Predicting Who Will Lead the AL and NL in Home Runs in 2021

Martin FennFeatured Columnist IApril 3, 2021

Predicting Who Will Lead the AL and NL in Home Runs in 2021

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The home run race could be fascinating in 2021.

    After some speculation regarding the extent to which Major League Baseball has altered the ball in recent seasons, MLB made different modifications this season. A memo was sent to all 30 teams back in February explaining balls hit over 375 feet will likely travel one to two feet shorter on average. 

    No more juiced ball? Well, maybe. Or maybe the long ball will continue to define the sport. There's really nothing wrong with that notion. Fans might not love strikeouts, but round-trippers are still the single most dynamic event in baseball. 

    There are a number of power hitters to follow throughout the course of this season. Let's take a closer look at some of the names most likely to contend for the home run titles in both leagues.

In the Hunt

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    American League

    Jorge Soler, Kansas City Royals (+2500)

    Soler led the American League in homers in 2019 with 48, and his batted ball numbers certainly point to tremendous slugging potential. However, 2019 is a bit of an outlier in the context of his career, and there have been durability issues. Can he stay healthy?

    Joey Gallo, Texas Rangers (+1100)

    Gallo already has a pair of 40-homer seasons to his name. But he needs to show he can bounce back from a 2020 season in which he had just an 82 OPS+.

    Matt Olson, Oakland Athletics (+1800)

    Olson brings the thunder from the left side of the batter's box. He hit 36 dingers in 2019 and 14 more in a shortened 2020. The 27-year-old also clubbed six homers in spring training.

    Miguel Sano, Minnesota Twins (+2500)

    Sano hit 34 homers in just 105 games in 2019. As is the case with Soler, it will be about whether he can stay healthy for a full season.

       

    National League

    Juan Soto, Washington Nationals (+1200)

    Soto mashed 13 homers in 47 games in 2020 after hitting 34 in 2019. But he also led MLB in intentional walks last season. Pitchers may simply avoid throwing to "Childish Bambino."

    Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers (+1300)

    Bellinger's career has been sort of on-again, off-again since his rookie season in 2017, at least for a player with his talent. He will be among the league leaders should he recapture his 2019 National League MVP form.

    Bryce Harper, Philadelphia Phillies (+2000)

    Harper had an enormous .656 expected slugging (xSLG) mark in 2020, and he has three 30-plus-homer seasons to his name. The 28-year-old is quite capable of putting up big home run numbers.

    Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres (+2500)

    Tatis ranked second in the NL in homers in 2020 and ranked in the 100th percentile in average exit velocity, hard-hit rate and barrel rate. Let's see what kind of numbers he can produce over the course of a full season.

AL Contenders: Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, New York Yankees (Both +2000)

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    It only makes sense to list Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton together.

    Both guys have large physical frames that generate tremendous power. Both led their respective leagues in homers in 2017, when Judge hit 52 as a rookie and Stanton hit 59 in his MVP season with the Miami Marlins.

    Then there's the most evident similarity: Both have been slowed by injuries in recent seasons.

    Stanton has played just 41 games combined over the past two seasons, while Judge played 28 games in 2020 and missed 60 games in 2019. Still, it's hard not to consider both players among the top contenders for the AL home run crown.

    The two New York Yankees sluggers consistently rank toward the top of the league in max exit velocity. Stanton ranked first among all players with at least one batted ball event (BBE) in 2020, with a 121.3 mph max exit velocity. He also led hitters in that category in 2019, while Judge ranked first in average exit velocity among all hitters with at least 200 BBE.

    Health will of course be a major factor. But both Stanton and Judge should park their fair share in the seats if they can stay on the field.

AL Contender: Yordan Alvarez, Houston Astros (+2000)

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    What can 2019 American League Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez do over the course of a full season? Baseball fans are about to find out.

    Alvarez made a huge statement as a June call-up in 2019. He hit .313 with 27 homers and a 174 OPS+ in 87 games, winning ROY by unanimous vote. But Alvarez would play just two games in 2020 before undergoing arthroscopic surgery on both knees.

    The 23-year-old is back in the middle of the Houston Astros lineup and has serious potential as a run-producing slugger.

    Alvarez ranked in the 98th percentile in xSLG as well as xwOBA and barrel percentage in 2019. He also ranked in the 94th percentile or higher in average exit velocity and hard-hit rate. This guy simply crushes baseballs.

    Here's another interesting nugget: Nearly one-third of Alvarez's fly balls (32.9 percent) left the yard in 2019. That's pretty good news considering he had a fly-ball rate over 30 percent that season. 

