Home runs are on pace to reach an all-time high

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

In the mornings, before he continues to stake his claim as one of the most prolific home run hitters alive, Khris Davis will take a stroll around the Mountain View Cemetery. Over the past year, as he learned to love Oakland – a place that tends not to inspire hosannas from major league baseball players – Davis explored the city and found not only an incredible view of San Francisco from the resting place of nearly 25,000 people but a sense of tranquility.

“It sounds weird, but it’s actually very peaceful,” Davis said. “I feel like a cemetery is one of the richest places you can go.”

Davis is, by his own admission, “a little weird, a little quirky sometimes.” It’s also part of what has driven him here, to a place so few thought he would be: among the elite power hitters in the game. At 29 years old, Davis is coming off a breakout season in which he hit 42 home runs and became only the seventh player in history, according to Baseball-Reference.com, to exceed 40 while standing 5-foot-10 or shorter. Four of the them – Mel Ott, Hack Wilson, Roy Campanella and Willie Mays – are in the Hall of Fame. The two others – Al Rosen and Kevin Mitchell – won Most Valuable Player awards.

After arriving in Oakland last year via trade from Milwaukee, Davis vowed to embrace the city. He moved into a place in Piedmont and spent plenty of time downtown. He ate lots of ramen at Noodle Theory and worked out at a boxing gym, Dogtown Athletic, in West Oakland. Davis enmeshed himself in a place so few, because of the A’s economic realities, take root.

“It’s been something I could make my own, and I saw it as an opportunity to build something,” Davis said. “There’s a lot to do there, and I feel like I can be a piece of this organization for a long time.”

Across baseball, there is an expectation this will be Davis’ last year in an A’s uniform. Free agency beckons after the 2019 season. Oakland’s reputation is to trade cost-controlled players before they leave – especially with weak draft-pick compensation. At the same time, Davis sees the A’s strong core of young pitching with Kendall Graveman, Sean Manaea and Jharel Cotton, knows Sonny Gray is on his way back and either will stabilize the rotation or bring a haul via trade, and sees a worthy future.

“Oakland doesn’t have the greatest facilities. It’s not the prettiest town. I’ve just always been that kind of person where I didn’t need the greatest tools to succeed,” he said. “The Coliseum isn’t pretty. But I love going there. I love playing there. I love Oakland.”

And Oakland loves …

1. Khris Davis back, thanks to his major league-leading six home runs. Three years ago, when Nelson Cruz led baseball with 40 home runs, Davis’ power surge would have been enough to carry him to superstardom. Much as it does stand out today, it’s a far different environment and one in which the home run rate simply keeps rising.

It’s up again this year, close to 10 percent over the pace at this point last season, at 1.12 per game from each team. Sunday was more of the same, with 32 homers in 28 games played. The number almost assuredly will rise as the summer months dawn and the baseball flies, and days of the 1.2-homer-per-game threshold – a number never before reached in the history of the game, not even during the height of the steroid era – are entirely conceivable. Players last season fell 83 short of the record 5,693 home runs hit in 2000. It stands to fall this fall.

Between that and the strikeout rate jumping to 8.22 per nine innings – nearly two-tenths above last season’s and almost a full two per inning above the rate just a dozen years ago – baseball’s evolution toward Three True Outcomes transcendence is nearly complete.

Davis embodies the homer-strikeout element of the three more than the walks, and despite being a favorite of the advanced-metrics crowd because of his propensity to hit balls hard at productive launch angles, he prefers the ignorance-is-bliss approach.

“I try to black out when I swing,” Davis said. “I try not to think. The less I know, the better. I rely on reacting. If I know this or that – too much knowledge is a bad thing. I try to play dumb sometimes. You don’t have to be smart to hit a baseball.”

Davis may believe that, which is fine. Someone like …

2. Eric Thames, on the other hand, has gone halfway across the world to reinvent his ability to do so, and now that he’s back, he may well be the most successful return from Asia since Cecil Fielder.

The 30-year-old Thames is tied with Davis for the big league lead with six homers. Five came over the past four days, when he turned on the sort of power display he showed the past three years in Korea. The one prerequisite for Thames returning to the major leagues was simple: He needed to play every day. When he found himself penciled into the lineup daily, he raked, whether at Pepperdine, A ball, Double-A or Triple-A.

Thames succeeding in Korea wasn’t altogether surprising, then, as players who tear up domestic minor leagues are well capable of doing the same in outrageous offensive environments like the KBO. Now, a .349/.451/.721 slash line with 124 home runs and 382 RBIs over 390 games in three years? That was enough to make organizations across baseball take notice and for the Brewers to guarantee him $16 million over three years.

