Where are the 60 Home Run Hitters?

There have been a lot of homers in baseball this season. Perhaps too many, as Jay Jaffe wrote back in June. At its current pace, the majors will average 227 home runs per team, clobbering the 2017 mark of 204 and coming in way ahead of last year’s 186 mark. When Barry Bonds broke the single-season home run record in 2001, the major league team average was 182. When McGwire and Sosa dueled, it was 169. When Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s record, the team average was 152. So how is it that we have a 50% increase in home runs from the time Maris hit 61, and a 22% increase over last year, and yet still don’t have a player likely to hit 60 homers?

Here are this year’s home run leaders through Tuesday’s games along with their projected total, their current pace based on team games, and the number of homers per 700 plate appearances (which will be more important later):

MLB Home Run Leaders
Name PA HR Projected Pace HR/700 PA
Cody Bellinger 401 34 50 57 59
Christian Yelich 388 33 47 56 60
Mike Trout 402 30 48 51 52
Peter Alonso 394 30 45 52 53
Edwin Encarnacion 377 28 44 49 52
Josh Bell 408 27 39 47 46
Hunter Renfroe 304 27 43 47 62
Franmil Reyes 314 26 40 45 58
Max Muncy 381 25 38 42 46
Freddie Freeman 426 25 38 42 41
Mike Moustakas 382 25 38 42 46
Jorge Soler 395 25 37 42 44
Through July 16, 2019

Projections, which are admittedly somewhat conservative, expect there to be one 50-homer hitter at the end of the year (Cody Bellinger), as well as a handful of players with at least 40 homers. Even if we go by pace and the hitters hit exactly was well as they have up to this point, Bellinger and Yelich will have great seasons but fall a few homers shy of 60. Yelich and Hunter Renfroe are the only players on a 60-homer pace if they were to get to 700 plate appearances. While all the home runs being hit might make it seem like a 60-homer season should happen, the sheer number of homers in the game don’t actually dictate what the league leader might do. The graph below shows the average number of home runs by team per year along with the home run leader for that season:

While the numbers can track together, league leaders have mostly stuck around the same place, even as homers league-wide have gone way up. The dip in 1981 is due to a less than full season; the two seasons right before the big jump in 1996 were also strike-shortened. To provide a more direct comparison, here’s the same information on a scatter plot:

There is a bit of a relationship there, but all of the big individual home run seasons are outliers that don’t quite track with the general rise of home runs. There have been eight seasons with a team average of at least 180 homers. Four of those seasons featured league-leader seasons of at least 59 homers, but the other four saw the league leader end up at least 10 homers shy of 60. If we were to continue that line of reasoning and look at this season’s pace of 227 homers, we’d see it lines up with 64 homers, but based on prior seasons, we are just as likely to end up well below that mark as we are at or above it.

The short answer to why there isn’t likely to be a 60 home run hitter is that having a 60-homer season isn’t necessarily tied to league-wide homers. We can find further evidence when looking at this year’s particular crop of major league players. First, let’s take a look at older big home run seasons. There have been 19 individual seasons where a player has hit at least 55 homers. Those players are listed below along with their home runs per 700 plate appearances in the three seasons preceding the 55+ homer season, as well as the single-best HR/700 PA season in those three years:

Players with 55+ Home Runs
Name Season PA HR 3-YR HR/700 PA 3-YR High HR/700
Barry Bonds 2001 664 73 48 57
Mark McGwire 1998 681 70 64 66
Sammy Sosa 1998 722 66 42 52
Mark McGwire 1999 661 65 70 72
Sammy Sosa 2001 711 64 59 64
Sammy Sosa 1999 712 63 51 64
Roger Maris 1961 698 61 34 47
Babe Ruth 1927 691 60 47 51
Giancarlo Stanton 2017 692 59 55 59
Babe Ruth 1921 693 59 43 62
Mark McGwire 1997 657 58 61 66
Ryan Howard 2006 704 58 43 44
Jimmie Foxx 1932 701 58 37 39
Hank Greenberg 1938 681 58 37 40
Alex Rodriguez 2002 725 57 48 51
Luis Gonzalez 2001 728 57 28 30
Ken Griffey Jr. 1998 720 56 52 56
Ken Griffey Jr. 1997 704 56 51 57
Hack Wilson 1930 709 56 36 41
AVERAGE 698 61 48 53.5

