Schebler? LoMo? Weird home run leaderboard indicates game’s new power structure
It’s no secret that we’re in boom times for the home run. In fact, balls are flying out of the yard at a record rate of 1.28 per team per game—a mark that’s 0.12 higher than last year, 0.11 beyond than the all-time high (set in 2000) and 0.02 greater than it was just four days ago. In tandem with record strikeout rates (8.22 per team per game, up from 8.03 last year, and on the rise every year since 2006), it’s cause for at least some alarm, but at the same time, there’s something irresistibly entertaining about dingers.
The proliferation of long balls has made for some weird names in the headlines, perhaps none stranger than Reds utilityman Scooter Gennett, whose four-homer game earlier this month rates among the least likely in history. Likewise, the leaderboards have an unfamiliar ring. Just two former All-Stars rank among the current top nine in homers, alongside two hot-shot rookies who have quickly become household names, an amazing comeback story and a handful of journeyman. Right below them in the rankings, knotted in ties at 19 and 18 homers, are more familiar names; there are six former All-Stars among the next 11 players, including 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper, 2016 Home Run Derby champ Giancarlo Stanton and perennial prospect-in-waiting Joey Gallo. But as a snapshot in time and a cross-section of the current season, it's worth a closer look at those top nine sluggers and their feats to date.
Aaron Judge, Yankees, 25 homers
By now, Judge needs little introduction. As a 6’7″ behemoth wearing number 99, playing in the game’s biggest media market and with his own dedicated cheering section, he’s tough to miss, and has already graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. There’s no jinx here, either, as his bat has been at its most potent in June, with a 1.190 OPS, compared to 1.161 in April and a comparatively paltry 1.084 in May. He not only leads the majors in homers but also slugging percentage (.702) , OPS+ (192, one point below the rookie record set by Shoeless Joe Jackson in 1911) and WAR (4.2); he also leads the AL in walks (45), runs (63) and total bases (63). What’s more, he’s hit the longest home run of 2017 (495 feet), a day after producing the hardest-hit one of the Statcast era (121 mph). He’s currently on pace for 58 homers, which would obliterate the rookie record of 49, set by Oakland’s Mark McGwire in 1987.
Cody Bellinger, Dodgers, 22 homers
The 21-year-old Bellinger isn’t just the surprise NL home run leader, he already looks like a lock to take home the league’s Rookie of the Year award. Remarkably, he wasn’t even supposed to be in the majors at this point. He was selected in the fourth round of the draft out of an Arizona high school just four years ago, and his 2016 season ended with a three-game cameo at Triple A Oklahoma City (where, it should be noted, he did launch three home runs). The combination of a slew of Dodger injuries and his own versatility accelerated his pace to the majors, and his bat has kept him there; with Andre Ethier, Andrew Toles and Adrian Gonzalez among the Los Angeles hitters who have been sidelined, he’s seen substantial time both in leftfield and at first base.
Bellinger leads the league in longballs despite having not debuted until April 25, the Dodgers’ 21st game of the season. It took him just 36 games to match the career home run total of his father Clay, who spent parts of four seasons in the majors with the Yankees and Angels from 1999 to 2002. Thanks in part to five multi-homer games and a recent stretch of 10 homers in 10 games—unprecedented for a rookie—he overtook the Yankees’ Gary Sanchez (2015 to ’16) and the Braves’ Wally Berger (1930) as the fastest player ever to hit 22 homers, needing just 51 games to get there. Already, the NL rookie record of 38 (shared by Berger and Frank Robinson, in 1956) appears within his range.
Logan Morrison, Rays, 21 homers
The highest-ranked journeyman on the leaderboard is this 29-year-old first baseman, who in his seven previous major league seasons with Miami, Seattle and Tampa Bay had hit a modest .245/.325/.416 for a 104 OPS+, with a total of 84 homers. A two time top-20 prospect according to Baseball America, Morrison set his career high in homers in 2011 with 23, but he hadn’t reached 20 again until this year. His career has been beset by injuries, particularly lower-body ones; he didn’t top 100 games in any season from 2012 to ’14 and has qualified for a batting title just twice (2011 and ’15). He’s already set the franchise single-season home run record for players named Logan (tough luck, Forsythe), and is on pace to hit 43, which would trail only Carlos Pena’s 2007 total of 46 among Tampa Bay hitters.
