MLB Hitters Ready for a Big Power Surge This Season
There was a lull for a while there, but power hitting is back in vogue in Major League Baseball.
Last year was one of the most dinger-filled seasons in baseball history. It wasn't all the big boppers either. Even little'uns like Mookie Betts, Jose Altuve and Rougned Odor got in on the fun.
That's the kind of trend that raises the question: Who's next?
Let's take that as a cue to focus on players who have never hit as many as 25 homers in a season and are primed to do so in 2017. There are 12 names in particular that stand out.
For the first three, it's a matter of getting more playing time to show off the power that everyone knows they have. For the other nine, it's about hints of more power to come found in measurables like launch angle and exit velocity.
We shall proceed in no particular order, starting...now.
Obvious Playing-Time Gainers
Let's start by looking at three guys who obviously have a lot of power and are now ready to show it off on a full-time basis in 2017.
Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees
After he slugged 20 home runs in only 53 games as a rookie last season, it's not much of a prediction to say Gary Sanchez should hit for power in 2017.
But just in case anyone needs further justification for his inclusion, consider his raw power. The balls Sanchez put in the air last season averaged 97.8 mph in exit velocity, a mark outpaced by only five other hitters. More of that should equal plenty more dingers.
Ryan Schimpf, San Diego Padres
He was no Sanchez, but Ryan Schimpf only needed 89 games to hit 20 homers as a rookie in 2016. He also beat out David Ortiz for the highest ISO (isolated power is slugging percentage minus batting average) among hitters with at least 300 plate appearances (.315).
It won't be easy for Schimpf to keep the power coming at that rate, but it should surprise nobody if he's one of the National League's top power hitters in 2017. His swing is built for the task. It produced by far the highest average launch angle of any hitter last season.
Translated: He's the best of the best at getting under the ball. That's good for power.
Kyle Schwarber, Chicago Cubs
Let's face it: Kyle Schwarber's only here because he was barred from a big breakout in 2016 by the torn ACL he suffered two games into the year.
It's not a question of his offensive potential, which is worthy of an entire article. With 21 homers in 85 regular- and postseason major league games, power hitting has been one of his defining attributes. Thanks to a swing that beautifully blends launch angle and exit velocity, it should stay that way.
Brandon Drury, Arizona Diamondbacks
It went largely unnoticed, but Brandon Drury had a good rookie season in 2016. Power was part of it, as he put up a .176 ISO and 16 homers in 134 games.
Good stuff for a guy whose power has come and gone, but not surprising. Christopher Crawford of Baseball Prospectus wrote last year: "Despite his low power totals in 2015 there is above-average power potential, as he transfers his weight well and his strong wrists make up for a lack of ideal loft."
The catch is that Drury, 24, doesn't have booming raw power. At an average of 92.8 mph, his exit velocity on fly balls and line drives was only a few ticks better than the 92.2 mph averaged by his peers.
But if he picks up in 2017 where he left off in 2016, his swing will allow him to make the most of what power he does have.
Jonathan Villar, Milwaukee Brewers
With a league-leading 62 stolen bases, it was mostly Jonathan Villar's speed that put him on the map in his breakout 2016 season.
He did hit 19 home runs, however. Most of those came in the second half, when he resembled a completely different hitter.
Villar not only went from six homers in the first half to 13 in the second, but he went from a .129 ISO to a .222 ISO. He really was driving the ball better, upping his launch angle from 3.4 degrees to 8.0 degrees and his exit velocity on balls in the air from 93.8 mph to 95.0 mph.
Surprising? Not to Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell.
"I think Johnny's got the power in him. I'm surprised by how much we've already seen it," Counsell told MLB.com's Adam McCalvy last September. "I think as he plays and goes on in his career, he's going to hit home runs, and he's going to be a power-type guy. But it's come sooner than we expected, certainly. What he's doing, it's rare, for sure."
More loft would help Villar push his power potential even further. But even if he retains the swing he had down the stretch in 2016, he should make the leap from 20-homer power to 25-homer power in 2017.
Keon Broxton, Milwaukee Brewers
There are more reasons than just his power potential for Keon Broxton to be on everyone's radar for 2017. But while we're on the topic, his power potential is legit.
It's not eye-popping that the 26-year-old hit nine homers with a .188 ISO last season. Considerably more eye-popping, though, is how he hit seven of those with a .224 ISO after August.
That was partially Broxton's showing off his raw pop. He averaged 97.0 mph on his fly balls and line drives last year, placing him far ahead of the MLB average and a tick ahead of home run champion Mark Trumbo.
Given that Broxton was never a blue-chip prospect, there is that looming sense that this was all too good to be true. But scouting reports on him (such as those at Baseball America) did note that good raw power was part of an intriguing all-around package. He only needed to find a way to put it all together.
That finally happened in 2016, and it paved the way for an even better 2017.
Nomar Mazara, Texas Rangers
On the plus side, Nomar Mazara hit 20 home runs in 145 games as a rookie last year. On the not-so-plus side, his .153 ISO was the second-lowest of all 20-homer sluggers.
