Yesterday George Bissell went deep into our brave new world of long-ball dominance, touching on all the pretty figures and shady conspiracy theories as to why big leaguers in 2016 hit more homeruns than any season in baseball history that didn’t end with Antonio Alfonseca leading the majors in Saves. Today we’ll look at some of the over- and under-achievers in the category, and what drove their production (or lack thereof).
Mmmm, all of the players? In a year where Freddy Galvis – he of the .081 ISO in 2015 – hit 20 homers, you could pretty much make the case for about 50 different guys in this space. I’m going to trim the fat and focus just on a few of the “elite” options, however – guys who popped at least 30 homers with the biggest discrepancy from their prior year’s performance. This filter left standing a sample of 36 players who reached that milestone this past season. To put that in perspective, that number was 20 in 2015, and just eleven in 2014.
· 2015: 22 (T-51st)
· 2016: 47 (1st)
Trumbo didn’t exactly come out of nowhere to lead the majors in homeruns, but he did manage to reverse some negative trend lines to get there. Per PITCHf/x he stayed off of out-of-zone pitches at a career-best rate, and not coincidentally he posted his best contact rate in a half-decade. Baltimore played as an above-average homer park for righties, though not an extreme one. In 2015 Seattle played as a below-average park for right-handed power, though not an extreme one. There was a moderate boost in ballpark context, to be sure, that aided his power outburst. The larger factor was an approach that became geared discernibly towards pulling the ball in the air at a far greater rate. He pulled pitches about 13 percent more often, and it translated to a couple miles-an-hour of extra exit velocity when he got any air under the ball. He barreled balls at a more consistent rate, and his fly balls went further. That’s generally a good recipe for increasing your homerun output, and when you’ve got plus-plus (or better?) raw stranger things happen than you leading the league in long-balls. Trumbo’s value heading into 2017 will be marginally tied to his landing spot, but for guys with his level of power it doesn’t matter that much.
· 2015: 21 (T-49th)
· 2016: 39 (T-10th)
It’s pretty telling about just how absurd the one-year jump in league-wide homerun production was that Cano belted an astounding 18 additional homers – an 85-percent increase on a top-50 total – and yet he only moved up roughly 40 spots on the leaderboard. Cano didn’t hit the ball particularly hard or anything last year, at least relative to his usual production. He did hit dramatically more fly balls, however – up to 36 percent from 25 of his balls in play – and he pulled more of them. Add in your favorite ball-juicing conspiracy theory, note that Safeco suddenly became a sneaky hotbed for power, and the stars aligned for one of the prettiest left-handed swings in the game to produce a career-high number of dingers.
· 2015: 18 (T-73rd)
· 2016: 34 (T-18th)
Freeman has for several years been among the most consistent, elite line drive hitters in the game. And that continued in 2016, as his 29-percent rate paced all of Major League Baseball. But he added loft this year, trading in about five percentage points of grounders for more fly balls. And most interestingly, his gains were made to the opposite field: he hit 12 opposite-field homers this year after topping out previously at five. We can ponder the possible effects of his hitting in a lineup that scored the second-fewest runs in baseball, but in general he appeared a more aggressive hitter this season, swinging (and missing) at a higher rate than recent years past. You should always give the benefit of the doubt to guys who post consistent line drives rates, and the power speak at the heart of his prime shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise here – especially given the discernable changes in approach that drove it. I wouldn’t necessarily expect another 30-homer season next year, but it should be considered a much more likely possibility than it looked like it’d be this time last year.
· 2015: 5 (T-278th)
· 2016: 33 (T-21st)
This is somewhat of a cheapie, insofar as Duvall only logged 72 big-league plate appearances in 2015, so his homerun total was bound to go up with regular playing time. But I raise Duvall to highlight that PECOTA saw this one coming, pegging him for 27 homeruns in 502 plate appearances – a home every 18.6 plate appearances. He hit 33 in 608, or one in every 18.4. Mild-to-moderate playing time uncertainties acknowledged and granted, but this is a guy who got drafted 476th overall on average in NFBC leagues last year – despite a highly appealing track record of power production and solid contact rates in the high minors, along with a very straightforward path to at-bats in one of the best homerun parks in baseball. Yes, there are always 40 dudes with similar power profiles floating around in the second halves of drafts, but especially with the power of hindsight there did appear to be some warning signs for Duvall’s breakout potential that went relatively unheeded.
