Headley, Desmond & Butler: HR/FB Surgers

Every season there are a handful of hitters who experience power breakouts. As much as a fantasy owner would love to take credit for predicting such a surge, it seems more like a crapshoot to me. Sure, you could use 20/20 hindsight to find clues for some of these hitters, but those same clues likely failed to lead to home run increases for many others. Let’s see if we could figure out what to expect in 2013 from three surprises from this year.

Chase Headley
2012 HR/FB: 21.7%
2011 HR/FB: 4.3%

After posting a HR/FB ratio no higher than 10.7% since his 2008 rookie season, Headley has finally shown the type of power he had teased us with in the minor leagues. Surprisingly, it hasn’t even been PETCO Park that has hampered his power in the past, as he actually posted higher HR/FB marks in 2008 and 2009 and wasn’t much better away from home over the past two seasons. This year, he’s actually enjoying an 18.4% HR/FB rate at PETCO, so he is not just benefiting from an astronomical and unsustainable away mark.

Let’s see if Headley is actually hitting the ball further in 2012 than 2011 and how his Home Run Tracker data compares. In 2011, his home runs plus fly balls traveled an average of 287 feet. In 2012, that number has jumped to 297 feet. While the increase is a good sign, that doesn’t seem significant enough to explain such a dramatic improvement in HR/FB ratio. Though, I would say that an average distance of 287 feet should have probably led to a higher than 4.3% HR/FB ratio to begin with. His ESPN Home Run Tracker data doesn’t offer much optimism. In 2012, his average standard home run distance and speed off bat metrics are both below the league average, which is quite surprising. His Just Enough percentage of 35% is also a bit higher than the league average, suggesting he may not be so lucky again.

For next season, I cannot imagine projecting anywhere close to a 20%+ HR/FB ratio. I would expect to land somewhere in the low-to-mid teen range. The lone piece of good news is that his FB% has trended down to a career low near 31%. Assuming that rebounds a bit (I typically project trends to reverse, rather than continue), more fly balls would somewhat offset a drop in HR/FB ratio.

Ian Desmond
2012 HR/FB: 18.8%
2011 HR/FB: 6.0%

Perhaps more surprising than Headley given the latter’s minor league power display is Desmond. His previous career high HR/FB ratio in a full season was 7.7% and he never exceeded a .188 ISO in the minors, which is a mark that came in a small sample of 170 at-bats. Along with the added home run power, his doubles rate has also increased, which is a good sign of increase power skills, rather than an errant gust of wind pushing would-be outs over the fence. In 2011, Desmond’s fly balls plus home runs traveled an average distance of about 273 feet, which is not very impressive. This season, that has jumped to 297 feet, right about where Headley is at. That’s a much more significant increase and does suggest truly increased power.

Desmond’s ESPN Home Run Tracker data is just as encouraging. His speed of bat is very solid and above the league average, and his average standard distance is well over 400 feet, a fantastic mark. One third of his home runs have been classified as Just Enough, which is above the league average of 27%, but his profile is more promising than Headley’s. Though Desmond has shown pretty good power for a middle infielder in the minors, nothing suggested this kind of power breakout. Like Headley, I will absolutely be projecting some regression next year, but I think Desmond should sustain a higher portion of his breakout than the former. Of course, since Headley’s HR/FB ratio is currently higher, that simply means that I may just be projecting similar marks next year.

Billy Butler
2012 HR/FB: 20.7%
2011 HR/FB: 10.4%

Back in April as part of my second bold predictions article, I made the claim that Butler would go .300-30-100. While he’s not quite there yet, he has already easily set a new career high in home runs and this prediction may come down to the wire. The funny thing would be if I concluded this was mostly an unsustainable fluke. After posting a previous HR/FB ratio career best of 11.9% back in 2009, Butler has just about doubled his mark from last year. One interesting observation is that his already low for a power hitter FB% has dropped even further, to below 30%. That’s a mark usually reserved for limited power speedsters, not someone flirting with the 30 home run plateau. The good news is that we’ll have to assume that rebounds next year and somewhat offsets a possible drop in HR/FB ratio, similar to Headley, but even more extreme.

His doubles rate has gone from one every 14 at-bats last season to one every 22 this year. So far, he seems like the classic case of a young hitter turning his doubles into home runs. Is he hitting the ball further though? In 2011, his flies and homers traveled 302 feet. That’s a mark that suggests higher than a 10.4% HR/FB ratio to begin with. Oddly, this year that number has actually dropped to 296 feet. What’s interesting is this is the third hitter highlighted here who have all posted HR/FB ratios around 20% and their fly ball plus home run distance are all about the same. Butler’s case appears to be an example of a simple redistribution of extra-base hits. A little less luck means balls falling for doubles, and better fortune results in home runs. Can you guess what a prudent projection for next year would be? That’s right, a more balanced distribution between doubles and home runs.

His Hit Tracker data looks similar to the previous two. While his speed off bat and average standard distance look solid (though actually worse than last year), his Just Enough home run percentage clocks in at 36%. Just like the others, I would expect to project something like a low-to-mid teen HR/FB ratio next year. Given all the other moving parts like a hopeful rebound in FB%, it’s tough to make a projection right now, but I can tell you it will be a bit of a decline from this year’s pace.

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Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. He also sells beautiful photos through his online gallery, Pod's Pics. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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Interesting piece, Mike. I had looked at Butler too about a month ago. One thing I did notice was that his “plenty long” home runs were higher than last season already, and his “no doubt” home run total was already as many as the last three years combined (albeit a small sample size here). He does seem to be able to hit more longer home runs this year though.

Found his HR/FB% and higher LD% matched what Robinson Cano has been trending towards – Butler just did it all in one season though.