The rumors of the home run's demise, it turns out, were not just greatly exaggerated. They may not have been anything more than statistical noise. Because even though the carryover from the Year of the Pitcher in 2010 and its sequel in 2011 remains palpable, the home run's comeback has significantly quelled the trilogy.
After 28 home runs Sunday, major leaguers have hit 3,497 in 1,717 games this season. That amounts to 1.018 home runs per game per team. Which, while below the record 1.172 set in 2000 in the throes of the steroid era, represents a significant uptick from the last two seasons, when home runs dropped below one per game for the first time since before the 1994 strike.
Homers are up 8.68 percent over last year, when they bottomed out at .937 per game, and they rose particularly in June and July. With 1.052 per game, June ranked as the fourth most homeriffic month in the last five seasons – until July beat it out with 1.059.
August hasn't been quite as prolific, with 1.015 per game, though if history is any indication the numbers should pick up. It is by far the month with the greatest number of home runs the last five years with 1.051. The rest in order: July (1.019), June (.991), September (.968), May (.954) and April (.943).
Perhaps the warm weather has helped. Maybe hitting has improved or pitching regressed. More likely is a reversion to normalcy. Whatever the case, April was the only month in 2012 without a large jump over the average. Players hit .944 homers per game that month. Surely it would have been higher if …
1. Mike Trout hadn't spent the month plying his trade in Salt Lake City. Where, by the way, he hit one home run in 77 at-bats.
To see him slug 21 in 377 major league at-bats this season, then, has been something of a revelation, particularly considering he hit 23 over 1,117 at-bats in the minor leagues and five in 123 major league at-bats in 2011. Yes, scouts always figured Trout's home run power would develop and he might – might – crack 30 in a season. Well, he's got 47 games to hit nine and get there already, in his rookie season, most of which he'll have spent as a 20-year-old.
One of the differentiating factors for Bryce Harper in the Harper-vs.-Trout debate was the perception that he has better power than Trout. Raw power? Sure. Game power? Not yet.
Trout heads the list of players with surprising home run totals this year, and there are plenty. Eight are on pace for 40 or more – the most since nine players hit at least 40 in 2005. (The record: 17 (!) in 1996. At least 12 per year hit 40-plus from 1996-2001.)
If Trout keeps up his per-game pace, he'll exceed 30, possibly joining …
2. Andrew McCutchen, his fellow center fielder, MVP favorite and home run-hitting marvel. Part of McCutchen's allured and appeal is his small stature. At least at 6-foot-1, 220 pounds Trout looks the part of a linebacker. At 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, McCutchen is more an undersized cornerback, or maybe a scatback.
Then McCutchen unleashes his swing, and it comes with every bit the fury of his sizable counterparts. McCutchen's average distance on his career-high 23 home runs this year: 400 feet – only four feet less than Giancarlo Stanton, who is like two McCutchens, two feet shorter than Matt Kemp and exactly the same as Jason Heyward, who's got seven inches and 70 pounds on McCutchen.
And even with a long drought – McCutchen has just one home run in his last 23 games – he's still toward the top of the NL leader board, behind Ryan Braun, Carlos Beltran and …
3. Jason Kubel – yes, Jason Kubel, signed away from Minnesota this offseason for two years and $15 million despite his reputation as being the sort of outfield butcher whose fielding obscures his hitting.
Twenty-five home runs later, the 30-year-old Kubel has smashed his way out of the bad-defense trap. While such a breakout wasn't entirely unexpected – he did hit 28 home runs for Minnesota in 2009, the second of three consecutive 20-plus-homer seasons – Kubel has helped pull the Arizona Diamondbacks to within striking distance of a playoff spot.
And, in the process, he has taken the mantel among the best left-hander power hitters in the NL. It's not quite as an elite group as the AL, which boasts Josh Hamilton, Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano and …
4. Josh Reddick – yes, Josh Reddick, traded from Boston this offseason because the Red Sox, desperate to shore up their bullpen, wanted closer Andrew Bailey, and Oakland saw a 25-year-old whose power was just beginning to develop.
Whether Reddick can continue mashing taters – he's at 25 and counting – may well depend on whether one number signifies true growth or a stroke of great luck. The best power hitters watch about 20 percent of their fly balls go for home runs. Reddick is at 16.3 percent this season, a very good rate – and more than twice his average coming into the season.
Reddick does a lot of things well. His defense in right field is above average, and police once tried to arrest him for carrying an unlicensed weapon, to which he responded there is no license for an arm, an argument that carried the day in court. He's walking more this year, and he's a smart baserunner. The only thing separating Reddick from stardom is consistent power, the same knock …
5. Billy Butler has heard for years. People see a body like Butler's – pear-shaped is fair – and don't exactly think gap-to-gap doubles hitter. That's a home run-hitting body, a get-your-weight-into-it swing, a monster waiting to happen.