George Springer, Astros, 21
Known for his light-tower power, Springer is tied for third in the majors in home runs of at least 430 feet since the start of 2016 (15). Nonetheless, the 27-year-old centerfielder has never totaled more than 29 in a season, due in part to his mid-2014 arrival and a quad injury in 2015, and he’s never been an All-Star. He’s in line to do both this year. Though he has yet to steal a base, he’s been a great success out of the leadoff spot, with an MLB-best four homers to lead off a game. He’s also tops in the majors with his eight first-inning homers overall, and he could challenge the single-season record in that category of 18, set by Alex Rodriguez in 2001.
Marcell Ozuna, Marlins, 20
The other former All-Star here besides Votto isn’t the Marlins outfielder everyone would expect; that would be Stanton, who has “only” 18 to this point (tied for 14th in the majors) thanks to a minor June swoon. A first-time honoree for the Midsummer Classic last year, Ozuna is having an even better start to this season. His .328/.393/.595 line and 159 OPS+ all represent runaway career highs; he’s fifth in the last of those categories and seventh in batting average and on-base percentage. With five homers in his past nine games, he’s within three of his career high, set in 2014 and matched last year. Given that he’s a Scott Boras client, he’s unlikely to sign an extension with the Marlins. That makes him a potential trade target, but any change of scenery could put a dent in his season given his .388/454/.739 showing at Marlins Park, where he’s set off the Dinger Machine 14 times.
Scott Schebler, Reds, 20
This lefty-swinging 26-year-old had never held a regular major league job until the Reds traded Jay Bruce to the Mets last Aug. 1. A 26th round pick in 2010 by the Dodgers out of Des Moines Area Community College, Schebler was acquired by the Reds in the three-way swap in December 2015 that sent Todd Frazier to the White Sox. He took over rightfield duties after the Bruce deal and hit .290/.357/.461 with eight homers over the final two months of the season, foreshadowing this year's showing. While it’s tempting to believe that he’s a product of the homer-conducive Great American Ballpark, he’s actually hit 13 of his 20 dingers elsewhere while batting .286/.353/.667 on the road, compared to .227/.312/.427 at home .
Justin Smoak, Blue Jays, 20
The latest bloomer on this leaderboard is this 30-year-old switch hitter, a highly-touted 2008 first-round pick (11th overall, by the Rangers) whose first seven major league seasons produced a fair share of disappointment—more Smoak than fire, if you will. He hit just .223/.308/.392 for a 95 OPS+ and 1.5 WAR in 2,887 plate appearances through 2016, and he managed just 106 homers in that span, with a high of 20 set with Seattle in 2013. Like Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnation before him, Smoak has discovered a potent power stroke since moving north of the border, but his big improvement has come thanks to a better two-strike approach. This year, he’s batting .221/.280/.459 with his back to the wall, good for a 176 split OPS+ (sOPS+), compared to .151/.226/.263 for a 90 sOPS+ prior.
Eric Thames, Brewers, 20
This year's best comeback story belongs to this 30-year-old slugger. After scuffling in the majors in 2011 and ’12 (21 homers, -0.5 WAR) and spending all of ’13 in Triple A, Thames became a star during a three-year stint in the Korean Baseball Organization, during which he hit 124 homers, won 2015 MVP honors and earned the nickname “God.” Signed to a three-year, $16 million deal by the Brewers during the off-season, Thames has ditched the metallic gold elbow guard and the elaborate home run celebrations he displayed overseas and has been the subject of suspicion and cynicism that his power arrived in pharmaceutical form. After becoming the fastest player to reach 11 homers in a season since 2013 (20 games), Thames managed just two over his next 26 games, and despite a recent surge—six homers in 13 games, including homers in four straight—he's hitting just .181/.289/.472 this month.
Joey Votto, Reds, 20
The most familiar face among this bunch is the 33-year-old Votto, a four-time All-Star and a former MVP whose 157 OPS+ is second among active players. Even so, he’s less known for his power than his pure hitting ability; he’s led the league in on-base percentage five times and has five top-five finishes in batting average, but he’s cracked the top 10 in homers just three times, with a high of 37 set back in 2010. Always a disciplined hitter, he’s carving up the strike zone with more precision than ever. Both his rate of swinging at pitches outside the zone (18.5%) and inside the zone (74.8%) are at the extremes for his 11-year career.