Friday, November 13, 2015

Players Who Powered Up in 2015

Pujols proved he still has plenty of pop left in his bat (LA Times)
Throughout baseball history, 40-homer seasons have been incredibly rare, usually reserved for superstars and all-or-nothing sluggers. Ted Williams only reached the benchmark once, and Stan Musial never did (though he nearly did in his otherworldly 1948 campaign). Jim Rice, Joe DiMaggio, and Frank Robinson only did it once. Eddie Murray and Fred McGriff have as many 40-homer seasons as you and me.
Then the steroid era happened, and all of the sudden 40-homers weren't so special. 50 became the new 40, and 70 became the new 60. A record 17 players socked 40 in 1996, four more than did so during the entire 1980s.
It wasn't a fluke; it was the start of a trend. At least a dozen players cleared 40 every year from 1996-2001--the height of the steroid era. Things got a little less crazy after that as the strike zone became better regulated and PED testing was put into place, but 40-homer seasons were still commonplace. No fewer than eight men crossed the threshold every year from 2002-2006, bearing in mind again that just nine did so in the '80s (excluding the juiced-ball year of 1987, when four players whacked 40).
The past decade has seen a marked reduction of offense across baseball. The strike zone is bigger, pitchers throw harder, and hitters aren't juicing (as much). Home run rates have fallen considerably, to the point where 40 homers has become a special feat again. In 2008 only two players hit 40--the fewest for a non-strike-shortened season since 1992. 
It wasn't a fluke. That number remained the same in 2010, 2011, and 2012. In 2014, just one player hit 40 homers and nobody else had more than 37. That special creature was Nelson Cruz who, funnily enough, remained unsigned that year until spring training was already underway. He slugged 40 on the nose, meaning baseball nearly had its first season without a 40 home run hitter since 1982. Once again, 40 homers was the hallmark of a great slugger.

In 2015, however, that downward trend reversed. Scoring increased over the previous two years, largely thanks to elevated run totals in August and September. The surge was primarily fueled by a big increase in homers, which spiked 17.3 percent year-over-year.

The added long balls were especially noticeable at the top of the home run leaderboards, as a whopping nine players topped 40 homers (with a tenth--Edwin Encarnacion--just missing). That's the most since 2006 and as many as the previous three seasons combined.

So I wanted to know--was this a fluke because several guys had career years, or can we expect to see a similar number of 40-homer hitters next year. Here's a look at this year's 40 home run club and whether I think they'll do it again.
Davis re-established himself as the game's premier power hitter (CBS Sports)
Davis is one of the best sluggers in the game, so it was not surprising that he paced the majors in dingers this year (or strikeouts, for that matter). He's going to be 30 next year--still in the heart of his prime--but his free agency makes him tough to project, as moving to a pitching-friendly venue could cost him some long balls. It's worth noting that 92 of his 159 homers over the past four years (58 percent) came at Camden Yards, so leaving Baltimore might put a bit of a dent in his tater totals. That said, if I had to bet on one player launching 40+ moon shots next year, he's the guy.

