Who Will Be the Face of This Record Home-Run Season?

The 2017 campaign has been an unprecedented one for the home run. Both by overall totals and by rate, no other season rivals the present one by that measure.

Seasonal Ranks by Home-Run Totals, Rates
Season PA HR Rank HR% Rank
2017 178,935 5914 1 3.3% 1
2000 190,261 5693 2 3.0% 3
2016 184,578 5610 3 3.0% 2
1999 189,692 5528 4 2.9% 5
2001 186,976 5458 5 2.9% 4
2004 188,541 5451 6 2.9% 6
2006 188,071 5386 7 2.9% 7
2003 187,460 5207 8 2.8% 9
1998 188,284 5064 9 2.7% 12
2002 186,632 5059 10 2.7% 11
1996 177,261 4962 11 2.8% 8
1987 161,922 4458 22 2.8% 10
Included: top-10 seasonal marks both by home-run total and rate.

The causes are manifold: a juiced ball, smaller stadia, a greater effort among hitters to hit the ball in the air, etc. A number of questions have been and will be asked about the implications of this season. The present dispatch concerns only one of them, though — namely, who (if anyone) will serve as the lasting face of this year’s record home-run campaign?

Allow me to begin by saying: I don’t care. Or, more precisely: I don’t care about the answer, per se. If it’s important to someone that Giancarlo Stanton forever remain the lasting image of 2017, then that’s fine. The prospect of formulating and presenting an argument to the contrary is nauseating.

Of some interest, however — as a means to exercising the critical faculties, if nothing else — is the variety of criteria one might establish to arrive at a reasonable answer. For those who are concerned with certainty, perhaps this smacks of relativism and sounds awful. For those among us who are resigned to the fact that reality is a myth and truth a moving target, then it’s probably acceptable.

Below, I’ve attempted to summarize the various criteria one might employ to determine the face of this record home-run season. First, however, I’d like to present a list of four players who merit the distinction for one reason or another. Depending on one’s preferences, any of these four is the correct answer.

They are (in alphabetical order):

Those are the results, basically. The process by which on might arrive at those results is detailed below.

Total Home Runs
In much the same way that the MVP criteria, for some voters, amounts to something like “the best player on the best team,” there’s probably some logic to regarding the batter with the most home runs as the representative to posterity from the season most distinguished for its home-run total.

Here are the top-five batters by that measure:

Total Home Runs, 2017
Name Team PA HR
Giancarlo Stanton Marlins 666 57
Aaron Judge Yankees 656 50
J.D. Martinez – – – 471 43
Khris Davis Athletics 628 41
Joey Gallo Rangers 516 39
Cody Bellinger Dodgers 527 39

Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton has accumulated the major leagues’ most home runs this year. Nor is there much to be gained by arguing against Stanton’s bona fides as a power hitter. He’s served as baseball’s model of 80 power basically for as long as he’s been a member of the league.

On the other hand, Stanton isn’t going to break the individual record for home runs in a season, so to declare him the totem of a record-breaking campaign for the league seems something less than entirely appropriate. Moreover, counting stats can be deceptive. Perhaps Stanton has more home runs than everyone simply because he’d had more opportunities. Which, that’s not really in the spirit of the thing, is it? A better method might be to examine home runs per opportunity.

Top Home-Run Rate Among Qualifiers
Maybe the highest home-run total oughtn’t be the distinguishing characteristic of the record’s most iconic player. Maybe home-run rate is superior. That doesn’t allow for one batter or another to benefit unduly from a greater total of plate appearances.

Here are 2017’s top home-run hitters by home-run rate:

Top Home-Run Rates, 2017
Name Team PA HR HR%
Giancarlo Stanton Marlins 666 57 8.6%
Aaron Judge Yankees 656 50 7.6%
Joey Gallo Rangers 516 39 7.6%
Cody Bellinger Dodgers 527 39 7.4%
Khris Davis Athletics 628 41 6.5%

One can see that Stanton wins by this measure, as well. And, again, Stanton probably is the best power hitter in baseball. But the home-run spike hasn’t been marked so much by the rich getting richer as it has by the ascent of the middle class.

Perhaps one problem is that we’re drawing only from a sample of qualified batters. “Qualified,” by this definition, simply means having accrued a sufficient number of plate appearances (3.1 per game) to merit consideration for the batting title. But the number is somewhat arbitrary — in particular with regard to assessing home-run acumen. What about lowering the threshold to allow for a more robust sample and to consider some lesser-known players?

Top Home-Run Rate in a Reliable Sample
By at least one methodology, home-run rate can become reliable in as few as 170 plate appearances — meaning that, after that threshold, a player’s home-run rate begins to say more about his true talent in that capacity than it doesn’t.

