Wednesday, July 2, 2014

50 Homer Dreams

Balls are flying off the bats of Abreu (pictured), Cruz, and Encarnacion.
But can they keep it up? (Chicago CBS Local)
At the halfway point of the season and three players, all American Leaguers, are on pace to finish the season with approximately 50 home runs.

Considering that the past six seasons have produced only two 50-homer campaigns--Jose Bautista's out-of-nowhere 54 in 2010 and Chris Davis's equally surprising 53 last year--it's doubtful that even one of them will reach the 50 homer plateau. But as it stands, all three are on track to do so or at least come close, and that alone is reason enough to stop and take notice.

Atop the leaderboards are Nelson Cruz and Jose Abreu, both with 26 bombs under their belts after going deep yesterday to break a three-way tie with Edwin Encarnacion, who's still stuck on 25. All are on pace to establish career highs, if not reach the 50 home run benchmark that defines a truly historic offensive campaign (well, unless you're Brady Anderson).

Baseball has not had multiple hitters with 50 or more home runs in the same season since 2007, when Alex Rodriguez (54) and Prince Fielder (50) both cleared the half-century mark. To find the last time two American Leaguers did so, you'd have to go back more than a decade to 2002, when A-Rod ripped 57 and Jim Thome tagged 52.

Three hitters exceeding 50 home runs in the same season is exceptionally rare, so much so that it's only happened twice in baseball history (which, if I'm not mistaken, dates back to the stone age). Both times performance enhancing drugs were involved, of course. The most recent occurrence was in 2001, when an "enhanced" Barry Bonds belted 73 to break Mark McGwire's single season record and eclipse fellow National Leaguers Sammy Sosa (64) and Luis Gonzalez (57). The only other time a trio topped 50 was in another monumental season for long balls; 1998, when McGwire mashed 70, Sosa socked 66, and Ken Griffey Jr hammered 56 in the most exciting home run race since Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris duked it out for Babe Ruth's record back in the summer of 1961.

Abreu, Cruz, and Encarnacion are all great power hitters, but certainly not on the Hall of Fame levels of those aforementioned stars. Which begs the question: can any of these guys reach 50 home runs, let alone all three?

Cruz, the oldest of the bunch at 34, appears to be the long shot due to his age and the fact that he's never even hit 35 home runs in any season. He also must contend with the tough pitching staffs of the AL East, which boasts dominant hurlers such as Masahiro Tanaka, Jon Lester, and David Price, among others. Lastly, he's historically struggled in August, in which he has the fewest home runs and second-lowest OPS of any month, meaning he's a good bet to tail off in the second half.

That said, Cruz does a great job of getting the ball in the air with more fly balls than ground balls to date, an approach well-suited to a homer-friendly park like Camden Yards, where Cruz plays half his games. Additionally his 24.3 percent HR/FB rate, a career high, is pretty reasonable considering that he's been over 21 percent three times before, including last year. So while I wouldn't bet on Cruz, I wouldn't count him out just yet, either.

For Encarnacion, this year could be shaping up to be a repeat of last year, when he also went yard 25 times in the first half, only to fade down the stretch and end the season at 36. Still, he does have more home runs than anyone since the start of the 2012 season, and he's also two and a half years younger than Cruz, who also hails from the Dominican Republic. The notoriously streaky first baseman will need to avoid another month like his April (two taters, .413 SLG) or replicate something approximating his monster month of May (18 dingers, .763 SLG). Like Cruz, Encarnacion also does a great job of lifting fly balls, with nearly half of his batted balls qualifying as such. His HR/FB, just south of 20 percent, is a career high but still has room to grow, especially during the summer months when the ball tends to fly out of ballparks.

As for Abreu, no one really knows what he's capable of. It is his first season, after all, which means it's probably only a matter of time before he endures a prolonged slump, as his 73/18 K/BB ratio seems to suggest. There's also no way he'll be able to sustain his current HR/FB rate, which is currently pushing up against 36 percent. He'll need to start hitting more fly balls to balance out his inevitable regression in that department, for his fly ball rate is currently lower than his HR/FB rate, which just screams fluke.

Then again, the Cuban rookie needed just 71 games to bash his 26 home runs, so with a full slate of games in the second half it's not unreasonable to think he'll at least match that number, if not exceed it. His future is the hardest to predict, but he's done nothing except set the world on fire since his debut back in April. it doesn't hurt that he calls the homer-friendly U.S. Cellular Field home. He's also just 27, in the heart of his prime and at the peak of his powers, so who's to say he can't hit 50? For now, at least, McGwire's rookie record of 49 four-baggers appears to be in jeopardy, as does Albert Belle's franchise record of the same number.

If I had to bet on one to cross the 50-homer threshold, I'd pick Abreu simply because his raw power is so ridiculous. Cruz and Encarnacion are playing at their full potential, but there's a possibility, however slight, that Abreu hasn't reached his yet and could get even better with experience, a frightening proposition for any person who throws a baseball for a living. The sky's the limit for him, assuming he can avoid another trip to the Disabled List this year. Hopefully he's one and done.

Speaking of the DL, Cruz is always a health-risk, and frankly I wouldn't be surprised if he fell short of 40 even without getting hurt. Encarnacion's not a model of durability either: like Cruz, he has only one with season with more than 150 games played. I'm also not convinced he has 25 more homers in him this year, especially given his propensity for withering cold spells, but fully ackowledge that a great month of July could put him close to 40 with a third of the season left to play.

But regardless of where they end up, all three have put together marvelous first halves worthy of All-Star recognition. They're definitely worth keeping an eye on as the summer progresses, because if all three maintain their current paces they'll become the first trio of American Leaguers to hit 50 home runs in the same season. That would be pretty cool.