I write a lot of words in the MLB Betting Guide, but my favorite words come when I write the Home Run King player futures article. In that respect, I guess I’ve saved the best for last.
The player to lead the league in home runs is so much fun for me to handicap and attempt to figure out. I wish there were more players listed at the widely available sportsbooks, but there never seem to be enough.
First, let me start with the stats I am looking at to formulate an opinion. There are nine major stats I am looking at for each player – Pull%, FB%, K%, BB%, HR/FB%, Barrel%, Fly Ball Distance, Hard Hit%, and Park Factor by Handedness. Even though there are a lot of guys that make it look pretty easy, hitting a home run is not an easy thing. The league leader will typically be somewhere in the 50 range out of upwards of 700 plate appearances. There are a lot of other outcomes that come into the mix.
Why are all of these important? Let’s go one-by-one:
Pull% – Pull% is the percentage of batted balls hit to the pull side as defined by Baseball Info Solutions, which tracks these by hand. There were 2,304 home runs hit in 2020. Of those home runs, 1,386 were hit to the pull side per FanGraphs. That is 60.2% of the home runs that were hit.
In 2019, there were 3,954 homers hit to the pull side out of 6,776 total home runs. That accounted for 58.4% of the home runs.
FB% – You have to hit the ball in the air more often than not to hit a home run. Line drive home runs are possible. Ground ball home runs are not. Of those 6,776 homers hit in 2019, FanGraphs says that 6,508 of them were hit on fly balls. Out of the 2,304 hit last season, 2,227 were fly balls.
K% – A strikeout is not a ball in play. Seventeen players hit at least 15 homers in the 60-game sprint. The only ones that struck out over 26% of the time were Nelson Cruz, Teoscar Hernandez, and Eugenio Suarez.
Adam Duvall, Pete Alonso, and Wil Myers struck out more than 25% of the time. Guys that hit home runs will strike out, because they are often patient hitters or guys that have big, long swings that generate power, but I try not to focus on guys that are going to fritter away a high percentage of plate appearances.
BB% – Similarly, a walk is not a ball in play. Of the 16 guys that hit at least 15 homers, eight of them did have a BB% in double digits. It comes with the territory, but when you add BB% and K% together, those could be a lot of plate appearances without the chance to hit a home run.
HR/FB% – When you hit fly balls, do you generate a lot of home run power? Was there an outlier from the previous season? To that end, did you hit a high percentage of your fly balls out of the ballpark? Guys that hit a lot of ground balls can often carry really high HR/FB%, but not have enough fly balls to support a high home run total.
Barrel% – A Barreled ball has an expected batting average of .500 and an expected SLG of 1.500. According to a Statcast search, 1,880 of last season’s home runs were on “barreled” balls. That would be 81.6% of home runs. The more barrels, the better.
Fly Ball Distance – This one is even more important this season with what is expected to be a deader baseball that will take distance off of long fly balls. Give me a guy that is regularly able to hit the ball a long way. Some fly ball guys also hit a lot of pop ups, which are just wasted plate appearances. I’d rather not focus on those.
Hard Hit% – Much like Barrels/PA or Barrel%, you want guys that make a lot of hard, violent contact. Hard Hit% is a measure of the percentage of batted balls hit at least 95 mph. Of the 9,080 home runs hit across 2019-20, only 199 of them were batted balls of 94 mph or lower.
Park Factor by Handedness – Home games make up 50% of the schedule. Hitters that have good offensive environments are more likely to have success than those that do not. This one is last for a reason because elite power hitters can hit for power anywhere, but I do want to consider the home ballpark in the equation.
Home Run Leader Odds
Home Run Leader Pick & Prediction
Last season, I had three picks. Yordan Alvarez, who missed most of the season, Franmil Reyes, who had a power outage, and Miguel Sano, who struck out almost 44% of the time. Fortunately, all three of those wagers were canceled because the season was shortened.
The easiest thing to do is to eliminate players from the list. A guy like Eloy Jimenez hit a ground ball 51.9% of the time. That doesn’t leave enough opportunities to hit home runs. Franmil Reyes actually hit far too many ground balls last season. Nelson Cruz and Juan Soto hit way too many ground balls last season, though I would expect those two guys to do better in that department this time around and regress to their means.
A guy like Christian Yelich hits too many ground balls. Unless something changes, Fernando Tatis Jr. won’t hit enough fly balls. Rafael Devers hits too many grounders. Same with Jose Abreu.
Joey Gallo’s park factor is too much of a hindrance. Trevor Story could very well get traded out of Colorado in July. Matt Olson and Matt Chapman have a challenging park factor.
Alright, you get the point. Enough crossing players off. Who does fit the bill?
Ronald Acuna Jr. (+1300)
Of the short prices, Ronald Acuna Jr. looks good at +1300. Acuna was 60th in FB% in 2019. He was 25th in 2020. His fly ball percentage jumped from 37.6% to 43%. His HR/FB% jumped from 24.8% to 32.6%. Usually when you see a big increase in fly balls, the HR/FB% drops simply because the sample size gets larger. That didn’t happen with Acuna.
If he has another spike in the FB% department, and that could be very possible with what the Braves are trying to do offensively, then I think he’s got a great chance to see a big power spike. Acuna’s Pull% went up last season. His Barrel% was in the 95th percentile. His contact metrics were off the charts. The high strikeout rate is a little worrisome, but he has the right contact profile coming off of 41 in 2019 and 14 in 2020 in just 202 PA with that increase in fly balls.
Jorge Soler (+2500)
Jorge Soler is on my short list at +2500. Soler only hit eight homers last season, but he’s made ridiculous contact over the last season and a half. He was in the Top 1% of the league in Barrel% last season after being in the Top 2% of the league in 2019. His exit velocity numbers are similarly stellar.
Soler saw an 8% K% spike last season that took him up to 34.5%. He didn’t really swing and miss that much more. He just made less contact on pitches in the zone and was nowhere near as aggressive. His Z-Swing%, which is percentage of pitches swung at in the zone, was 58.7%, well below his career average of 68.5%. I think he was just caught in-between a lot.
He struck out in 17 of his 41 PA against the Twins and 10 of 22 against the Indians. He won’t play one-third of his schedule against those two teams this season. Furthermore, 20% of Soler’s fly balls became pop ups. That was way up from 8.8% the season prior with a FB% increase.
I’m expecting some normalization in all of those numbers and I’d also expect that you could get him at a better price elsewhere. This one is under consideration, but I’d want a bigger price.
JD Martinez (+3300)
JD Martinez really interests me at +3300. Fenway Park is a great environment for offense, as we know. JDMart hit 45 in 2017 and 43 in 2018. He admitted that he wasn’t really ready for the 2020 season and had one of his worst years ever. I think we’re getting a good price on a bounce back here for a guy that won’t turn 34 until August.
Even in a bad year, Martinez was in the 73rd percentile in Barrel%, so that gives me hope that the bat speed isn’t decreasing. He was in the 90th percentile in Hard Hit% and 83rd percentile in Barrel% in 2019. While Martinez did have a down year, his FB% did increase in 2020 and I can’t help but wonder if that was a concerted effort to hit for more power.
I don’t think JD Martinez is done by any means. He also makes a good bit of contact for a power hitter and I do like that.
Those would be the three for now, but look for better odds on other players. I may find some more as Spring Training goes along.