The Setup

Mark Reynolds and Carlos Pena both hit home runs in bulk, even during a time in which sluggers are no longer quite as bulky. Reynolds, the Arizona Diamondbacks‘ third baseman, went deep 44 times last season to finish fourth in the National League in home runs. He hit three fewer than league leader Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals. The 26-year-old Reynolds exploded in 2009 after hitting 17 homers in his rookie season of 2007, then increasing that number to 28 the following year.

Pena, 31, the Tampa Bay Rays‘ first baseman. hit 39 home runs last season and tied for the American League lead with New York Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira. Pena would have certainly won the title outright if Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia hadn’t unwittingly helped Teixeira by smashing two of Pena’s fingers with an inside fastball on Labor Day. Pena sat out the rest of the season.

Neither Reynolds nor Pena bears much resemblance to the cartoonish sluggers of the mid-1990s and early 2000s. Reynolds is 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, and Pena goes 6-2, 225. Their forearms aren’t thicker than an average man’s thigh and they don’t wear size-8 caps (they don’t have big heads figuratively, either, as both are nice guys).

Yet both have prodigious power and are the epitome of all-or-nothing: it seems they can only hit a home run, strike out or walk.

The question, before us is simple: Who is the better pure slugger, Reynolds or Pena?

The Proof

We’ll attack this from several different avenues of thought.

At bats per home run is one way to determine top sluggers, and also levels the playing field for Pena, who had 92 fewer plate appearances than Reynolds last season because of the hand injury. Pena tied Pujols for the major-league lead in that category by hitting one home run every 12.1 at-bats. Reynolds finished third in the NL at 13.1.

Another metric that helps measure a player’s true power is isolated power, the simple measure of subtracting batting average from slugging percentage. Pena had a .310 ISO last season; his .537 slugging percentage more than made up for a .227 batting average. Reynolds’ ISO was .283; he slugged .543 and batted .260.

From a purely statistical standpoint, Pena rates the edge.

What about the visual, though? One of the causes of the home run’s popularity-remember “Chicks Dig The Long Ball?”-is watching a majestic bomb sail out of the park.

To measure the brute strength of home runs, we have the invaluable Hit Tracker; the website tracks every home run in the major leagues for both distance and speed off the bat.

Reynolds’ home runs averaged 415.7 feet in 2009, which topped the majors. His longest blast was a 481-foot shot off beleaguered Phillies closer Brad Lidge on July 28 at Chase Field in Phoenix.

Pena, meanwhile, hit wall-scrapers in comparison to Reynolds. His home runs averaged 392.9 feet; this ranked 80th in the AL, falling between Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson-two good players who have never been confused with Babe Ruth.

We also surveyed MLB scouts on this topic. Quoth one scout, “Well, you would take either one in your lineup in a minute, but if you’re looking for the guy who has the most raw power, it’s definitely Reynolds,” reflecting the opinion of other scouts polled. “Pena hits some bombs, but he is more of a gap-to-gap guy. Reynolds is a true slugger. He set the major-league strikeout record two years in row (204 in 2008 and 223 in 2009) but he hits bombs. He has that type of raw power you can’t teach.”

The Conclusion

The stats say Pena and the scouts say Reynolds. So who is the better pure slugger? Ultimately, it comes down to baseball’s equivalent of a long-driving contest, and the evidence clearly shows that Reynolds’ home runs are more majestic and his raw power is greater than Pena’s. Toss in the fact Reynolds has struck out in an amazing 32.9 percent of his 1,689 career plate appearances and it’s obvious: he is a classic all-or-nothing slugger.

Granted, home runs count the same regardless of distance, but many of Reynolds’ blasts leave fans will indelible memories and more should be on the way as he is entering the prime of his career and plays his home games at hitter-friendly Chase Field. On one those nights when the retractable roof is open, you half-expect Reynolds will end up hitting a belt-high fastball deep into the Sonora Desert.

Now that would be pure power.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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I realize the comment about hat sizes was probably a joke, but an increase in head size is not one of the side effects of steroids. Given the number of people who believe unquestioningly in some of the wilder steroid-effect stories, I just hate seeing references like that in a publication I respect as much as BP.
I thought HGH was linked to growth in you head, hands, and feet. Can someone with more knowledge on the subject please clarify one way or the other?
HGH is not a steroid.
I can't believe the determination of who is the better slugger turned on the length of home runs rather than their frequency. Also, since when are strike outs a positive?
better yet why reynolds and not pujols. length, frequency and majestic in the same package. imagine at chase field!
Easy answer: Pujols is too good to be in a contest for "best at a back-handed compliment category" contest. I generally like John Perotto's stuff, but I think this would have been better as a "Man, I love watching Mark Reynolds hit dingers, that guy has power!" instead of an "analysis" of their power.
In terms of average distance per home run, has anyone ever done a study to see if there's any correlation between home run length, and potential growth in power numbers?
I am amazed that "park effect" never appears in this article.
I think the use of home run distance is meant to target this issue. Home run rates are more likely affected by distance to the wall than the distance the ball is actually hit.
I realize this is somewhat of an ESPN fluff article, but I was thinking the same thing w/ regard to park and league effects. The average home run distance sort of addresses this problem, but I would have enjoyed seeing a comparison of their home parks, the difference in league pitching and defense, etc. In other words, what if Pena played half his games in the BOB and faced NL pitching/defense while Reynolds played in the Trop and faced AL pitching/defense?
It's an ESPN article, i.e., BP Lite. We went through a slew of these last year too. It's nice for BP to generate the traffic for the site and membership, I'm sure it helps keep our membership fees down. But... Maybe we can mark these on the front page so we know ahead of time. Much like the premium articles have the little BP symbol by them, maybe these can have a little dunce cap or something?
Hot Stove U is aseries of ESPN Insider articles that will run until spring training. I agree it's best to steer clear
I agree. That's definitely not the usual BP stuff.
Well yeah. And the problem that avg HR distance is a stat (despite being lumped with non-stat scouting). And that if we're only interested in HR, why are SLG and ISO mentioned? (neither one adjusted, and both including pesky things like doubles and triples which we're not interested in.) This feels poor even for an ESPN-targetted article. I don't mind "dumbing down" the discussion, but at least keep the concepts good so we're not perpetuating faulty thought processes.