He’s Hit How Many Homers?!

Home runs are up across the land and since 2002, the league average HR/FB rate has hit a new high, rising above 14% for the first time and above the previous high set just two years ago. Related, the league AB/HR has fallen to a new low, also beating out 2017. Batters are now homering once every 25.9 at-bats. It hasn’t all been the same top guys just hitting more. There have also been a slew of new home run kings so far this season. Let’s identify them and discuss.

This is a hand-picked list of hitters with at least 10 homers that most would consider a surprise. Included are all metrics that directly drive home run totals, aside from at-bats, of course.

Surprise Homer Kings
Name K% FB% HR/FB HR
Josh Bell 21.9% 36.4% 29.8% 14
Daniel Vogelbach 22.6% 52.1% 28.6% 14
Joc Pederson 20.3% 43.9% 32.6% 14
Mitch Moreland 20.6% 42.1% 28.9% 13
Willson Contreras 25.1% 39.8% 28.2% 11
Tommy La Stella 6.5% 33.6% 26.8% 11
Derek Dietrich 19.3% 52.0% 28.2% 11
Eduardo Escobar 21.2% 44.4% 17.2% 11
League Average 23.1% 36.1% 14.4%

On Monday, Ben Clemens determined that a consistent stance is what has unlocked Josh Bell’s home run power. He has struck out a bit more than usual, but not alarmingly so that would make us think he has sold out for power. He’s hitting more fly balls, but also not a huge gain and it merely represents another step forward in his annual FB% progression. The home run outburst has nearly all been thanks to his HR/FB rate more than tripling from last year (though up by about 50% from 2017). And hell, he’s hitting his flies as hard as ever. His fly ball Hard% stands just above 60%, which ranks 10th among 287 batters, while his fly ball pull rate has also doubled.

He’s never shown anything like this power in the past and it’s hard to believe that simply sticking with a consistent stance was all that was holding him back from posting a near 30% HR/FB rate. It appears his results are real in that the underlying skills driving them support the homer outburst. But can he keep hitting fly balls hard over 60% of the time and maintain a doubled fly ball pull percentage? I have no idea.

Labeling players as Quad-A talent is silly and Daniel Vogelbach is making those who labeled him as such look that way. The problem here is that he was never given an extended look, so small samples won. Aside from pushing his HR/FB rate into the high 20% range, his FB% has skyrocketed above 50%, which actually ranks first among qualified hitters. He’s pulling his flies often, though his Hard% isn’t particularly impressive. With Edwin Encarnacion entrenched at first and a logjam in the outfield, a slump could result is lost playing time, making him risky to count on. However, in an OBP league, he’s basically Bryce Harper, so you have to hold on.

The only thing that has really changed and what has completely fueled Joc Pederson’s homer outburst is that HR/FB rate, which is almost double his mark last year and more than double his 2017 mark. His fly ball pull rate has barely moved, while his Hard% is only up marginally. I haven’t run my xHR/FB rate equation again (it’s time consuming), but it appears that Pederson’s HR/FB rate is pretty fluky.

Mitch Moreland is the guy you’re annoyed you got stuck with in your deep mixed or AL-Only league. He’s as boring as it gets and we prefer the seemingly higher upside young guys. But then he does this. His FB% has jumped to a new high, the first time above 40%, though the increase isn’t too significant. The biggest driver right now is that HR/FB rate, which has more than doubled from last year and is almost double his career mark. He has remained amazingly consistent in HR/FB rate throughout his career, so it’s a surprise to see him get off to this kind of start. His fly ball pull rate has been the same, but his Hard% has jumped above 50%, just below his current career high. The mark is well above average, but doesn’t represent that much of an increase from previous seasons. Given his age, I doubt this lasts.

So much for last season’s sub-10% HR/FB rate from Willson Contreras! He has completely rebounded and then some, as a fly ball rate spike has furthered his home run gains. Given the awful catcher landscape, I wouldn’t look to sell high.

I’m going to be kicking myself all season, as I needed to replace the injured Jason Kipnis in AL Tout heading into the season. I was debating between a couple of middle infielders for a short-term fill-in, and settled on Eric Stamets, who ended up doing absolutely nothing for me. Who was one of the guys I considered instead? Tommy La Stella. OOPS. Is there any argument that he has been the most shocking hitter so far this year? He’s rarely striking out, fully backed by an elite SwStk%, which is made even more impressive by the power he has paired that contact ability with. His fly ball pull rate is solid enough, but his fly ball Hard% is marginally above the league average. While you can’t say this has all been a fluke, there’s nothing suggesting this is in any way sustainable.

Some of it is earning more playing time than expected, but Derek Dietrich’s fly ball rate has skyrocketed to just 0.1% below Vogelbach’s, who leads the league, and of course, his HR/FB rate is more than double his career mark. His home park has seemingly helped a bit, as he has posted a 36.8% HR/FB rate in the cozy confines of the GABP. But this has also been a pulled fly ball story, as he now ranks 23rd of 287 in fly ball pull percentage, as that mark has almost doubled from last year and has actually doubled from 2017.

Man, I first thought Eduardo Escobar’s homer outburst in 2017 was a total fluke, but then he followed up well in 2018, and now he’s taken it up yet another notch. His strikeout and fly ball rates are the same, so this is all about a 50% increase in HR/FB rate. Like Dietrich, it’s a pulled fly ball story, as Escobar has posted an even better mark, slightly ahead. But he has also combined that with an elite Hard% that ranks 30th in baseball. That mark is well up from his mid-to-high 30% marks in the previous two seasons. It’s much easier to believe this is real when it comes with just high teens HR/FB rate, rather than the high 20% marks from the rest of this list.

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.

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3 years ago

Thanks for the write up, and I still can’t believe this is the new Josh Bell. I noticed that you left out Joc Pederson, but then again maybe you didn’t as he is probably one of the more known quantities here. I wonder if he will experience the same slump, shoddy playing time, and bursts of random power during the rest of the season like he has in the past.

3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Podhorzer

A corollary to this would be a AAA homer analysis of some top HR hitters. From what I know, the minor leagues have always used their own ball suppliers, and haven’t used whichever supplier MLB has employed. This year, the AAA leagues decided to use the same ball supplier as MLB uses, and HR are apparently up 50% over last season in AAA.