2018 Home Run Hitters: Mirage or Reality?
Guest Column By Luke Benigno
As we have passed the two-month mark of the MLB season, we have started to get a better sense of the league’s landscape. Each team in the league is now over a third of the way into their season, a big milestone as the summer months approach. Now with a decent sample size to observe, we can begin to analyze leaguewide statistics with more clarity, and there is no better place to start than with the long ball.
After a record year for home runs in 2017, the league-wide pace has cooled slightly in 2018. However, there is much parity within the individual home run standings, with nobody running away with the league lead yet. Here is where we stand as of June 10, 2018, with the current top ten home run hitters in baseball:
Ten players are within five home runs of the top of the league, all in close pursuit of J.D. Martinez and his league-leading 21 dingers. But an obvious follow-up question remains: who will emerge from this crowded pack, and who is due to fall behind? I decided to take a stab at predicting who will thrive and who may falter, and even searched for some underperformers who may be due for a summer resurgence.
In order to attempt to forecast such trends, I turned to a few different metrics. First, I analyzed each hitter’s contact rate, to see their hard contact percentage on balls in play. And secondly, although the season’s sample size is still too small to accurately judge a hitter’s line drive rate, I compared each batter’s fly ball rate vs ground ball rate to determine a ratio that can more accurately foreshadow the rest of their season’s output. These numbers provided me a template for predicting which home run leaders are built to last and which may be overperforming and unsustainable.
This graph above shows each MLB hitter’s (who has produced a minimum of 50 balls in play this season) hard contact rate alongside their fly ball: ground ball ratio. The findings proved to be quite interesting. As the higher contact rate and stronger fly ball: ground ball ratio should produce more home runs over the long haul, three unsurprising players stand out: Joey Gallo, Mike Trout, and Mookie Betts. Considering Gallo was put on this Earth to hit home runs and disregard all else, Trout is the best player on the planet, and Betts leads all qualified hitters in batting average and is a close second in hard contact rate, the fact that these three stand out is probably somewhat unsurprising. However, they do seem to show the strongest signs that their early season home run pace is sustainable over the long-term. Other high-profile names that stand out are Manny Machado, who is hitting the ball in the air at a very strong clip while a quarter of his balls in play result in hard contact, and Bryce Harper, whose hard contact rate is excellent while still managing a decent fly ball rate.
On the flip side, a few names towards the top of the home run leaderboard emerge that may exhibit warning signs down the road. The first of these is Charlie Blackmon. His fly ball: ground ball ratio is underwhelming already, but the real concern is that on top of this his hard contact rate is in the dumps compared to his peers at < 20%. Although the elevation of Coors Field may help keep him afloat, a continuation of this trend should cause his home run totals to continue to fall. C.J. Cron falls into a similar boat, as he is hovering around a middling hard contact rate and fly ball: ground ball ratio that could fail to prop up his home run rate over time. Two more hitters that concern me going forward are Nomar Mazara and Javier Baez. Mazara has a slightly above average hard contact rate at almost 22% but sports a minuscule .506 fly ball: ground ball ratio, while Baez only marginally outperforms him in both categories at 23.6% and .677.
The previous names highlight a number of players who round out the top 20 home run hitters, but what about the top sluggers in the league? Two in particular stick out to me based on my data. The first is Jose Ramirez. He currently sits above average in both categories, with nearly a quarter of his hits for hard contact and an almost 1.1 fly ball: ground ball ratio. But without excelling in either category, his current pace may be slightly unsustainable. The other interesting case is J.D. Martinez. Although he is clearly a top hitter in baseball, as evidenced by his .316 batting average, high contact rate, etc, his extremely low fly ball: ground ball ratio could mean that over time his lack of fly balls could dampen his home run output, but these fears are somewhat mitigated by his extremely high weighted on-base percentage and isolated power statistics. Overall, Jose Ramirez is the man I am most concerned about of the current home run leaders, and I predict that he will not finish in the league’s top five when the season concludes.
I thought a final area of interest would be to try to find some diamonds in the rough, who may be currently underperforming but could be poised for breakout summer months and beyond. Paul Goldschmidt is a perfect example, as up until this weekend he was struggling with his power numbers at the plate. After four dingers in two games, his total is up to a very respectable 12, but I believe this a sign of things to come, not simply a lucky break. Goldschmidt has the highest hard contact rate in the league at 37.9%, and his BABIP has been climbing steadily in recent weeks back up towards his career average of .352 after he was mired below .300 through mid-May. Other candidates to pick up steam in regards to their home run totals are Daniel Descalsco, Brandon Nimmo, Nick Hundley, Matt Carpenter, Leonys Martin, and Todd Frazier. But do not just take my word for it, check out the interactive table and chart to pick who you think is poised to either encounter a home run surge or hit a midseason wall. Links to the data are again provided below.
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