Except he was more Cookie Monster than anything. While Kauffman Stadium and its big dimensions were partly to blame, here were Butler's HR/FB percentages his first five seasons: 8.9, 8.2, 11.9, 8.4, 10.4.
This year: 23.8 percent.
And accordingly, Butler has 24 home runs this season. Barring an even greater surge, he's not going to break Kansas City's long-standing single-season record of 36 by Steve Balboni. He may come close, fulfilling his prophecy of bigger power numbers following last year's All-Star break.
Butler called his shot. Nobody figured …
6. Edwin Encarnacion to be challenging for the major league home run lead. Not even Edwin Encarnacion. Let's first say: It's not just the homers, either. He's walking more than ever and striking out less. He has taken a middling career – really, was he anything more than a nondescript, a-little-better-than-average-with-the-bat-and-worse-with-the-glove third baseman coming into this year? – and morphed into a powerful DH/first baseman with a team-friendly contract.
If Encarnacion can produce even half as much as he has this year, his three-year, $27 million extension inked in July is a bargain in the same category as Jose Bautista's five-year, $65 million deal. While former Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi caught flack for not dealing pitcher Roy Halladay at the 2009 trade deadline, his acquisition of Encarnacion gifted his successor, Alex Anthopoulos, another big bat on the cheap.
Not as cheap, mind you, as …
7. Ryan Ludwick dropping 21 home runs for the Cincinnati Reds at $2.5 million. After seemingly hibernating for years, the 34-year-old Ludwick is crushing balls like he did during his breakout season of 2008. That year, he homered once every 14.5 at-bats. This year: once every 14.3.
It's not all the bandbox that is Great American Ball Park. Ludwick's OPS is actually 40 percent higher on the road, and nine of his home runs have come there. It's not entirely HR/FB, either, though his 20 percent rate is almost dead even with his 19.9 percent '08 rate. It's not totally him feasting on lefties, either, which he continues to do.
The amalgamation of all three has breathed life into the old power hitter, and Ludwick's nine home runs since the All-Star break have fueled a .719 slugging percentage, second best in the big leagues, better even than …
8. A.J. Pierzynski and his seven homers and .676 slug. With his 23rd homer Sunday, Pierzynski stretched his career high even further past the 18 he hit in 2005, when his HR/FB was 14.2 percent. In the years since it had gone as low as 5.8 percent. This year: 21.8 percent.
And so if there happens to be a fluke on this list, perhaps the 35-year-old catcher who last year hit eight homers in 500 plate appearances qualifies as such. Fluke or not, of course, he hit those home runs. They jumped off his bat, landed over a fence and counted for runs. Nobody can discount that, even if the likelihood of Pierzynski turning into …
9. Adam Dunn is about nil. Even if Dunn's comeback from arguably the worst season in baseball history was a given – after all, he couldn't get any worse – doing it in this sort of fashion was gravy for the White Sox.
He is pretty much having the most Adam Dunn season possible. Batting average: .205 and sinking, just dreadful. Walk rate: 16.8 percent, a healthy number. Strikeout rate: 34.5 percent, in the vicinity of last year and nearing the point of diminishing returns. Home runs: 31, the second-most in baseball, going an average of 412 feet, 19 of them to right of right-center, like a good Texas boy should.
The White Sox take spoonfuls of bad with the good Dunn can provide with one jolt of his bat. They understand that not everybody can be …
10. Mike Trout and do everything well. The home run-robbing catches never get old. Watching him steal a base is a treat in pure athleticism. He's smart. He's savvy.
I always wondered what it was like to watch a young Mickey Mantle play. Now I know.
To think he'll develop power like the Mick is indeed far-fetched, though putting any sorts of limitations on Trout is the sort of thing reserved for fools, and I endeavor to keep my foolishness to a minimum, or at least private. So I'll leave it to a scout to send a revised report on Trout:
"He may hit 40, but he's not going to go much higher than that."
Which would be all right. Forty home runs is a lot. It's the sort of thing of which MVP awards are made. He need not reach 30 this year for that, either. Joe Mauer didn't. Neither did Dustin Pedroia nor Ichiro Suzuki. The season most like Trout's, actually, is Rickey Henderson's 1990.
Rickey led the AL in stolen bases and runs. So does Trout. Rickey's adjusted OPS was 189, almost twice as high as the league average. Trout's is 181. Rickey's triple-slash was .325/.439/.577. Trout's is .340/.402/.592. Rickey was 31. He had 10 years on Trout.
(And this is as good a time as ever to recall the greatest Rickey story there is. In his first year with San Diego, a Padres player – reportedly Steve Finley – offered him any seat on the team bus, saying, "You've got tenure." To which Rickey replied something along the lines of: "Ten years? Rickey's got 16, 17 years!")
Think about that company for Trout: Mickey and Rickey. He is a special player, one of the best to come around in a long time. And unlike so many on this list, the question about him isn't whether he can sustain his power. It's whether he can keep up his whole game.
Because if Mike Trout does, stacking him up alongside Mickey and Rickey will be just the start.
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