Here are the top-five hitters by home-run rate in a so-called “reliable sample”:

Top Home-Run Rates by “Reliable Sample,” 2017
Name Team PA HR HR%
Matt Olson Athletics 216 24 11.1%
Rhys Hoskins Phillies 190 18 9.5%
J.D. Martinez – – – 471 43 9.1%
Giancarlo Stanton Marlins 666 57 8.6%
Aaron Judge Yankees 656 50 7.6%

With the exception of a single game towards the end of April, Matt Olson didn’t really play in the majors this year until June. Since then, however, he’s recorded 24 homers. He became the only other player over the last 30 years, besides Giancarlo Stanton, to hit 20 homers in both the majors and minors in a single season. And because of a season-ending hamstring injury, he’ll now complete the year having produced a home-run rate above 10%.

No player hit homers at a greater rate than Matt Olson. (Photo: Keith Allison)

On the one hand, Olson isn’t the game’s most noteworthy power hitter. On the other, that might actually be an argument in his favor for the benefit of this exercise. As noted by Dave Cameron earlier this month, Olson was omitted from every top-100 list before the current season. He was omitted from the top 10 of most/many A’s lists, as well. And yet he still managed to hit homers at a faster pace than everyone else this year. At some level, that might be the defining characteristic of this season: the emergence of relatively anonymous players.

But home-run rate for 2017, all by itself, might not be the best way to assess the magnitude of those breakouts. Perhaps it’s necessary to consider this year’s numbers in the context of last year’s to better reflect the spirit of 2017.

Home-Run-Rate Improvement
Among the themes of the season has been the choice, by certain players, to elevate the ball more frequently. Were it not for the ubiquity of this strategy, for example, my colleague Travis Sawchik would have published only three posts since joining the site this past spring.

While it’s not particularly easy to identify every adjustment by every player in the league, it’s simple enough to measure the impact of those adjustments. In this particular case, what I’ve done is to compare the 2016 and 2017 home-run rates of every hitter who qualified in both those seasons. The result is a sample of 71 batters.

Here are the top five by that measure:

Greatest Home-Run-Rate Improvement, 2016-17
Name 2016 PA 2016 HR 2016 HR% 2017 PA 2017 HR 2017 HR% Diff
Yonder Alonso 532 7 1.3% 510 26 5.1% 3.8%
Jose Ramirez 618 11 1.8% 619 29 4.7% 2.9%
Francisco Lindor 684 15 2.2% 696 33 4.7% 2.5%
Travis Shaw 530 16 3.0% 584 31 5.3% 2.3%
Josh Harrison 522 4 0.8% 542 16 3.0% 2.2%

It’s not unsurprising to find Yonder Alonso’s name at the top of this list. Alonso told FanGraphs’ Eno Sarris back in March that he was attempting to lift the ball more. “I’m trying to punish it more, get it in the air,” he said. By the beginning of May, Dave Cameron had anointed him the new poster boy of the fly-ball revolution after Alonso match his season-high total for homers in just his 29th game.

Alonso is a strong candidate for the face of this record-setting season: a nearly replacement-level player who made the popular adjustment and (now) tripled his season-best home-run mark. Alonso’s ground-ball rate this year, about 10 points lower than his career figure, is more evidence of the change in swing plane.

There is an asterisk present here, though: Alonso is currently a member of the Mariners but began the season on the A’s. As such, his raw home-run rates might be a product of benefiting unduly from one park or suffering unduly from another. If the idea is to identify players who’ve improved their home-run performance, it might be easiest to limit the sample to those batters who belong to the same team in 2017 as 2016.

Home-Run Rate Improvement, Same Team as 2016
Using very much the same methodology as above, I went one step further to remove any batters from the leaderboard who had changed teams at any point since the beginning of the 2016 campaign. The idea: to remove any of the effects of park.

Here are the top-five batters after doing that:

Greatest Home-Run Rate Improvement, Same Team, 2016-17
Name 2016 PA 2016 HR 2016 HR% 2017 PA 2017 HR 2017 HR% Diff
Jose Ramirez 618 11 1.8% 619 29 4.7% 2.9%
Francisco Lindor 684 15 2.2% 696 33 4.7% 2.5%
Josh Harrison 522 4 0.8% 542 16 3.0% 2.2%
Paul Goldschmidt 705 24 3.4% 647 36 5.6% 2.2%
Yadier Molina 581 8 1.4% 543 18 3.3% 1.9%

When he arrived in the majors four years ago, Jose Ramirez was a defensively proficient middle infielder with decent contact skills. Even after last season, when he produced a 121 wRC+ and nearly five wins for a World Series club, power still wasn’t regarded as one of his assets. Ramirez hit 11 homers last year. With roughly a week to go this year, he’s got 29. Nor is he even the only player on his own team to exhibit a similar sort of improvement: Francisco Lindor has basically matched Ramirez by this measure.

***
That’s only four players. A number of other worthy candidates have been omitted. Aaron Judge has certainly made a mark on the 2017 season, as has other first-year player Cody Bellinger. J.D. Martinez, meanwhile — one of baseball air-ball evangelists — has already reach a career-high home-run total despite missing time to injury. One can likely make a reasonable argument on behalf of those three or many others. It merely depends on which criteria one regards as most representative of the season itself.

We hoped you liked reading Who Will Be the Face of This Record Home-Run Season? by Carson Cistulli!

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Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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Alonso played on the A’s in 2016. The Pomeranz/Alonso trade was in December 2015.