The Home Run Surge by Position (C and 1B)

The 2016 season was a banner year for the longball and not just in relation to the recent downturn in offense. The 5610 hit this year are the second-most ever. Ever. Per plate appearance, it was even more than the 2000 season that saw 5692 homers hit. Within that surge, we saw an all-time high in 20+ home run hitters with 111. The previous high was set in 1999 at 103. Prior to this year, the top 14 seasons for 20+ HR hitters were all set between 1996 and 2009. Adding the 20+ HR hitters from 2014 and 2015 barely eclipses this year’s total (121 to 111) and this year’s output is nearly 2x higher than last year’s (64 to 111).

Let’s take a look at how this year’s home run surge broke down by position, with catcher and first base, second base and shortstop Friday (forgot I had my chat on Thursday), and then third base and outfield early next week. We’ll focus on the 20+ HR hitters at each position and identify some players who could enter those ranks next year.

CATCHER

Backstop saw one of the bigger surges in 20+ HR hitters compared to recent years with eight this year after just 10 in 2014-15 combined, including a whopping four last year (all who did it again this year).

Evan Gattis (32), Yasmani Grandal (27), Jonathan Lucroy (24), Wilson Ramos (22), Salvador Perez (22), Gary Sanchez (20), Russell Martin (20), and Brian McCann (20).

Gattis, Martin, McCann, and Perez were the four who also achieved the feat in 2015 as well. Notice the consensus #1 catcher, Buster Posey, didn’t make the list as he hit just 14 homers this year. He could find his way back in there next year, but it’s no sure bet with just one 20+ HR season over his last four (22 in ’14).

Some catchers on the rise who could pop 20+ next year include Cameron Rupp (16), Willson Contreras (12), and Mike Zunino (12). Rupp still can’t be considered against righties, but he went from awful to palatable and in doing so, hit 12 of his 16 homers. With Carlos Ruiz gone, the path is cleared for a 500+ PA season for Rupp next year.

Contreras will be a big riser in drafts, similar to teammate Kyle Schwarber coming into this season, though likely not the same heights which makes him really intriguing to me. Contreras compares very favorably and won’t be a full-time catcher which should allow him to put up one of the best catcher-eligible playing time outputs in the league.

I’m still not in on Zunino, but he has a 22-homer season on his ledger already and needed just 55 games for his 12 this year. If they give him the playing time, he’ll pop 20 with ease even if it comes with a terrible batting average (it will) and far too many strikeouts (definitely will). He hit nine home runs in his first 91 PA and almost had Jason and I eating our words for our dislike of his game, but then finished with just three in 101 PA, including an obscene 43% strikeout rate.

FIRST BASE

This is, of course, a perennially deep power position and 2016 was no different. With so much power already concentrated at first base, the position didn’t see a huge impact from the league surge. There were 23 players with at least 20 homers, up from 18 last year.

Edwin Encarnacion (42), Chris Carter (41), Miguel Cabrera (38), Chris Davis (38), Freddie Freeman (34), Mike Napoli (34), Carlos Santana (34), Anthony Rizzo (32), Albert Pujols (31), Hanley Ramirez (30), Brad Miller (30), Joey Votto (29), Wil Myers (28), Brandon Moss (28), Jose Abreu (25), Eric Hosmer (25), Daniel Murphy (25), Ryan Howard (25), Paul Goldschmidt (24), Mitch Moreland (22), Matt Carpenter (21), Tommy Joseph (21), and Adam Lind (20).

When you consider that Carpenter (2B/3B), Murphy (2B), and Miller (SS) were played and will be played next year at other positions, then there isn’t really much of an improvement of 20-homer output at the position.

Brandon Belt still can’t quite reach that 20-homer threshold, in large part to his home park where he hit just six this year, tying his career-high. I don’t think he’s an untouchable, but I also can’t see him being dealt and short of that, I just don’t see a big home run output any time soon. He could trickle up to 20, but the mid-to-high 20s level that his talent seems to portend will be stifled by AT&T Park.

Justin Bour was only held out because of injury. He still hit 15 in 90 games, with a sprained ankle costing him two months of time. He returned for 22 games in September, but didn’t hit a single homer. It’s not impossible to think the ankle was still an issue and impacting his base. A full offseason should allow him to get healthy again and push 30 HRs over a full season in 2017.

A pair of Angels – C.J. Cron and Jefry Marte – are intriguing just-misses. Cron lost 35 games to a HBP in the left hand which stemmed the tide on his 24-homer pace. He was still good when he returned, hitting five home runs in 158 (~20 HR pace over a full season). Marte saw a playing time boost as a result of Cron’s injury and did well enough (4 HR, .807 OPS in 75 PA) to stay in lineup even when Cron returned. The 26-year old 1B/3B/LF should get plenty of playing time next year after 15 homers in 284 PA.

We could see a couple Minnesota Twins join the 20-HR ranks next year in Byung-ho Park and Kennys Vargas, though a playing time crunch could force it to be one or the other. Park was an overall bust this year, but I think the Twins gave up on him too early and then he got hurt in the minors before he could return when their offense was actually clicking a bit down the stretch. He still managed 12 homers in just 244 PA with a .219 ISO and then popped another 10 in only 128 minor league PA. He will be 30 next year, but I’m still eyeing him as a corner infield power source late in drafts.

Vargas first hit the fantasy landscape in 2014 with a powerful 53-game sample that included nine homers in 234 PA. He drew loose comparisons to David Ortiz, increasing his appeal in the 2015 market. He won the DH job outright that year, but sputtered to a .248/.295/.362 line in 38 games before demotion. He wound up with just five homers in 184 PA that year.

This year, he didn’t even debut until July 4th, but looked a lot more like the ’14 version: .230/.333/.500 with 10 HR in 177 PA. Adding up his minor and major league work since 2014 yields just over 20 homers per 500 PA. He is still just 26 years old and while he swings and misses way too much, he added a walk component this year that could definitely offset that and make him a poor man’s Chris Carter.

Gregory Bird missed the entire 2016 season with a torn labrum which has tamped down the hype and should yield a discount for the 24-year old, whose path is cleared by the retirement of Mark Teixeira and release of Alex Rodriguez. Remember back in 2014 that Bird hit 11 HR with a .268 ISO in 178 PA.

He did also have a 30% strikeout rate that is worrisome, but he struck out just 21% of the time in 1498 minor league PA and reached the majors after just 110 games in the upper minors (34 of those in AAA). In other words, I think he can improve the swing-and-miss with experience and looks like a relatively safe bet for at least 20 HR next year, even if it comes with a batting average anchor.

Any other catchers or first basemen that you think could reach the 20-homer plateau next year?

We hoped you liked reading The Home Run Surge by Position (C and 1B) by Paul Sporer!

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Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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Bud Smith
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Bud Smith

I’m curious about your throwaway comment that Contreras compares “very favorably” to Schwarber. Is that due to their expected ADP, or something else? Statistically their two half-seasons were pretty similar, but I’m a much bigger fan of Schwarber’s batted ball distribution than Contreras’s.