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Homer Report is back for what should be a spicy 2022 campaign. It’s the Year of the Prospect. Will we once again eclipse 6,000 home runs? It would be only be the third time in Major League history if it happens. Last season, the sluggers came oh-so-close with a 5,929 homer total. Quite a few notable names missed large chunks of the season. Thus far, of the many 30-homer threats, only Fernando Tatis Jr. is sidelined for more than a month. We’ll cross our fingers for better health leaguewide.
We’ll begin our Pace Watch in the coming weeks so we can start to set expectations. In the meantime, I’ll be on the lookout for more information about the baseball – supposedly, it’s the same as last season but could be switched to a pre-tacked ball mid-year. The big news is universal. The universal designated hitter replaces 15 pitchers with 15 hitters. Some teams like the Phillies, Dodgers, and Nationals are already taking full advantage of the new opportunity with the likes of Kyle Schwarber, Max Muncy, and Nelson Cruz. Even if home run rates are down on a per-player basis, there’s still a chance we’ll witness a historic season.
That’s not the only universal change to the hitters’ benefit. In an effort to increase uniformity, the league has decreed from on high that every stadium shall have a humidor. You’re probably most familiar with the humidors used in Colorado and Arizona which served to dramatically reduce offense. However, the locations not previously using humidors tend to be very… humid. Now those baseballs will actually be drier and therefore likely to have a couple extra feet of carry. We won’t see noticeable effects from the humidors until the summer months – when the ball is already flying.
A couple Astros jumped out to an early lead on the home run leaderboard. Tucker hit a couple rockets off Jaime Barria in the late-innings on Friday. His was the first (and only) multi-homer game of the season. Bregman split his dingers between Thursday and Friday. I’ve put it to Twitter to solve this riddle: what percentage of home runs fail to exceed a 100-mph exit velocity?* Both of Bregman’s taters fell short. Tepid max exit velocities are a long-standing problem for Bregman.
*The answer appears to be 13.8%, although that might be inflated by the 2019 baseball.
My Top 10 Projected Home Run Leaders
All reported totals are projections. I’ve chosen to ignore home runs hit in the first two days of the season for this edition. Consider this presentation akin to the “Tier Reveal” for Saves and Steals. My model relies on the inputs for home runs rather than past home run performances to build a projection – namely ball-in-play rate, fly ball rate, and home run to fly ball ratio (HR/FB).
At this initial stage of the season, most players are projected for 650 plate appearances. Those totals will be increased or lowered as lineup role and lineup potency (i.e. how often they bat three, four, or five times in a game) become clearer. For an initial ranking, it’s easier to use a set number rather than guess. For those wondering if a blanket 650 plate appearance projection is too many, you’re right. However, this allows me to model what the end of season leaderboard might look like – it’ll be composed mostly of players with 650 or more plate appearances.
Three exceptions – Buxton, Cruz, and Duvall – still made the Top 10. I’ve projected Buxton for just 575 plate appearances based on his long injury history which includes recurring post-concussion symptoms. I tend to believe the “injury prone” label is often incorrectly applied. However, Buxton’s experience with post-concussion syndrome is predictive of massively increased injury risk. The other pair is projected for 600 plate appearances. Cruz is old and may need some rest on a not-good team that doesn’t intend to try very hard. They just hope to trade him to a contender so they’ll do what they can to keep him healthy. Duvall performs poorly against certain types of right-handed pitchers and should sit or be subbed out in some situations.
Let’s circle back to Buxton because he projects to tie for the lead with 75 fewer plate appearances than his fellows. In his limited spans of health over the last two seasons, he’s shown off almost Gallo-ian fly ball and HR/FB rates while making considerably more contact. Something feels unsustainable about it, but I can’t point to anything specific to “nerf” in his projection.
Beyond the 10 names listed here, Salvador Perez and Jared Walsh also project for 40 home runs. Walsh seems like he might lose playing time against left-handed pitchers so that projection could drop with his plate appearances.
While Alonso came out atop this preseason exercise, I’m inclined to bet on Guerrero or Trout to win the crown. They’re more dynamic hitters which should help them smooth over any slumps. We saw Alonso himself vanish for a large chunk of 2021 before coming on strong at the end. Look back through history, and you’ll see these slumps are quite common for pure sluggers. Sometimes, they piece together a full season like Perez did last year and lead the league.
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The Braves already have a date in mind for Acuna’s return to designated hitter duties – April 21. They could also push it out to early-May. It will probably be at least a month beyond that before he appears in the field. He’s already putting on light shows in the batting cage. Besides Tatis’ broken wrist, Moncada seems to have the most serious injury – an oblique strain. It’s a shame since he’d been talking about setting a personal stolen base record (presently 12) to go with his decent pop, batting average, and OBP. Lewis is on the mend but might need to shoulder aside Jarred Kelenic or Julio Rodriguez when he returns. After missing most of the last calendar year to a knee injury, he could be in line for a long rehab stint in Triple-A.
Perhaps no player “won” the universal DH decision more than Darin Ruf. His is a career of three parts. The first was with the dark era Phillies where he showed promise in batting practice but couldn’t quite carry it over to regular success. His lack of a defensive home was an impediment to playing time. Then he headed over to Korea where he pieced together three monstrous campaigns. Overall, he was around 50 percent better than the typical KBO batter. The Giants inked him ahead of the shortened 2020 campaign. He delivered an impressive .276/.370/.517 line in 100 plate appearances. While a strong performance, anybody can look good over 100 plate appearances. Nobody took much notice.
The now 35-year-old was carefully managed last season and responded with 312 plate appearances of .271/.385/.519 hitting. An extended absence from Brandon Belt - who’s always a risk to miss time due to balky knees – accounted for much of his playing time. Beyond the top-line results, Ruf posted impressive Statcast metrics. His 14.2 percent barreled contact rate ranked among the Top 30 hitters with 300 or more plate appearances. It’s a list consisting of the best hitters in the league. Even more impressive was his 54.5 percent hard contact rate. He ranked seventh-best in the league, sandwiched between Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Yordan Alvarez.
Ruf should get a lot of action as the designated hitter this season while filling a mid-lineup role. His swing is geared for pulled, mid-angle contact with an emphasis on line drives – hence the high barrel and hard contact rates. He doesn’t put a ton of balls in play. His selectivity at the plate facilitates his quality of contact, but it also leads to high walk and strikeout rates. If he performs comparably to his last two seasons, my home run calculator believes he’ll hit 29 home runs per 650 plate appearances. You’ll also benefit from strong run production, a solid batting average, and a potent OBP.