Since I’m not in enough fantasy league to own every Major League hitter, I am frequently surprised when I see season home run totals. Even for the guys I own, I am not necessarily aware of how many home runs they currently have. One example is Shin-Soo Choo, who I actually own in two leagues, but didn’t even realize he was already up to 17 homers, just five fewer than his career high. He’s not included in this post, however, because I want to dive into the real surprises that essentially no one saw coming. So let’s discuss seven hitters with at least 15 home runs that no one predicted.
Included in the table are the batters’ fly ball rate, percentage of fly balls pulled, and HR/FB rate.
Max Muncy didn’t even record his first plate appearance with the Dodgers until the middle of April and didn’t become a full-timer until a while later. It’s actually difficult to determine when he started playing full-time solely from his game logs, as he made a pinch hitting appearance as recently as June 29. At this point, he may be the biggest surprise in baseball. Before this insane run, he had never posted a HR/FB rate above the 13.8% mark he put up at Triple-A last season. So this power display is truly out of nowhere. He has always shown excellent plate patience, so perhaps his knowledge of the strike zone eventually translated into the big-time power we’re seeing now.
He’s hitting a ton of fly balls and an above average rate of those flies are being pulled. It’s rare that a hitter posts a HR/FB rate above 30%, as the feat has only been accomplished five times among qualified hitters from 2013 to 2017, and four of those five came last year. So based on that, we would obviously assume regression, and then combine that with a serious lack of history suggesting such power exists, you have a major regression candidate. But really, I love the plate discipline, and I tend to believe more in a guy who has a strong grasp of the strike zone. Maybe a 20%-25% HR/FB rate the rest of the way?
Boy, Ozzie Albies sure has cooled down. After a fast start that saw him swat nine homers in April, he declined to five in May and just three in June. Clearly, the April performance seems like the outlier, but it still happened. Albies continues to hit more fly balls than you would expect from a guy we thought had average power at best and he hasn’t been pulling his flies more often than average. I think his HR/FB rate will continue to decline with a couple of more high single digit to low double digit monthly rates dragging down his season average. Obviously you can’t possibly sell him for anything near the return you could have after April.
What’s a veteran with a career high of just 18 home runs doing with 16 already?! That’s the case of Yangervis Solarte, who isn’t hitting fly balls or pulling those flies more than he normally has. The only difference is more of his flies are hopping over the fence. Perhaps it’s his new home run friendly home park (and getting out of a home run suppressing environment) and the evidence suggests that’s the case. His current home HR/FB rate sits at 16.4%, versus just an 11.1% mark in away parks. That equates to 11 home dingers and just five on the road. Given the answer is so simple and he’s on pace for a career high in plate appearances, we might see this pace continue.
Home park does not seem to be the explanation for Gleyber Torres, whose homer total and HR/FB rate are fairly similar in home and away games. He is hitting lots of fly balls, and certainly more than what we would have expected, though his pulled fly ball rate isn’t exceptionally high. For a guy who’s career high HR/FB rate in the minors over any sort of reasonable sample size is just above 11%, nearly doubling that mark in the Majors during his rookie campaign is quite the surprise. I think there could be some dramatic regression in the second half with a low teen HR/FB rate posted the rest of the way.
What’s 34-year-old Jed Lowrie doing with 15 homers already?! If you peek back to 2012, he has been at this same home run pace, but he’s had a remarkably inconsistent career with regards to HR/FB rates. Including this year, he’s posted a low double digit HR/FB rate four times, and if he didn’t reach double digits, he had never gone above 6.9%. Bizarre. He has always been a fly ball hitter, so that’s not the explanation, but he is pulling his flies at the highest frequency of his career. That’s a mark that has rapidly declined throughout the season, though, as this tweet was posted on April 19 when he already had hit six homers:
Jed Lowrie learned to pull his fly balls and his HR/FB went boom pic.twitter.com/St1Ai7o217
— Mike Podhorzer (@MikePodhorzer) April 19, 2018
Clearly, that early April was the fluke, as his FB Pull% must have been right back to normal to drag it back down into the mid-20% range. His home run pace should continue to slow and he is likely to finish with fewer than 25 long balls.
Do you realize that Odubel Herrera was actually a Rule 5 pick by the Phillies?! After three solid seasons for them, his ISO has risen each year, and now his HR/FB rate has jumped into the mid-teens after stalling just above 10% over the previous two seasons. His fly ball rate has nudged up ever so slightly, but it’s his fly ball pull percentage that has surged, providing the explanation here. Interestingly, essentially all his underlying skills are right in line with his past, so the absolutely only difference is the greater rate of pulled flies leading to a HR/FB rate spike. Oddly, his fly ball Hard% has plummeted to a career low. You certainly don’t have to hit it as hard for a pulled ball to fly out versus one hit straight away, but it makes it harder to believe this is sustainable. What if he stops pulling the ball like he has ever year previously? Since he barely steals bases anymore, there’s serious risk here of a dramatic dropoff in fantasy value the rest of the way.
Okay seriously, where have I been when Enrique Hernandez has launched 15 home runs? Like, I don’t even remember him getting to five, let alone 15. There’s an easy explanation here too — his FB% has skyrocketed to over 50%, so he has really made it his mission to join the fly ball revolution. Pair that with a career high Pull FB% and you immediately have your story. However, without a full-time role, it’s going to be near impossible to repeat this in the second half.
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. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.