ROTISSERIE: Early surge in homers highlights emerging sluggers

This article appeared in the April 17th issue of Sports Weekly​.

The home run is back.

OK, it never really left... but after a slight downturn last season, we can officially say home runs are back in fashion. Everyone’s doing it. The surge began on Opening Day with 48 homers, the most ever on the first day of the season. The Seattle Mariners continued to set a torrid pace by homering in each of their first 19 games, another record.

As the week began, MLB teams were averaging 1.30 home runs per game. If the trend continues over a full season, it would be the highest figure in major league history. And the weather hasn’t even started to warm up yet. Of course it’s way too early to get into all those “on pace for” stats. If we wanted to do that, Cody Bellinger would be in line to hit .424 with 86 homers and 210 RBI.

We’ve all grown accustomed to early-season warnings about projecting performances based on small samples. Bellinger won’t have 45% of his fly balls this season go over the fence for homers. (Only one player, Christian Yelich, had a HR/FB rate of even 30% last season.) But on a larger scale, the sample isn’t really that small anymore, with more than 230 games already in the books.

Looking at data from every ball put in play (exactly 11,641 through April 14, according to, major league hitters this season have produced the highest barrel rate, highest hard-hit rate, and highest average exit velocity since Statcast was introduced in 2015. The surge in power numbers that’s happening throughout the majors is something that absolutely could continue all season long.

In a Baseball Prospectus article a few days into the season, Rob Arthur noted that a lower drag coefficient observed with this year’s game balls indicate they might be more aerodynamic than they were last yearwhen barrel rates, hard-hit rates, and exit velocities were up compared with 2017, but home run rates were inexplicably lower. Whether it’s the baseball, the launch angles, the exit velocities, or a combination of everything, home runs are going to have an even greater impact on the outcome of games—and fantasy leagues—in 2019.

Power potential unleashed

When batters set the record two years ago of 1.26 home runs per game, several surprising sluggers emerged from relative obscurity to become fantasy factors. Bellinger, in his rookie season, hit 39 home runs (before dropping to 25 in 2018). Justin Smoak (38 HRs), Logan Morrison (38), Eric Thames (31), Domingo Santana (30), and Yonder Alonso (28) all displayed a level of home run power they had never shown before. Many fantasy owners plucked them off the waiver wire for pennies.

Meanwhile, veterans Mike Moustakas (38 HRs), Ryan Zimmerman (36), Jay Bruce (36), and Jonathan Schoop (32) were draft-day bargains who far outproduced their initial cost. Could we have a similar power surge this season? It sure looks like it.

To see who’s taking advantage of the favorable home run conditions, we’ll look at the Statcast metric, barrels per plate appearance. This measures how frequently a player hits the ball with an optimal exit velocity AND launch angle—which is called a “barrel” and is named for the sweet spot on the bat. There are several players we’d expect to see at the top of the leaderboard. Mike Trout ranks second, Anthony Rendon is fourth, and Khris Davis is seventh. However, there are a few intriguing names as well (minimum of 25 balls in play):

1. Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees (22.2%). Despite going on the injured list last week, Sanchez leads all catchers in home runs (6) and RBI (11). He was part of the homer surge two years ago, but struggled mightily during an injury-plagued 2018. A calf strain shouldn’t keep him out much more than the minimum of 10 days. An exceptionally weak catcher crop should keep his fantasy value high all season long.

3. Pete Alonso, New York Mets (17.7%). Could he be this year’s version of a 2017 Bellinger? They both showed impressive plate discipline in the minors that’s translated into a walk rate above 10% as a rookie major leaguer. In the early going, Alonso has walked more than he’s struck out. While that won’t continue, it does show how successful he’s been selecting pitches to hit. And when he hits them, they go a long way. His 454-foot home run April 11 at Atlanta left the bat at 118.3 mph, the hardest-hit ball Statcast has recorded this season.

5. Franmil Reyes, San Diego Padres (17.0%). An injury to Franchy Cordero has recently eased the logjam in the Padres outfield and given Reyes regular at-bats. He’s made the most of them with hits in six of seven games, including three homers. Like Alonso, he’ll strike out on a regular basis, but in the early going Reyes has done an excellent job of making contact. A .182 average on balls in play is a major reason for what looks like a poor start.

6. Christian Walker, Arizona Diamondbacks (15.4%). The comparisons to Jesus Aguilar are apparent. They’re both slugging first basemen who got their first real chances in the majors in their age-28 seasons. Aguilar turned his opportunity a year ago into 35 homers and an All-Star appearance. Walker already has four dingers and a clear path to playing time with Jake Lamb out for another month.

9. J.D. Davis, New York Mets (14.0%). A speculative add in deeper leagues, Davis, 26, might have to return to the minors once Jed Lowrie and/or Todd Frazier are healthy. He’s been impressive in limited playing time with three homers and a .966 OPS in 43 plate appearances.

13. Yoan Moncada, Chicago White Sox (12.9%). Could this be the first sign of a long-awaited Moncada breakout? The early returns are positive, with nine of his first 19 hits going for extra bases. He’s hitting the ball in the air more than he ever has, with a 43% fly ball rate. The result is a .586 slugging percentage that puts him second only to Rendon among third basemen. (Plus, he still has second base eligibility from last year.)

19. Austin Meadows, Tampa Bay Rays (10.9%). Meadows is leading off every day against right-handers and crushing them, with five of his six home runs and a 1.189 OPS.

20. Dan Vogelbach, Seattle Mariners (10.9%). No one has hit the ball on the sweet spot of the bat better than Vogelbach has this season (yes, there’s a stat for that). His 64% rate leads the way. Combined with an average exit velocity (96.7 mph) that’s second only to Aaron Judge, his six homers in 37 at-bats don’t look like a fluke.

At this point, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see any of these players with 30 or more home runs at season’s end. Except for Sanchez, all of them were outside the Top 150 players in average draft position.

If home runs continue on their record pace, fantasy owners will need even more power to fuel their championship runs. Finding unexpected sources early in the season could provide an important boost.

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.