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Potential 2nd Half HR/FB Decliners

For me personally, it feels like offensive surprises and busts are harder to evaluate during the year because we have fewer tools to analyze. Power is one skill that is difficult to decide how real a spike or drop is, but Jeff Zimmerman has been mentioning a tool at Baseball Heat Maps that gives you the distance of a hitter’s batted balls, which may really help in this type of analysis. In the past, I have used the ESPN Home Run Tracker site to help determine how flukey a change in HR/FB ratio is, but I think looking at the raw average distance is a less flawed method. I looked at the five hitters whose HR/FB ratio has increased the most this year and then added their 2011 and 2012 average home run plus fly ball distances to the table.

Name 2012 HR/FB 2011 HR/FB Diff 2012 Avg Fly + HR Distance 2011 Avg Fly + HR Distance
Adam Dunn 35.1% 9.6% 25.5% 314 280
Dexter Fowler 18.6% 4.1% 14.5% 297 292
A.J. Pierzynski 20.5% 6.5% 14.0% 265 264
Carlos Ruiz 18.3% 4.4% 13.9% 285 278
Josh Hamilton 29.0% 16.4% 12.6% 307 290

Whatever was behind Adam Dunn‘s disastrous 2011 season is obviously behind him and remains a mystery. The possible explanations were many, but we will never know for sure. The bottom line is that he’s back to the Dunn you could annually expect 40 home runs from. You can also see from his average distance that this is a true rebound as all his balls are simply traveling further. Amazingly, ESPN Hit Tracker tells us that he has hit only three homers classified as “just enough”. Of course, his HR/FB is easily at a career high, and the first time it has sat above even 26%. From 2003 through 2010, that rate remained in a pretty consistent range between 20% and 26%, so it would be hard to believe it doesn’t come down to below 30% at some point. Given his meager contact rate, any drop in power is going to result in him hitting dangerously close to the Mendoza line the rest of the way.

Dexter Fowler was a popular sleeper candidate once again this year, especially after coming off of hitting five homers over the last two months and stealing 10 bases over the last three months, for a 15/20 pace over the season. That power spike has carried over to this year, but now his HR/FB ratio is outrageous. His previous career high was just 5.5% and his average distance hasn’t improved all that dramatically. Of his 11 homers, 4 have been classified as “just enough”, which is a bit above the league average, but not drastically so that would throw out all kinds of red flags. His doubles are down from last year and every other metric, from batted ball profile to strikeout and walk rates, are nearly identical to last season. I wouldn’t expect much more from his power output than you did in the pre-season.

A.J. Pierzynski has been one of this year’s biggest surprises in the power department. The 36-year old is only two homers off his career high in homers over just a bit more than half the at-bats. His average distance suggests this is a complete fluke, both from his absolute distance which is quite low, and the fact that it hasn’t even budged since last season. Twice he has managed a HR/FB ratio in the double digits, but he has sat in the single digits every season since 2007. ESPN Hit Tracker has classified only four of his home runs as “just enough”, which is actually normal. He is striking out at the highest rate since 2005 after not experiencing a strikeout rate in the double digits since 2008, so one might speculate that he is purposely swinging harder in order to tap into more of his power. It is obviously doubtful he continues this home run pace, but given a still strong contact rate and the ability to hit for average even with a drop in power, he will remain a solid producer in mixed leagues.

Carlos Ruiz is yet another catcher experiencing a surprise power surge. His average distance is much better than Pierzynski’s, but the improvement over last season doesn’t seem like enough to explain the HR/FB ratio increase. 5 of his 13 home runs have been classified as “just enough”, which is a bit high, but his doubles rate is also way up along with his home runs. This doesn’t appear to be a matter of fly balls benefiting from an errant gust of wind and turning from doubles into homers. His power has truly blossomed. Back at Triple-A in 2006, Ruiz did post a .198 ISO and swatted 16 homers in just 368 at-bats, so this isn’t completely out of nowhere. I think he is more for real than Pierzynski is, but of course his batting average is going to come down significantly.

Josh Hamilton played out of his mind over the first two months of the season, finishing May with a whopping 21 home runs. Then regression caught up with him as a HR/FB ratio nearing 40% was just not sustainable for any human baseball player. We see that his average distance has risen a solid amount, while 8 of his 27 homers have been classified as “just enough”, which is right around the average. He is striking out at a career high rate which hurts his power total, but a potential rebound there gives him a chance to offset a drop in HR/FB ratio in the second half as long as he could keep his gains in fly ball rate. The threat of injury always looms with Hamilton, but he doesn’t appear to be in danger of losing as high a percentage of second half home runs as the others on this list.