate appearances. He realistically has never done anything very well, doing a few things well enough to fight for a spot in a lineup, but I would shuffle through close to 250 different names—of players either active or not—before naming him if asked who I thought would lead or be in the hunt for arguably the most prestigious single-season batting tally.

Bautista has never slugged above .420 in a season, yet currently sits at .537. His home run totals from 2006-09? They were 16, 15, 15, and 13, a remarkably short-ranged span averaging 14 per year. In one-third of the current season he has already eclipsed that mark, and while he has the feel of a player who will completely fall off in the second half and finish with something like 25 or 26 home runs, it does not erase his current total. That current total got my mind working in its usual random fashion, wondering if Bautista is the most unlikely potential home-run leader at this point in recent history.

The first step to answering this query was to compute statistics through June 15 of each season since 1954. While June 15 is more arbitrary than not, I had to pick some point through which to trace the numbers, and that date represents the inception of the article. The next step involved determining the home run leader in each season as of the aforementioned date. For instance, Miguel Cabrera currently leads with 19 dingers; last year, we had a three-way tie at 22 between Adrian Gonzalez, Pujols, and Raul Ibanez; and in 2008, Ibanez’s current teammate, Chase Utley, led with 22.

After that, I proceeded to calculate a three-year average of home runs for every such span from 1970-2009 in order to compare to the theoretical fourth year of the span. In other words, Bautista hit 15, 15, and 13 home runs from 2007-09, before the 18 he has knocked out of the park this season. The purpose here is to take the home run leaders as of June 15 in each of the pertinent seasons and evaluate their average home run marks for the three prior years. My hypothesis was that Bautista’s average of 14.3 home runs over the three prior years would represent the lowest average for a potential league leader. Now, of course, Cabrera has a one home run lead, but for the sake of this process let’s pretend that Bautista leads; it’s fairly unlikely he’ll ever find himself this close again.

Before discussing the results, there is a major caveat to incorporate: the players must have amassed at least 300 plate appearances in each of the three years being averaged. In other words, wonky results will skew the research; for instance, Andres Galarraga led the league in 1988 with 17 home runs as of June 15, but in 1985, the first of the three prior seasons, he only batted 79 times, knocking two balls out of the yard. Of course his average mark is going to be über low given that he didn’t ever really have a chance. With that out of the way, the table below hosts the players with the eight lowest three-year home run averages for players with 300 or more trips to the dish in each of those three seasons, who went onto lead baseball in home runs as of June 15 the following year:

Name

Years

Three-Year AVG

HR at 6/15

Darrell Evans

1980-83

16.0

18

Jim Wynn

1971-74

17.0

17

Kevin Mitchell

1986-89

17.7

23

Chili Davis

1988-91

18.3

15

Richie Zisk

1974-77

19.3

16

Dave Henderson

1988-91

19.7

15

Reggie Smith

1974-77

20.0

16

Dale Murphy

1979-82

22.3

19

What does this tell us? Well, it suggests that Bautista’s 14.3 homers per year from 2007-09 would constitute the lowest average for a player to lead the league the next season, and by a relatively vast margin. It doesn’t tell us anything regarding his ability to continue to mash for the rest of the season, but then again, that was not really the exercise. Bautista is currently in the midst of a fairly unprecedented feat by practically leading the league in dingers at about the one-third point after barely hitting any in the previous seasons. Also interesting is that his three-year average is less than his current total, a feat matched only by three other June 15 leaders.

 Next time someone remarks how odd it is that Bautista is in the running for the league lead in home runs, consider this some ammo for a proper and appropriate report. Not only is it odd—but it’s essentially unrivaled in the annals of baseball lore.  

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

Related Content:  Home Run,  The Who

13 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Chomsky
(103)

It would have been interesting to know how many home runs each of the players in your chart ended up hitting by the end of the season.

Jun 18, 2010 04:02 AM
rating: 2
 
TheRealNeal

The arbitrary thing about the article isn't the date so much as the "leader" thing. Unless a player is a pitcher, he doesn't have much control over whether he's leading the league in home runs. Brady Anderson is the most pointed to example of a guy who had middling power but then suddenly exploded (averaged just shy of 14 HR's for three years then hit 22 by June 15th in 1996) Not sure who was leading the league at that point, but he had more than the eventual league leader.

Jun 18, 2010 04:38 AM
rating: 0
 
JoshC77

You beat me to the punch...

I think the only reason to include the "leader" caveat is to provide some semblance of context for the season in question. The mid-90's were a noted homerun heavy time period.

What Bautista has done to-date is nothing short of shocking, no arguments there. However, to call Bautista's numbers 'unrivaled' (leaderboard or not) is possibly pushing it a bit.

Jun 18, 2010 04:45 AM
rating: -1
 
hessshaun

I think there is a HUGE ELEPHANT in the room.

Jun 18, 2010 06:56 AM
rating: -2
 
Bill N

Yes I agree, we should discuss the Jays' new hitting coach.

Jun 18, 2010 07:48 AM
rating: 12
 
leites

To me, the more amazing thing is that, during spring training, Cito Gaston went on the record predicting Bautista would hit 30 HRs. At the time, I thought it was preposterous . ..

Jun 18, 2010 07:01 AM
rating: 2
 
buffum
(458)

I thought this was going to be an article about the Houston Astros.

Jun 18, 2010 09:23 AM
rating: 15
 
MattZ

Steroids.

/sarcasm.

Jun 18, 2010 11:20 AM
rating: 0
 
dantroy

Bautista also hit 10 HRs in September, so he's hit 28 in about half of a season.

Jun 18, 2010 12:27 PM
rating: 4
 
Darsox64

Batista always had decent power and his SLG was suppressed by low batting averages. Even at his current pace, I'm not sure if this will be a greater outlier than Davey Johnson by the time the season ends.

Jun 18, 2010 14:16 PM
rating: -1
 
evo34

Huh? His BA is as low as ever this season (.227 as of Jun 17, vs. .237 career). So it's his power that has spiked this season, not batting average. Certainly, his HR/FB rate is elevated, but more striking is his increase in FB rate to 55% this season from 44% over his career. I.e., this power spike (current ISO of .310 vs. .180 career) probably has some staying power to it.

Jun 18, 2010 18:23 PM
rating: -1
 
BrewersTT

Davey Johnson came immediately to mind to me too. He had fewer than 43 HRs in the four years prior to 1973 combined, all of them full seasons, and 1970-72 fall within the era studied. But maybe he didn't get really hot until after June 15.

I don't know about "essentially unrivaled in the annals of baseball lore" if it's rivaled within a homer or two by eight guys since 1970. I'm willing to bet that Babe Ruth and others probably had this happen to them in the 20s, and then maybe the same rate of a guy every five years or so in intervening eras as well. Common, though, no, clearly.

Jun 18, 2010 19:17 PM
rating: -1
 
R.A.Wagman

As already mentioned Bautista's surge began late last year. Much discussion has been made here in Toronto about his changed mechanics. Starting his triggering earlier to get a better jump on the ball. As a pull hitter it works for him. As an added bonus he is versatile defender.

Jun 18, 2010 19:28 PM
rating: 1
 
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