If that carries over into 2017, Mazara will only need to add more loft to his swing to unlock his full power potential. And that's not asking too much.
When the 21-year-old began 2016 as a top prospect, the natural loft in his swing had Crawford believing his power tool was almost on par with his hit tool: "The power tool is just a tick below the hit; the natural loft and ability to clear the hips with leverage means 20-30 homers are likely."
So rather than looking at his campaign as something of a disappointment, another way to read into the 20 dingers Mazara hit is this: He was just getting started.
Alex Bregman, Houston Astros
On the one hand, the 28 homers that Alex Bregman hit across three professional levels in 2016 say enough about his power potential.
On the other hand, the book on him as a prospect raises questions. When the Houston Astros drafted Bregman at No. 2 in 2015, MLB.com only promised he "could develop average pop."
Even now, Bregman's raw power may only be middle-of-the-road. His fly balls and line drives only averaged 91.9 mph once he reached the majors last year. Nothing special.
Bregman's trick, however, is loft. Even his 15.5-degree launch angle from 2016 understates how good he was at getting under the ball. It says more that he only had a 28.9 ground-ball percentage, one of the lowest in the league.
That was in keeping with what Bregman was doing in the minors, where he had just a 36.3 ground-ball percentage at the time of his call-up last July. And at all levels last season, he showed a clear preference for pull power.
Bregman looks like a Brian Dozier clone: a hitter whose power is more about efficiency than strength. Hey, whatever works.
Nick Castellanos, Detroit Tigers
Nick Castellanos was once a top prospect. And while he's come into his power more gradually, 2017's looking like the year it could take off in a big way.
Of course, that was the story early on in 2016. Castellanos began the campaign on fire, cranking 10 dingers with a .247 ISO in the season's first two months.
But while his numbers deflated, Castellanos continued to sting the ball. He went from an average of 93.0 mph on balls in the air in April and May to an average of 94.8 mph afterward.
The part that slumped was Castellanos' ability to get under the ball. His launch angle dipped from 19.1 degrees to 15.8 degrees. Likewise, his fly-ball percentage went from 45.7 to 40.7.
But since his fly-ball percentage has been rising every year, it's easy to believe Castellanos will get his loft squared away. If he does that while continuing to hit the ball hard, his power will evolve in 2017.
Christian Yelich, Miami Marlins
Through his first three seasons, Christian Yelich owned 20 home runs and a .116 ISO. Then came 2016, when he launched 21 homers with a .185 ISO.
Suspicious growth? Not as much as you'd think.
Yelich doesn't look like a power hitter, but you'd never know it from seeing the rockets he hits. He averaged 95.2 mph on fly balls and line drives in 2015 and bumped that up to an average of 96.8 mph in 2016.
What used to hold back Yelich was his preference for slapping the ball around, mostly on the ground. He could hit for average, but it's hard to hit for power when 60-plus percent of your batted balls are ground balls.
This changed last year, particularly in the second half. The 25-year-old dropped his ground-ball percentage from 59.0 to 53.8. That came from upping his launch angle from 1.1 degrees to 4.0 degrees. Still flat, but less flat.
"The stance and the mechanics are the same," Yelich told Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald. "I've kept the same approach. It was more of a thought process that helped."
What we have here is a guy who always could hit for power who seems to have realized he can hit for power. Watch out.
Tommy Joseph, Philadelphia Phillies
It looks good enough that Tommy Joseph debuted with 21 homers and a .248 ISO in 107 games last year. But even those numbers understate how high his power can go.
To repeat a familiar refrain, Joseph finished the year hitting for more power than he started with. He took off after July, cranking 13 of his 21 home runs with a .265 ISO.
The big improvement was in Joseph's approach. He was wild early on, hacking at 53.4 percent of the pitches he saw and whiffing at 13.5 percent. Both figures improved after July, with his swing percentage dropping to 49.0 and his swinging-strike percentage dropping to 9.7.
That's just the kind of power that will play well at Citizens Bank Park, which is among the friendliest yards in the league for right-handed home run hitters.
Randal Grichuk, St. Louis Cardinals
Randal Grichuk hit 24 homers in only 132 games last season. So, he only qualified for this list on a technicality.
But, whatever. Rules are rules, and his power potential is worth talking about.
Grichuk's swing is built for power. He's hit more fly balls than ground balls in his career, with a big-time pull habit and a taste for hard contact to boot. Even if it's business as usual for him in 2017, he's going to hit for plenty of power.
But like most of the other guys on this list, what's intriguing is the possibility of Grichuk's picking up where he left off.
It was after he returned from a minor league demotion on August 11 that he took off last year, cranking 12 homers with a .303 ISO in only 48 games. He had a solid 12.1-degree launch angle. He was hitting fly balls and line drives at an average of 96.1 mph. And he had a 52.2 pull percentage.
Let's call it the Jose Bautista-ization of Randal Grichuk. What comes next should be lots of fun.