The Home-Run Record Could Be Broken Twice Over

The 1997 Seattle Mariners hit 264 home runs. No team has ever hit more than that. That season, the next-closest team hit 239 home runs, and that particular team played half its baseball on the moon. The next-closest team hit 220. The Mariners hit more than their share of dingers. Didn’t win them a World Series, and, didn’t even win them an ALDS, but those Mariners still hold the single-season team record. It’s something to cling to, which is all anyone wants.

Last year’s Yankees led baseball with 241 home runs. Their lead was narrow, but they still had sole possession of first, and then those Yankees went and traded for Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton was last year’s player who hit the most homers. And that’s not the only factor here, because the Yankees might also get to enjoy a full season from a healthy Greg Bird. It doesn’t take much wonky analysis to figure the Yankees could give that single-season homer record a push. Might even knock it down! The Yankees are as set up as anyone, and, as you’ve probably heard, we’ve entered into an era of high home-run totals, anyway. Seems like it’s all lined up.

Indeed, I can verify this: The 2018 Yankees are positioned to break the home-run record. What’s a little more surprising is they’re not alone. In 1998, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both eclipsed the home-run record set by Roger Maris. We could very well see something similar on the team scale.

Don’t be led to believe I’ve done anything complicated. The work that went into this post was incredibly easy, because the hardest work was done by other people. Just a few days ago, our projections shown on the site folded in ZiPS. Just before and during the season, our projections are a 50/50 blend of the ZiPS and the Steamer projection systems. Now that our full projections are up and running, and now that rosters are mostly figured out, I just dipped into the stats. Based on current rosters and estimates of expected playing time, I calculated every team’s projected home-run total. You could do the same in a matter of minutes.

As you know, the projections aren’t perfect. Maybe they’re missing someone’s obvious decline, or maybe they’re missing someone’s obvious breakout. Also, the playing-time estimates aren’t perfect. Far from it, actually. One can know only so much in the last week of February. That being said, the signal here should be strong. Most players will play about as much as we think they will, and most players will end up in the vicinity of their preseason projections. So, with no further delay, here is the landscape of 2018 team home runs. Pitchers aren’t included, because we don’t project pitcher offense, and also, they’re terrible.

If you’re a Pirates fan, don’t fret. Or, fret, but fret less. These projections don’t include Corey Dickerson, who the team just picked up. He should improve this projection a little bit. But, for this post, I don’t care about the right side of things. I care about the left side of things. And, would you look at that: The Yankees are projected to lead all of baseball, with 269 dingers. That would break the Mariners’ record. But the Orioles are *also* projected to break the Mariners’ record, with 267 dingers. There is then a pretty healthy drop between second and third place.

There are two important things to understand. One, this is less impressive than it seems, because in 1997 the average team hit 166 home runs, and now the average team is projected to hit 198. Last year’s average team hit 204. You’d almost expect someone to set a new record at some point soon. But then, on the other hand, two, this is more impressive than it seems, because these aren’t actual totals. These are projected totals, and projections are conservative by their nature. Typically, record-setting performances are extraordinary, anomalous. These numbers suggest the Yankees and Orioles could both break the record just by playing as they’re expected to play.

The Yankees, last year, ranked first in homers. The Orioles ranked fifth. Now, the Orioles didn’t do anything to compete with the Yankees’ Stanton addition. Stanton leads all players in projected home runs, by an incredible 16. Aaron Judge is in third. Both Bird and Gary Sanchez are projected to go deep 31 times. That’s the heart of the Yankees’ order, right there. Four players are projected to hit at least 30 homers, and five players are projected to hit at least 20.

On the Orioles’ side, there’s no one extreme, but they have their own four players projected to hit at least 30 homers, and they have eight players projected to hit at least 20. Chris Davis is projected to hit nine more homers than he just did. Mark Trumbo, too. Colby Rasmus is a new addition who could hit for plenty of power. Of course, Rasmus isn’t actually a great player, at this point. And that leads into the real difference here. The Yankees and Orioles could both hit for plenty of power. But in terms of overall offense, the Yankees are simply superior. Here’s another plot, showing projected batting runs above or below average.

The Yankees are there in third place, at +65. Their lineup is more than just powerful. The Orioles are all the way over in 15th, at -6. It’s not as if that’s a bad ranking — it’s perfectly average. But the Orioles’ run production will be driven by homers. The Yankees’ run production, meanwhile, won’t be so homer-dependent. Oh, they’ll take the homers, and they’ll wish for even more homers, but there’s just more all-around batting skill. It’s what makes the Yankees extra frightening.

If you want to get very much carried away, you might wonder about the Yankees’ chances of getting to 300 homers. The average team in 2018 is projected to hit fewer home runs than in 2017, and if anything, we might expect the opposite. Judge is projected to lose 11 homers, because his rookie performance was just too good for the projections to believe, but for all we know he might come back even better. Maybe Brandon Drury taps into buried power reserves. Maybe Gleyber Torres or Miguel Andujar are about to break out. The thing about projections is they’re midpoints, and you can reasonably wonder about upside beyond them. It also works just the same in the other direction, but this is spring, and spring is a time to think the impossible possible.

Here’s what we can say for now: The Yankees and the Orioles are positioned to break the existing home-run record. It’s not something that would even require all that much luck. The projections try to strip away the luck, and still, they point to a pair of record-breaking team performances. I know that, in this era, that’s less amazing than it could be. There exists some measure of widespread dinger fatigue. But those home runs aren’t going away, and the AL East is about to experience an incredible number of them. The 1997 Mariners could be looking at their next and final loss.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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4 years ago

I saw Drury destroy a Morrow pitch in the NLDS, I like his chances to unearth those power reserves

4 years ago
Reply to  careagan

And a bunch of hype on him working w Jd Martinez’s hitting coach….

4 years ago
Reply to  careagan

I caught a Drury opposite field dinger last season. It was the fastest* incoming of the four homers I’ve caught.

*Based on my anecdotal evidence of having caught the homers