Opening Day Power

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Brad Johnson
·8 min read
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The first two days of the 2021 season are in the bag. Already, we have much to discuss. Over the offseason, we learned of an attempt to deaden the baseball by reducing weight and bounciness. Commissioner Rob Manfred and others have espoused a desire to increase balls in play – both by reducing strikeouts and making it harder to bash home runs.

New research by Ben Lindbergh and Rob Arthur of The Ringer suggests mixed effects from the latest baseball. Larger seams have increased drag and improved pitcher grip. More drag means the ball flies a shorter distance. We might also see strikeouts increase – again – as pitchers are better able to manipulate their breaking balls. Surprisingly, batted exit velocities were up this spring, completely negating the effects of drag. It’s possible the ball is juicier than ever! As Lindbergh and Arthur note, there are several possible explanations for the increase in exit velocity. We’ll get a more complete picture in the weeks and months ahead.

Early Leaders

Austin Meadows, 2 HR
Alex Bregman, 2 HR
Ketel Marte, 2 HR
Eric Hosmer, 2 HR
Evan Longoria, 2 HR
Buster Posey, 2 HR

Through two games, these six players are the only ones with multiple home runs. Nobody has delivered a multi-homer game yet. Overall, 41 players have homered for a leaguewide total of 47 big flies.

This is an interesting sextet of early leaders. The trio of Meadows, Bregman, and Marte experienced a collective power outage in 2020. All were excellent draft day bargains and have helped their shrewd managers to an early lead. After hitting more fly balls last season, Hosmer was plagued by grounders this spring. Perhaps he’s rediscovered his 2020 mojo just in time for the games to count? The most surprising members of the two-homer club are Longoria and Posey. Both have a history of lefty-mashing. They took Mariners southpaws Marco Gonzales and Yusei Kikuchi to task.

Despite depositing a ball over the wall on Opening Day, one of the players to not homer was Cody Bellinger. As you can see in the linked video, Rockies outfielder Raimel Tapia caught the ball for the briefest moment. When he collided with the wall, the ball squirted out of his glove for a homer. Unfortunately for Bellinger, baserunner Justin Turner saw the catch but not the drop. He hustled back to first base while Bellinger looked on in surprise. By rule Bellinger was out because he passed Turner. He’s credited with an RBI single. His fantasy managers are undoubtedly none too pleased.

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My Top 10 Projected Home Run Leaders

Joey Gallo, Texas Rangers, 49 HR
Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels, 46 HR
Nelson Cruz, Minnesota Twins, 44 HR
Pete Alonso, New York Mets, 44 HR
Aaron Judge, New York Yankees, 42 HR
Eugenio Suarez, Cincinnati Reds, 42 HR
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays, 40 HR
Christian Yelich, Milwaukee Brewers, 39 HR
Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers, 39 HR
Giancarlo Stanton, New York Yankees, 38 HR

I should give some background about my home-brewed home run projection system. Unlike full systems such as the one offered in the MLB Season Pass, my approach is attuned only to produce a home run projection. I focus on the inputs that create a home run – namely plate appearances, rate of balls in play, rate of fly balls, and rate of home runs per fly ball. This simple design has proven extremely effective at projecting this one output. If you prefer an even simpler approach, top home run hitters can be expected to average around two home runs per week.

Focusing on the ten names above, I anticipate a rebound in Gallo’s HR/FB ratio after a career-worst performance last season. Spacious Globe Life Field can only do so much to limit his home run output. Notably, Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez is expected to homer at nearly the same pace as Gallo, but he’s also unlikely to exceed 550 plate appearances. Cruz is a favorite for the home run crown. He’ll need to surpass 600 plate appearances for the first time since 2017.

Along the same vein, some might argue with my treatment of Judge and Stanton, both of whom I have penciled in for a full complement of plate appearances. While much has been made of their injury prone nature, I’ve found no evidence that the injuries they’ve suffered in the past should be expected to persist. Similarly, Bellinger could be over-projected if his shoulder injury from last postseason affects his play and availability this season. For now, I’ve marked him as healthy.

Guerrero was a shocking inclusion. I manually investigated, and it all checks out. He’s the only player on this list who hasn’t performed as a top slugger in the past. His ranking is based on an adjustment he made over the offseason to increase his launch angle. In short, he’s expected to deliver a career-best fly ball and HR/FB ratio while continuing to supply a high rate of balls in play. There’s actually considerable upside beyond this lofty 40 homer projection, but it also won’t come as a shock if he finishes with closer to 25 home runs.

Injured

DJ Stewart, Baltimore Orioles, hamstring, mid-April return
Eloy Jimenez, Chicago White Sox, torn pectoral, September return
Hunter Dozier, Kansas City Royals, nagging thumb injury, early-April return
Josh Donaldson, Minnesota Twins, hamstring strain, update expected today
Luke Voit, New York Yankees, knee, May return
Miguel Andujar, New York Yankees, wrist, return date unknown
Kyle Lewis, Seattle Mariners, knee, April return
Khris Davis, Texas Rangers, quad strain, early-May return
Sam Huff, Texas Rangers, hamstring strain, minor league assignment likely
George Springer, Toronto Blue Jays, oblique strain, mid-April return

Thus far, the most devastating injuries are to Jimenez and Voit. The former may miss the entire season while the latter has dealt with quite a few lower body issues over the years. He may be restricted to part-time work when he first returns.

We’re waiting for updates on Dozier and Donaldson, both of whom are at some risk of requiring a stay on the 10-day Injured List. It’s somewhat encouraging that they’re being treated as day-to-day. Even if they do land on the IL, it may be a short stay. Speaking of short stays, the Jays are optimistic about Springer making his debut before much longer. Ramon Laureano (unlisted) may also require a brief respite after jamming his hand yesterday.

For more injury updates, check out our MLB Injury Report.

Power Spotlight

The Power Spotlight is an opportunity to highlight sluggers who might not appear elsewhere in this column with an emphasis on those who are widely available in 12-team mixed leagues. Today we’ll focus on Adam Duvall, a player who is a dark horse candidate to finish among the Top 10 sluggers.

Duvall was widely celebrated in fantasy circles during his heyday in 2016 and 2017. He blasted a combined 64 home runs across those two seasons. His club at the time, the Cincinnati Reds, had more interesting outfielders who lacked his most fatal shortcoming – a career on base percentage below .300. He sputtered at the plate in 2018 and spent most of 2019 mashing in Triple-A for the Braves.

When he appeared in the Majors these last two seasons, he exhibited career-best exit velocities, improving upon his power projection in the process. After a successful 2020 season in which he hit 16 home runs in 209 plate appearances, the Marlins inked him to serve as a corner outfielder. With just a $2MM guarantee, his role as an everyday player is by no means assured. He’ll have to continually prove he’s a better option than the plethora of outfield prospects in the Marlins farm system.

Where Duvall most excels is in hitting fly balls. He averaged a Gallo-ian 56 percent fly ball rate since the start of 2019. While his 20 percent HR/FB ratio is nowhere near Gallo territory, it’s sufficient to produce a home run every 15 plate appearances. Put another way, that’s 43 home runs per 650 plate appearances. His on base skills remain lacking because he’s so an all-or-nothing. He’ll most reliably start against left-handed pitchers against whom he’s a career .242/.317/.481 hitter. However, his home run output does not have a platoon split – only his walk and strikeout rates improve when facing southpaws. Power-starved fantasy managers should consider him one of their best bargain targets. If it works out perfectly, he’ll perform comparably to 2016 Khris Davis.