If this week is any indication – and it’s early in the season, so there’s plenty of brake-pumping going on, as there ought be – it’s the steal of the offseason in addition to a great story. Thames is a polymath who taught himself how to read Korean, dabbles in philosophy and visualization, dresses up in Star Wars gear for premieres and secretly wants to be a WWE wrestler. He is the nerd baseball needs.

And, of course, the bat the Brewers need. Across the country …

3. Trey Mancini is practically a luxury for the Orioles, who start a $161 million player at first base, the defending AL home run champion at DH and boast a deep outfield from both sides of the plate. At-bats are few and far between for the 25-year-old.

So to see him take advantage like this, again, prompts the question: Just how much of this is real? Scouts don’t think a whole lot, and history tends to agree, but Mancini’s two home runs Sunday gave him seven in his first 12 career games, tying a major league record. All of them have come in 36 at-bats. Mancini has more home runs than other hits combined (four singles, two doubles). His career slugging percentage: a beautiful 1.000.

It must be noted that Mancini’s four home runs this season have been off Steven Wright, Ben Taylor, Ryan Tepera and Matt Dermody, which sounds more like the members of a British boy band than four major league pitchers. Still, there is some serious juju going on with Mancini right now. Teammates Manny Machado and Craig Gentry used his bat Sunday and homered, too. Machado is one of the game’s best players, and he happened to be in a slump, so whatever.

Gentry, though? Craig Gentry is one of the game’s least powerful players. In the home run era, Gentry doesn’t hit home runs. The one he hit with Mancini’s bat was his first since Aug. 21, 2013. In the time since …

4. Yoenis Cespedes has hit exactly 100 home runs. More than half of those have come with the Mets, including six this season, tying him with Davis, Thames and Houston’s George Springer.

The Mets-Cespedes marriage has been one of baseball’s most fruitful in recent memory, a perfect fit of team and player, and the four-year, $110 million contract he signed over the winter may, multiple executives have suggested, serve as a template for teams dealing with high-dollar players going forward.

If there is one thing teams despise, it’s long-term deals in which the last few years are treated as sunk cost before the contract begins. Cespedes’ deal may have paid him slightly over market value in the average annual value at $27.5 million, but the Mets reasonably believe he can produce at a star level for those four seasons.

Perhaps this was simply a function of a free-agent class that could best be described as what happens when a sad trombone and fart noise get together and form a band. Still, precedent in baseball matters, and you’d better believe when …

5. Mike Moustakas hits free agency this offseason, teams are going to be selling him on the merits of shorter-term deals. Should Moustakas continue hitting in this fashion, he’ll do the same to those pitches as he has to the ones being thrown at him in the first two weeks of April.

Moustakas turns 29 in September, and any player who reaches the free market with a 2 in front of his age is in awfully nice shape. With Todd Frazier really the only other impact third baseman available – and finding Frazier’s empty power these days isn’t that hard – Moustakas is selling an awfully nice product.

There’s the power, showcased by five home runs this season. And, after years of struggling against them, an established ability to hit left-handed pitchers. And a well-above average glove. And an agent in Scott Boras who knows how to weaponize these attributes and ensure that short-term blather teams throw out gets tossed right back in their faces. Moustakas is fully back after a torn ACL kept him out most of last season, and baseball isn’t just swimming in cash but practically drowning in it. Which is why …

6. Francisco Lindor would be patently insane to sign any sort of contract extension that doesn’t begin with a 1 and end eight digits later. Yes, Lindor is a 23-year-old coming off a season in which he didn’t even reach an .800 OPS. And, yes, I am advocating that he hold out for a $100 million deal, because he’s that good.

Listed generously at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, Lindor is a lean-muscle monster whose power ceiling scouts estimated around 20 home runs. He hit four in a week, and while he hasn’t homered in five days, all Lindor did was hit 9 for 21 with two walks and two strikeouts.

As for that extension, during spring training, the son of Cleveland GM Mike Chernoff said the darndest thing on the radio: The Indians were trying to sign Lindor to a seven-year deal. It didn’t happen, but if Lindor continues on an MVP-type track, the idea of a similar deal following 2017 isn’t out of the realm of possibility. After this year, Lindor will have two years, 133 days of service time.

When he signed his six-year, $144.5 million deal, Mike Trout had two years, 70 days. And, sure, comparing anyone to Trout isn’t altogether fair, but between his bat and glove at shortstop, Lindor is one of the 10 best players in baseball, and he’s got an argument for top five. And if that kind of player is going to be giving away free-agent years when Bryce Harper and Manny Machado have an opportunity after the 2018 season to make free-agent years a $50 million-a-pop endeavor, then a nine-figure investment is the furthest thing from far-fetched for someone of Lindor’s ilk.

