Major League Baseball is in another golden age of home run hitting.
From 2006, the year baseball instituted leaguewide drug testing, to 2015, only once did we see 5,000 or more baseballs fly over the fence. In 2016, hitters belted 5,610 home runs, the second most in baseball history, trailing only the 2000 season.
While we haven’t seen the sport’s top hitters blasting home runs at record pace, as Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire did at the height of the steroid era, we are seeing a significant rise in the power numbers of players in the 20-home run range. The result is a plethora of players who are capable of providing a club with power at the plate, giving general managers more options to add home run hitters to their lineup than ever before.
In 1999 and 2000, the height of the Steroid Era, there were 102 and 103 players, respectively, who surpassed the 20-home run mark. That dropped to 91 in 2006 and 64 in 2015. This past season, the number of players who hit at least 20 home runs nearly doubled to 111.
With so many of those hitters in the player pool, front offices are having to sacrifice less in their search for power and therefore should favor versatility over the far more limited one-tool, high-priced slugger.
Players who hit 40 or more home runs produced 3.4 fWAR on average, the lowest rate since 2008 (1.8) and the third-lowest average on record since expansion, slightly behind the 1984 campaign (2.8 average fWAR from a batter with at least 40 home runs). Compare that with the average fWAR from batters with between 20 and 29 home runs (3.1 in 2016) and it is easy to see where the value lies.
Last season, the average hitter who belted between 20 and 24 home runs provided 2.9 wins above replacement, similar to what Asdrubal Cabrera (.280 average with 23 home runs and .810 OPS) gave the New York Mets in 2016, for which he was paid $8.25 million. A 40-home run hitter, like Nelson Cruz (.287 average with 43 home runs and a .915 OPS), averaged 4.5 fWAR but was paid $14.25 million. In other words, you could have two Cabrera-type hitters for a little more than it would cost to sign one like Cruz and get slightly more value overall.
Not to mention that cheaper power comes along with more predictability year after year. Note in the chart above how much steadier 20-home run players perform year-over-year compared to the big bombers.
Of course this is simplifying things and not taking into account age, position or other factors, but there are some signs that front offices around the league are already buying into this line of thinking.
Mark Trumbo led the majors in home runs (47) last season with the Baltimore Orioles but could only muster a one-year, $9.15 million deal with the club to return for 2017. Trumbo produced 2.2 fWAR in 2016, but was a liability in the field (his minus-11 defensive runs saved ranked him 170th out of 185 outfielders) and on the base paths (cost the Orioles two runs in 2016 due to his stolen bases, caught stealings and other base running plays).
Chris Carter led the American League with 41 home runs, a career high at 29 years old, as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers but found out his worth on the open market was $3.5 million for a one-year deal with the New York Yankees. His minus-5 DRS placed him 22nd out of 25 first baseman.
Mike Napoli hit a career-high 34 home runs in 2016 with the Cleveland Indians, the third-most home runs in this free agent class, just agreed to a one-year deal, $8.5 million deal with the Texas Rangers in early February. The first baseman was worth just 1.0 fWAR after factoring in his base running skill (minus-5.2 runs) and defensive play (18th in DRS).
We can’t be certain those seemingly discounted deals were handed out because teams are finding power from more versatile players who can contribute in more ways. But it’s a smart theory to which teams should hold if they want to maximize the value of the contracts they’re handing out in this new era of increasing power.