· 2015: 9 (T-200th)
· 2016: 31 (T-26th)
Tomas is a good counter to Duvall, as managers remained fairly bullish on Tomas’ fantasy potential despite an extremely underwhelming debut in 2015. He dramatically changed his approach this year, getting more aggressive up in the zone and turning on elevated pitches with authority. He hit more fly balls, and increased by a third his rate of pulling balls. That dragged his exit velocity up and added almost 30 feet to the distance his average batted ball traveled (that’s a huge gain). He’s a hacker, and if teams start finding some success against his pull-side adjustment by shifting more or attacking him differently, things could stagnate in a hurry for Tomas.
· 2015: 11 (T-164th)
· 2015: 30 (T-31st)
I covered Miller’s development this year in some depth in this piece, and I’ll encourage you to get the full story there. The punchline is that Miller made a bunch of changes to his swing, ultimately adding and refining a leg kick, and loading his hands deeper. Those changes helped him generate more consistent loft, and he managed to tap into outsized power while incorporating those changes on the fly last year, which is not easy to do.
This is an exceedingly difficult section to write because, well, there just weren’t that many fantasy-relevant dudes out there who dramatically underperformed their homerun expectations in this year of absurd power production. And the ones that did tended to have battle scars from injury. I’ve eliminated the blatant ones, but if you look closely you’ll notice there’s still a pattern here.
· 2015: 42 (T-3rd)
· 2016: 24 (T-66th)
Harper’s production fell across the board last year, and his homerun total was just one of the bellwethers. His slugging percentage fell by 200 points, his BABIP by over a hundred, driven by weaker contact and the poor results that ensued against the shift. Fastballs were the biggest driver of Harper’s downturn: a year after slugging a Bondsian .737 against the hard stuff he backed it up with just a .477 effort in 2016. Getting even more granular, he struggled most notably to capitalize against hard stuff in his happy zones, down the middle and outer third, where he can extend. He slugged .674 in 135 at-bats ending on a hard pitch in those zones, after pushing four digits with a .937 mark in his MVP campaign. A rumored shoulder injury very well may have been at the root of his slide, and indeed the troubles getting extended and barreling velocity would certainly jive from a narrative standpoint.
· 2015: 40 (T-7th)
· 2016: 22 (T-80th)
Joey Bats missed time with toe and knee injuries this year, but things weren’t going so hot for him before the first malady struck. His numbers pre- and post- ended up looking very similar, and he actually ended up hitting the ball harder, and with more authority to the pull-side especially, in the second, injury-riddled half of the season. He hit a homer every 23.5 plate appearances in 2016, down significantly from his pace of one every 16.7 trips to the dish in 2015, though it’s worth noting that he still hit the ball as consistently hard as most anyone in baseball this season. His average exit velocity slid, but he fell all of a dozen spots on the leaderboard from fourth to 16th. At 36 and coming off an injury-riddled campaign there has to be a good amount of risk baked into Bautista’s profile, and outside of OBP leagues (where he remains a highly valuable commodity) the batting average drag makes him a less appealing target in this apparent era of Johnny Appleseed strength.
· 2015: 38 (11th)
· 2016: 22 (T-80th)
Here’s your fun-with-numbers stat of the day: both Martinez and the last man on this list, Jose Bautista, both hit exactly 22 homers in exactly 517 plate appearances last season. And like with Bautista, that pace represented a pretty sharp decline for Martinez from his over-the-fence production the year prior. Martinez’s numbers were fairly consistent before and after a fractured elbow cost him a month and a half, though he benefited from a sky-high BABIP upon his return that boosted his topline fantasy numbers with glorious batting-average benefit. His all-fields power continued to impress, and he even added marginally more punch to balls he lofted this past season. There’s just not much in the data that suggests Martinez should be treated as anything other than the borderline-top-30 pick he was heading into 2016.
· 2015: 28 (T-21st)
· 2016: 18 (T-113th)
It was a weird first half for Gonzalez, as he slugged all of six homeruns through June and headed to the all-star break slugging just .412. His .121 ISO checked in about 80 points south of his career average, and it was driven largely by a huge spike in his groundball rate. While he didn’t miss much time as a result, it’s worth noting that he revealed a mild back injury in May, and it just so happens that April and May were the first months in which he posted a groundball rate north of 50 percent since 2011. Gonzalez’s launch angle plummeted to unseen depths during that stretch, and he was unable to fully dig himself out of the early-season hole once he finally healed up and started lifting the ball again at something closer to a customary rate. Gonzalez is another one where the consistency may be undersold as a result of his (relatively) poor season, though at 34 those kinds of nagging core injuries can take their toll.