The reason I’ve used home runs per 700 plate appearances is because to get close to 60 homers, batters generally need around 700 plate appearances, McGwire and Bonds notwithstanding. Outside of the three seasons in the 1930s, Maris’ record-breaking campaign, and Luis Gonzalez in 2001, every player averaged at least 40 homers per 700 plate appearances over the prior three seasons. While Maris had a relatively low three-year total, he did have a shortened season during which he was on pace for 47 homers. In addition to Maris, Gonzalez, and the ’30s trio, only Ryan Howard didn’t have a prior season where he was on a 50-homer pace per 700 plate appearances.

Given that information, we can look at the profiles of players who might fit that bill this year. I looked at all players with at least 1,000 plate appearances over the last three seasons. There were only eight players with at least 40 homers per 700 plate appearances from 2016 through the 2018 season. The players are listed below along with their season-high HR/700 PA:

Candidates for 60 Home Runs
Name PA HR HR/700 PA 2016-2018 High HR/700 PA 2016-2018
Joey Gallo 1139 82 50 54
Khris Davis 1916 133 49 51
J.D. Martinez 1655 110 47 64
Giancarlo Stanton 1867 124 46 60
Aaron Judge 1271 83 46 54
Gary Sanchez 1128 71 44 44
Nelson Cruz 1903 119 44 45
Edwin Encarnacion 1950 112 40 42

Admittedly, it would be hard for Gary Sanchez to get to the 700 plate threshold as a catcher. Cruz and Encarnacion are also older and unlikely candidates. Of those not on the list, Cody Bellinger came in with around 38 homers per 700 plate appearances with a 50-homer per 700 PA season back in 2017, so he comes pretty close in these categories. Yelich’s three-year numbers are under 30 homers and even last year, he was under 40 dingers. If we extended the three-year PA threshold below 1,000, we would add players like Rhys Hoskins, Matt Olson, Jesus Aguilar, and Hunter Renfroe, but none of those players have any single season with more than 300 PA where they had even a 45-homer pace. I took the players above and added a column that seems particularly relevant:

Candidates for 60 Home Runs
Name PA HR HR/700 PA 2016-2018 High HR/700 PA 2016-2018 IL in 2019
Joey Gallo 1139 82 50 54 Yes
Khris Davis 1916 133 49 51 Yes
J.D. Martinez 1655 110 47 64 No
Giancarlo Stanton 1867 124 46 60 Yes
Aaron Judge 1271 83 46 54 Yes
Gary Sanchez 1128 71 44 44 Yes
Nelson Cruz 1903 119 44 45 Yes
Edwin Encarnacion 1950 112 40 42 No

Six of the seven best candidates to hit 60 home runs this season have been injured at some point in the season. Edwin Encarnacion hasn’t been hurt, but he barely makes the threshold and hasn’t had a big HR/PA season over the last three years. J.D. Martinez certainly looks like a good candidate, but if he’s the only reasonable and healthy option to hit that still-magic number, the odds of it happening aren’t great. We might still get a 60-homer season out of somebody this season, though the odds look slim. If the top five players on the list above were all healthy all season long, we might have had that special season. But with those players sidelined and potentially dealing with injuries even while playing, 60 homers is more fantasy than reality.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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4 years ago

Basically boils down to needing around 700 PA (i.e. not getting hurt) and having a few crazy hot streaks.

So it makes sense that it doesn’t happen all that often

4 years ago
Reply to  FrodoBeck

And not getting walked a ton, particularly closer to the end of the season.

4 years ago
Reply to  SucramRenrut

I like to daydream about how many homers Trout would hit if he walked even half of how often he does currently.

4 years ago
Reply to  FrodoBeck

Probably about 4 more, since (this year) he homers about once per 10 AB, and he’s walked 77 times.