Examining the Most Recent Members of the 50 Home Run Club
The two most recent members of the 50 home run club have also been two of the most unexpected. The season before their respective 50-plus home run outbursts, Jose Bautista and Chris Davis were average players who combined for only 46 long balls. In a game where the most feared power threat and reigning triple crown winner Miguel Cabrera has yet to top 44 in a season, how did Bautista and Davis breakout and top the 50 home run plateau in such grand fashion?
I’ll address the elephant in the room right away: I am not interested in raising doubt about any players using PEDs. I have full faith in the system Major League Baseball has implemented thus I have no reason to suspect that any players will use drugs and get away with it. PEDs will not be considered as a viable explanation for changes in player performance in this article or any subsequent article, with the obvious exception being players who have indeed been caught.
Jose Bautista’s jump from mediocrity to stardom is very unique case. In 2009, Bautista was extremely mediocre, posting a .235/.349/.409 slash line and 13 dingers in 404 plate appearances. An above average walk rate of 13.9% led to his high OBP but his strikeout rate was also high at 21%. Bautista did total a wRC+ of 102, which means he was two percent better than the average hitter that year despite his poor average and home run output. Another good way to measure the ability of a hitter is to examine his batted ball data, specifically GB rate, FB rate, line drive (LD) rate, and HR/FB. Bautista’s GB and FB rates were similar at 41.3% and 42.1% respectively while his LD rate was also an unspectacular 16.7%. This low figure explains his low .275 BABIP, a stat largely contingent on the quality of contact and luck. The final statistic of note for his 2009 campaign was his advanced batting eye, as he chased only 17.6% of pitches outside the zone (PITCHf/x data).
The case of Chris Davis is a very different. The former Texas Rangers top prospect has always boasted plus plus power though a high K rate and low BB rate limited his ceiling until this season. His 30.1% K rate in 2012 is a mark that rivals notorious K men Adam Dunn and Mark Reynolds but is actually slightly lower than his career mark. This figure is largely due to Davis’s poor batting eye evidenced by his very low 6.6% BB rate and very high 39.5% chase rate of pitches outside the zone. His power output exceeded that of Bautista in his pre-breakout year with 33 home runs, his main source of value. These 33 home runs provided significant value which resulted in a very good but not elite 120 wRC+. His slash line of .270/.326/.501 shows that Davis boasted better power than Bautista but Bautista had a far superior batting eye than Davis. Isolated power (SLG-AVG) also confirms this, with Davis’s .231 mark easily besting Bautista’s .173.
Entering their breakout years, both players had evident talent but flaws that limited their ability. Bautista’s good batting eye did not outweigh his poor overall hitting ability enough to lead to stardom while Davis’ extreme power was hindered by his propensity to chase pitches out of the zone. As with any player, correcting these flaws could lead to a breakout while maintaining current abilities would result in a respectable yet unspectacular career.
Bautista’s improvement is most directly illustrated by the change in batted ball data, specifically that he hit fly balls at a higher rate which turned into home runs at a higher rate. The 41 home run improvement is a result of Bautista raising his FB rate from 42.1% to 54.5% and his HR/FB rate from 12.3% to an extreme 21.7%. He was able to reduce his strikeouts by 4% down to 17% which is very good when combined with his slightly improved 14.6% BB rate. His slash line of .260/.378/.617 is representative of the true talent Bautista has: a good batting eye and good power. This is a traditional skill set common to power hitters and known as the three true results. Adam Dunn and Mark Reynolds are the best examples; a sluggers whose total offensive output consists largely in strikeouts, walks, and home runs. Bautista proved to be more valuable that the traditional three true result slugger due to his relatively low K rate though he still makes most of his offensive contributions through walks and home runs. This breakout led to Bautista posting 54 longballs, a 165 wRC+ and a 6.5 WAR, all of which were or were among the highest in the league.
Davis’s breakout was different from Bautista’s since he had a baseline of a very high 25.2% HR/FB rate in his pre-breakout season to help him to 33 home runs. The breakout he is now enjoying has resulted from small improvements in multiple categories, not one statistical anomaly. Davis’s FB rate and HR/FB rate jumped to 45.5% and an extremely high 29.5% respectively while he improved his plate discipline by chasing 4.1% less pitches. The improved chase rate helped Davis maintain his breakout season since pitchers have thrown him a mere 41.2% pitches in the strike zone. Davis has always boasted a high BABIP which seems unlikely to be a fluke due to the brute strength he possesses, but a 29.8% K rate will limit his upside for a consistently high AVG. The power is certainly legitimate, as his .346 ISO and .631 SLG suggest. Power is the name of Davis’ game and his ability to hit the ball out to all fields has made him the unquestioned home run champion of 2013 and most recent member of the 50 home run club.
So who will be the next member of the 50 home run club? Giancarlo Stanton and Miguel Cabrera seem like the obvious candidates but neither share the quality of being merely average before a potential 50 home run breakout. Lets instead consider a former top prospect who has disappointed in his three seasons at the major league level. His most recent campaign, also labeled a disappointment, featured this player posting a career high and very respectable 108 wRC+. This players’ traditional stat line of .238 AVG, 19 HR, 48 RBIs and the rate stats of 22.7% K rate with a 12.2% BB rate are not only eerily similar to Bautista’s pre-breakout campaign but prove this player has a good batting eye. He has shown minor improvements in a number of categories this season including BB rate, ISO, BABIP, AVG, OBP, SLG, BB/K rate, LD rate, and wRC+. The one category preventing Justin Smoak from being a star is a relatively low FB rate coupled with low HR/FB rate relative to other prolific sluggers. It is also relevant to mention that Smoak also plays half of his games at the spacious Safeco Field, one of the worst hitting environments in the league. If Smoak continues to improve across the board and can find a way to combat the disadvantage of his home park, he could breakout in similar fashion to Bautista and Davis. Other names to watch include Matt Adams of the Cardinals, Brandon Moss of the Athletics, and Pedro Alvarez of the Pirates.