Guerrero Blasts First

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We’re off to a slow start in the home run race. Thus far, 230 fly balls have left the yard, a pace of just 4,946. This would be the lowest total since 2015, excluding 2020. Of course, as I’ll point out many times over the coming weeks, home run rates increase as we approach the heat of summer. Multiple effects come into play. Warm weather helps the ball to travel farther. Injuries flood the league with below average, homer-prone pitchers. A new thing for us to track this season is the leaguewide use of humidors. These were expected to decrease home runs in April (when there’s less humidity) and increase home runs in the summer months (when there’s more humidity). So far, we’ve definitely seen the anticipated decrease in dingers.

Weekly Leaders

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 5 HR
9 Others, 3 HR

Guerrero headlined the week. In some regards, it was a middling performance for him (ok, not really). He had only two non-homer hits in 24 plate appearances. Of course, nobody is complaining about five mashed taters, especially when three of them came in one game against Gerrit Cole (2) and Jonathan Loaisiga (1). Vladito’s outburst puts him in pole position in the home run battle.

Of the nine others with three blasts, only one can be described as unexpected – Oscar Mercado. The former Guardians pseudo-prospect delivered a 15-homer and 1- steal performance back in 2019, needing only 482 plate appearances to accomplish the feat. A coveted 20/20 campaign was predicted before the world plunged into lockdown. When baseball finally returned, he hit just .128/.174/.174 in 93 plate appearances. His 2021 season was better – in that his .224/.300/.369 triple-slash didn’t rank among the worst performances in history. Presently, he’s off to a hot start in the “barrels” department. He’s barreled three of 20 batted balls, a 15 percent rate which is comparable to elite power hitters. He also has more hard contact than previous seasons. We’re talking about the tiniest of samples and none of his other peripherals show any indication of a breakout. I’m not buying unless the cost is akin to a waiver move.

Byron Buxton was off to a scalding start before a slide into second base yesterday led him to limp off the field. I’ve seen speculation that a torn meniscus could match what we observed. With luck it’s some kind of sprain that will cost Buxton days or weeks instead of months. When he’s healthy, Buxton is one of the elites of the league. Last week, I had him projected for a share of the homer crown with 44 home runs in just 575 plate appearances.

New guy Seiya Suzuki has really impressed through 26 plate appearances. Not only has he already popped three home runs as part of a .368/.500/.895 batting line, he’s displayed elite plate discipline too. Above average exit velocities don’t hurt, nor does a 3.7 percent swinging strike rate. Suzuki is showing traits of an OBP-league monster.

The remainder scarcely merit detailed comment. We expect three-homer weeks from the likes of Jose Ramirez, Nolan Arenado, Brandon Lowe, C.J. Cron, Francisco Lindor, and Ozzie Albies. Of those six, only Lindor and Albies aren’t expected to easily exceed 30 home runs. No, they’re only penciled in for 27 dingers.

My Top 10 Projected Home Run Leaders

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 46 HR
Pete Alonso, 44 HR
Joey Gallo, 42 HR
Brandon Lowe, 41 HR
Jose Ramirez, 41 HR
Nolan Arenado, 41 HR
Shohei Ohtani, 41 HR
Mike Trout, 40 HR
Salvador Perez, 40 HR
George Springer, 40 HR

Guerrero’s bonanza added three home runs to his seasonal projection. Buxton dropped just out of the Top-10 in anticipation of at least a brief stint on the injured list. Even with just 500 projected plate appearances, my home run calculator still thinks he’ll blast 39 homers. Also dropping a short distance out of the Top 10 were Nelson Cruz and Adam Duvall.

With three guys falling, that means three more climbed – namely Lowe, Arenado, and Perez. Jared Walsh is just below the fold with 39.6 projected home runs. Springer narrowly edges him out with 39.8 projected dingers. Something I should note from time to time – while my model includes fractions of home runs, it is not that accurate. It’s a broad strokes tool. Springer and Walsh can be considered to have identical projections.

As I detailed last week, I’m still using a fairly generic 650 plate appearance projection for most players. There are a few exceptions like Buxton, Ronald Acuña, and Lowe. Even the very best Rays aren’t quite used on a full-time basis. Thus, I’m confident projecting Lowe for 615 plate appearances. It says something about his talent that he still ranks fourth in the model.

Injured

New

Teoscar Hernandez, oblique, May
A.J. Pollock, hamstring, late-April
Alex Kirilloff, wrist, late-April
Brandon Nimmo, COVID, soon
Mark Canha, COVID, soon

We’re still awaiting a diagnosis for Buxton. He’s probably receiving imaging as I write this. A stint on the injured list feels likely given his long history of ailments. We’ll have to wait and see. The Twins already lost Kirilloff for a short period as he deals with pain in his surgically repaired wrist. He received a cortisone injection. The joint is reportedly healthy, he’ll just have to learn to cope with the discomfort.

I’ve seen reports that Hernandez could return from his oblique strain by the end of the month, indicating it’s a very minor strain indeed. Most oblique injuries take over a month to heal, although we've seen a few players buck the standard timetable in recent seasons. When that happens, I suspect it’s not actually an oblique strain but a different core muscle. In any event, keep an eye on reports of his recovery timetable.

Pollock has a Grade 1 hamstring strain, the most minor possible. A quick recovery is possible. Nimmo and Canha tested positive for COVID. The protocol for returning could run from a couple days to over a week.

Existing

Ronald Acuña, knee, late-April
Yoan Moncada, oblique, early-May
Luis Urias, quad, mid-April
Fernando Tatis Jr., wrist, mid-June
Evan Longoria, finger, late-April
Kyle Lewis, knee, late-April

Acuna is eyeing a rehab assignment beginning on Tuesday, April 18. It seems like they’ll miss the original April 22 target by at least a few days. Lewis has advanced to taking on-field batting practice (something Acuna has been doing for over a month). With Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez both struggling, the club will surely want to get Lewis back into action soon. A lengthy rehab process is possible if he’s not firing on all cylinders.

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Power Spotlight

For those few among you who really overanalyze our staff position-by-position rankings, you’ll have noticed I’m consistently high on Sean Murphy every year. He does a bunch of things I like at a position where most hitters don’t show much of a pulse. As predicted, with Matts Olson and Chapman out of the way, Murphy now bats third or fourth. He fills the designated hitter role when he isn’t catching. In short, he’s Oakland’s best hitter.

Already, he’s taken a small step forward in one noteworthy statistic. His 114-mph max exit velocity represents a career-best (previously 112.8-mph max EV). He’s also frequently scalding the ball as demonstrated by his average exit velocity (93.4-mph), barrel rate (20 percent), and hard-hit rate (65 percent). These are all elite figures. While his current 34.3 percent strikeout rate is something of an eye sore, it appears to be a function of small sample fluctuation. None of his peripherals indicate he’s whiffing more or making poor swing decisions.

Murphy shouldn’t be available on your waiver wire. However, he looks like an ideal “buy-high” candidate. Many of his present managers might not yet fully appreciate his new lineup role or usage. The projections on FanGraphs and other sites clearly don’t – ZiPS, Steamer, and THE BAT expect him to hit about 15 home runs with 50 runs and 50 RBI in around 430 plate appearances. I’ve conservatively projected him for 550 plate appearances – his current usage will easily top 600 plate appearances. My home run calculator expects 26 dingers. His mid-lineup role should yield at least 70 runs and 70 RBI. That’s roughly on par with Will Smith’s 2021 campaign and better than Yasmani Grandal (not in OBP) and Tyler Stephenson. Those three players were the second-, sixth-, and ninth-most valuable catchers of 2021.