Especially if he adds true home run pop to his résumé. Finally …

7. Greg Bird did so Sunday night, popping his first this season after walloping a Grapefruit League-leading eight on the way to a .451/.556/.1.098 slash line. Naturally, Bird started the regular season slashing .038/.167/.077 before a 3-for-3 night Sunday bumped his OPS to .575.

Bird is off the home run schneid. Here is a list of players who aren’t: Mookie Betts, Jose Abreu, Jose Bautista, Adrian Gonzalez, Kyle Seager, Hanley Ramirez, Victor Martinez, Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts – quick interlude … how are the Red Sox 7-5 with almost half their lineup homerless? – Justin Turner, Carlos Beltran, Anthony Rendon, Lorenzo Cain, Javier Baez, Chris Carter, Evan Gattis, Alex Bregman and Gregory Polanco, among many others.

The moral of the story. Hitting a baseball is difficult, even for modern stars, former MVPs, home run kings, $100 million players, free agents to be, future stars, sluggers, righties, lefties, fastball hitters, off-speed feasters, Americans, Cubans, Dominicans, Mexicans, Venezuelans, Arubans, Puerto Ricans and every other person who graces a major league diamond. For all that Davis and Thames and Cespedes and …

8. Marcell Ozuna are doing, never should anyone forget that it’s incredibly hard, which makes a run like Ozuna’s that much more impressive. It took Ozuna a month to get red hot last season. His .404/.453/.745 line this season is bested only by Thames (.368/.455/.921) and Zack Cozart, he of the .432/.488/.730 thumping despite just one home run.

Last season, Ozuna looked like a breakout star following a May in which he hit .411/.450/.705 – pretty much exactly what he has done this April. By the end of the season, Ozuna was his typical self, .266/.321/.452 – good, certainly, but not indicative of the breadth of his talent.

The Marlins find themselves in an interesting position with Ozuna. He is a free agent after the 2019 season, and with Boras as his agent, the chances of him re-signing in Miami are slim and none, minus the slim part. Accordingly, should the Marlins slide out of contention by July – they’ve more than held their own at 7-5 and have the best run differential in the National League East – Ozuna could be the sort of player who inspires a bidding war at the deadline: 26 years old, 2½ years of team control and really, really good.

Players like Ozuna don’t move very often. It’s why …

9. Miguel Sano won’t be going anywhere, not with the Minnesota Twins’ new brain trust beginning to realize what it might have. At his best, Sano looks like a young David Ortiz. He strikes out too much, sure, but he’s walking more than about anybody in baseball this season and his ability to hit the ever-loving snot out of a ball is something to behold.

Really, Sano doesn’t hit anything soft. And while maybe we can quantify this better than we have before, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that Miguel Sano hits balls harder than almost anyone else. He is 6-foot-3 and more than 260 pounds. Big boy gets his haunches into a swing and ball’s got a chance to go a long while.

Because of his size, Sano’s lifespan at third base might be a couple years if the Twins are lucky, though they’re not likely to complain anytime soon. Sano is a 23-year-old with one of the most potent bats in the major leagues, which makes days like Sunday, when he Golden Sombrero’d, plenty forgivable. The Twins just want Sano to hit tanks, a task …

10. Khris Davis hasn’t quite perfected but does about as well as anyone. Left, left-center, center, right-center, right – Davis does not discriminate where his big flies fly. He lifts his barbells with extra-large grips to help develop wrist and forearm strength, tries to keep his swing quiet as a library and tries to hit the stitches out of the ball.

Will Khris Davis remain in Oakland? The outfielder hopes so. (Getty Images)
Will Khris Davis remain in Oakland? The outfielder hopes so. (Getty Images)

When Davis talked about loving Oakland for what it doesn’t have, it wasn’t some new perspective. It’s part of who he is and why he’s here. He could’ve gone almost anywhere out of high school and chose Cal State Fullerton not despite its substandard facilities but because of them. It’s all part of the mental games Davis plays with himself.

“I feel like I respect myself more,” he said. “I love the challenge of that. Mentally I know I have an edge over my competitor. That’s how I feel right now.”

Locked in enough that earlier this week, when he was leading the major leagues in slugging percentage, he asked inside the clubhouse whether he should give away his batting gloves to a kid and try out some new ones. Superstitious as baseball is, nobody dared say yes to Davis. He pulled out the new gloves anyway, fairly certain they didn’t have some sort of home run-sapping power inside the leather.

With new gloves, Davis homered Saturday and Sunday. One of his individual goals – “I want to be an All-Star one day,” he said – isn’t just within reach but getting likelier by the day. If Davis sticks around in Oakland long enough, he may even get recognized when he goes walking through the cemetery.

For now, he’s cool toiling in anonymity, sharing the company of Hall of Famers and MVP, being one of the faces of the home run era, with balls flying and players trotting and the game looking like it never has before.

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