The Situation: 50 homers. It's an awe-inspiring achievement, yet slightly tainted by association. If you want to know the approximate length of the Steroid Era, just look at the list of people who hit 50 homers — 23 of the 41 all-time 50 home run seasons came between 1996 (the year Brady Anderson hit a fluke 50) and 2007 (the year the Mitchell Report was released). No one has hit 50 homers in the two seasons since the release of the report.
Also, that list of 50 homer guys reads like a who's who of PED-related scandals: Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa(notes), Barry Bonds(notes), Alex Rodriguez(notes) and David Ortiz(notes) accounted for 13 50-homer seasons between them.
Before that group came along, the 50-homer list was an extremely exclusive club. After Mantle and Maris combined for 115 homers in 1961, only Willie Mays (52 in 1965), George Foster (52 in '77) and Cecil Fielder (51 in '90) were able to add their names to the list. We've now gone two years without a single entry, but two players who are already in the club have come close: Ryan Howard(notes) hit 48 in '08 (after 58 in '06) Prince Fielder(notes) hit 46 in '09 (after 50 in '07). Meanwhile, Albert Pujols(notes) hit 47 in '09 and 49 in '06. (Howard and Fielder are already 50-club members.) Those three players have traded the league lead in home runs each of the past four years, leading the majors in three of them.
The Analysis: If Howard, Fielder or Pujols don't, there's really no one else who will come close. Of the other prior 50-homer hitters, only Alex Rodriguez is still near his prime, but he's hit only 65 homers in the last two years, has battled a few injuries, and is now 34. He isn't likely to hit 40, let alone 50. Three major projection systems — ZiPS, CHONE, and Marcels — have Howard, Fielder and Pujols at the top of their 2010 home run lists, in that exact order, and no one else on any list is projected to hit more than 36. (ZiPS has Howard at 46, Fielder at 41 and Pujols at 40; CHONE has Howard at 44, Fielder at 41 and Pujols at 39; Marcels has Howard at 39, Fielder at 37 and Pujols at 34.)
So how likely are Prince Fielder, King Albert, or Big Brown to swing their way to 50? Ryan Howard probably has the most raw power of the bunch; he's the active leader in homers per flyball, at-bats per homer and isolated power. An astonishing 31.8 percent of his fly balls go over the fence, compared to 20.4 percent for Fielder and 20.1 percent for Pujols. He hits a home run every 12.1 at-bats, third of all time behind only Mark McGwire and Babe Ruth, and well ahead of Pujols (14.1) and Fielder (14.9). Howard's isolated power of .307 is most among active players, and fourth of all time behind only Ruth, McGwire, and Barry Bonds. In other words, if they all get the same number of trips to the plate, Howard is extremely likely to outhomer the others, as well as everyone else in the majors.
That's not to say that the others don't have a chance. After all, Pujols outhomered Howard by two last season, and Fielder outhomered him by one in 2009 and three in 2007. They all have light tower power.
They'll need a little help to get over the hump, though. And it won't come from playing time: each of them played 160 games and had 700 PAs last year, so unless one of them has a serious power spike, last year's results are about as good as it gets. The major reason the projection systems expect a power decline from each of them is that the systems are expecting less playing time. If they play 145 games instead of 160, it will be essentially impossible for them to crack the 50-homer barrier. So for any of them to hit 50 home runs, he would need to play at least as much as he did last year, stay perfectly healthy while doing so and have an unforeseen power spike. It certainly wouldn't be unprecedented — hey, that's what Roger Maris did — but it would be unlikely.
The Forecast for 2010: If you had to bet, you would want to bet on Howard. But the odds are pretty long. Year in and year out, Howard, Fielder and Pujols are all a pretty decent bet to hit 40 home runs, and it's not too hard to luck into a few more, especially if the wind's blowing out at Wrigley Field. But they each didn't leave a whole lot of home runs on the table last year. It'll be awfully hard for them to top their terrific 2009 performances. I predict that no one will hit 50 home runs in 2010.
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Other 2010 questions answered by Alex Remington
• Will Marco Scutaro solve Boston's shortstop problem?
• How many more wins will a healthy Beltran and Reyes bring the Mets?
• What kind of difference will Jake Peavy make with the White Sox?
• Can Jonathan Papelbon become the next Mariano Rivera?
• What can the Mariners expect from Ken Griffey Jr.?
- Cecil Fielder
- Prince Fielder
- Ryan Howard