Nelson Cruz (44)
Given that Cruz was the sole player to surpass 40 bombs last year, it shouldn't have been a shock that he did so again. Except that it was, because it's really hard to hit 40 home runs when you're in your mid-30s, have a lengthy injury history, and move to one of the most pitching-friendly parks in baseball. None of that hindered Cruz, who made good in his first season with the Mariners. His numbers would have looked better had he signed almost anywhere else, for 27 of his 44 bombs came away from Safeco. Who would have guessed that an injury-prone slugger like Cruz would not only develop into one of the best hitters in baseball, but that he would do so after leaving Arlington? I doubt Cruz ever hits 40 again, but he's proved me wrong before.
We all knew Harper had a season like this in him--it was only a matter of time and health. Playing time was not a problem for him this year, as he suited up for a career-high 153 games. It was surprising, however, to see him realize his power potential so soon--in his age 22 season--and to such an extreme (he nearly doubled his previous personal best of 22). My main concern with Harper is that he gets pitched around so much now--he had 25 homers on the Fourth of July and barely made it to 40--but like Barry Bonds he makes the most of the few strikes he does see. He'll definitely hit 40 again, just maybe not in 2016.
Far and away the most unlikely member of this year's 40 home run club is Mr. Arenado. When he debuted in 2013, he looked like a slick-fielding Andrelton Simmons type. With just 10 home runs and a .138 ISO that year, Arenado showed no hint of becoming a 40-homer slugger within two seasons. Last year his power improved considerably, as he slugged .500 with 54 extra base hits (18 homers) in just 432 official at-bats, but that projected to be 25-homer power. It was a complete surprise, then, when he tied Harper for the NL home run league and paced the majors in RBI (130) and total bases (354)--obliterating his previous career highs in the process. Those numbers are off the charts, even for a guy playing half his games at Coors Field. He's a big guy (6'2, 205) and only 24, so I wouldn't be surprised if he cranks 40 again.
As with Harper, it was inevitable that Trout would one day exceed 40 homers, especially after bulking up and trading some of his speed for power. After establishing a new career high with 36 big flies last year, he hit for even more power this year with 41 taters and an AL-best .590 slugging. I see several more years like this in his future.
How appropriate is it that Donaldson, Trout's top competition for AL MVP honors, finished with the same number of long balls as him? Trout's accomplishment is considerably more impressive after accounting for park effects, but one can't fault Donaldson for taking advantage of his new digs after losing lord knows how many home runs in Oakland's Coliseum the last few years. Donaldson had never reached 30 before, however, so 41 was somewhat unexpected. He's about to turn 30, but like fellow late bloomers Encarnacion and Joey Bats I think he'll keep this up into his next decade.
Donaldson and Bautista both eclipsed 40 homers (CTV News)
Health has been the only thing stopping Bautista from doing this every year since 2010. Had he not gotten hurt in 2012 and 2013, this might have been his fifth 40-homer season in the past six years. As it were, he still has three, which is pretty good, although this is his first since 2011. Seeing as how he turned 35 a few weeks ago, it might very well be his last...
...Then again, maybe not. I definitely thought we'd seen the last 40-homer effort from Pujols, given that he hasn't been the same since signing with the Angels due to injuries, age, and their brutal ballpark for hitters. Since leaving St. Louis he had yet to exceed 30 homers in a season, making his 40-homer year especially unlikely. What he gained in power, though, he lost in batting average, as he slumped to a career-worst .244 BA--73 points below his career average coming into the season. Looks like he might be the new right-handed Adam Dunn or Mark Teixeira.
We have two Angels, two Blue Jays, and now two Rockies to round out the list. Plagued by injuries over the last several years, CarGo had come nowhere near matching his high in home runs (34) set in 2010. This year he finally stayed healthy, playing a career-high 153 games. And rather than wear down, as one might expect, he enjoyed a prodigious second half, totaling 30 home runs after Independence Day.
Here are a few guys who might do it next year:
In the right ballpark, Cespedes could absolutely do it. He was a monster last year despite splitting time between Comerica and Citi Field, so depending on where he signs this winter he could have a real shot at 40 next year.
Probably more of a Joey Votto clone, meaning that his selectivity might prevent him from realizing his power potential, but he's proven he can hit 30 in his sleep. All he needs is for the winds at Wrigley to nudge a few more doubles over the ivy and voila! 40 homers.
At his age, in that ballpark, after topping 30 twice in the past three years, I'd be shocked if he doesn't do it. Then again, he won't get much to hit unless the Diamondbacks add some talent around him.
Could have a Harper-esque explosion next year.


  1. Do you think it is plausible that Albert Pujols' mammoth batting average drop isn't because of higher strikeout totals, but because of an ever lowering BABIP(more pull-hitting)? l think his .217 BABIP, by far the lowest of his career, can at least partially explain his going from bating .280 to .240 overnight.

  2. Definitely. His strikeout rate barely increased from 2014 to 2015. He also can't run anymore.