    The exit velocities and tendency to get the ball in the air help make Alvarez a contender. There will be some questions as to how he will fare coming off the knee surgeries. But, as he showed in 2019, he can get his numbers in a hurry.

AL Contender: Nelson Cruz, Minnesota Twins (+2000)

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    No home run list is complete without Minnesota Twins designated hitter Nelson Cruz. 

    The 40-year-old hit 37 or more homers in six straight seasons between 2014 and 2019, including four seasons with 40 or more homers.

    Cruz was at it again in 2020. He clubbed 16 homers in 53 games, which was good enough for a 49-homer pace over the course of a full season. His 173 OPS+ was also the best mark of his career.

    Those numbers are hardly fluky. Cruz also ranked in the 91st percentile in xSLG and 93rd percentile in barrel rate. Father Time has had a limited impact on his ability to tear the cover off the baseball.

    Some might point to a year-over-year decrease in average exit velocity, barrel rate and hard-hit rate as reasons why he could experience slight regression. However, his sweet-spot percentage has actually increased in each of the last two years.

    Cruz should be among the league leaders once again with the Twins hoping to reassert themselves as the "Bomba Squad" and stave off the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central.

AL Leader: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels (+1000)

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    Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

    Choosing Mike Trout as the projected AL home run leader is not just a nod to his status as the best player in the game. He has consistently been one of the most dangerous sluggers in baseball.

    Trout led the AL in OPS+ in five straight seasons between 2015 and 2019. He hit 17 more homers in 2020 after hitting a career-high 45 bombs in 2019, a year in which he also posted a new career-high .645 slugging percentage.

    And the wildest part of Trout's recent success is how uncomfortable he has felt in the box for over a year.

    The three-time AL MVP told Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic he had two different swings: one in the cage and one in games, and he specifically cited a leg kick. Again, this is the same guy who hit 17 homers with a .993 OPS in 2020 en route to a third straight Silver Slugger Award.

    So, just how dangerous might Trout be now that he is feeling right and the Los Angeles Angels are looking to contend in the AL West? He could be quite terrifying, particularly given he is sandwiched between Shohei Ohtani—who raked this spring—and Anthony Rendon in the Halos lineup.

    Plus, Trout had the third-highest launch angle among qualified hitters in 2020, which is important considering he ranked in the 99th percentile in average exit velocity and 97th percentile in hard-hit rate.

    Trout is as strong a pick as any to lead the AL in homers in 2021. So what about the National League?

NL Contender: Marcell Ozuna, Atlanta Braves (+4000)

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    Marcell Ozuna was coming off a 37-homer season when he was traded from the Miami Marlins to the St. Louis Cardinals in December 2017. But he did not have the same success with the Redbirds.

    Ozuna averaged 26 homers and had a 108 OPS+ in two seasons with the Cardinals before signing a one-year deal with the Atlanta Braves prior to 2020.

    It did not take the Ozuna long to rediscover his power stroke. He led the NL in homers (18) in 2020, hitting .338 with a 1.067 OPS and career-high 172 OPS+. He ranked in the 98th percentile in xSLG, as well as the 94th percentile or higher in barrel percentage, average exit velocity and hard-hit rate.

    Can the 30-year-old sustain his 2020 success after agreeing to a multiyear deal with the Braves this winter? All signs point to yes.

    Ozuna has the benefit of hitting behind both Ronald Acuna Jr. and Freddie Freeman in the heart of Atlanta's lineup. There should be tons of traffic on the bases, which should force opposing pitchers to challenge the right-handed slugger on a fairly consistent basis.

NL Contender: Christian Yelich, Milwaukee Brewers (+3000)

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Christian Yelich has pretty tremendous odds for a guy who hit 80 homers between 2018 and 2019 and still hit 12 in a down year in 2020.

    Yelich had been on a serious roll dating back to the second half of the 2018 season. He hit a ridiculous 25 home runs in 65 games after the All-Star break in a run that propelled him to NL MVP honors. Was it a fluke? Hardly. 

    The Milwaukee Brewers star hit 44 more homers and led the majors in slugging (.671) and OPS (1.100) in 2019 before having his season cut short by a broken kneecap in early September.

    Even Yelich's 2020 season was somewhat impressive under the circumstances. He struggled in summer camp and had a hard time making adjustments in the absence of in-game video, yet he still ranked in the 99th percentile in average exit velocity and 98th percentile in hard-hit rate. 

    There are plenty of reasons to be bullish on Yelich in 2021. The batted ball numbers are one, and the home run-to-fly ball ratio is another. Over 32 percent of Yelich's fly balls have left the yard in each of the past three seasons, including 32.4 percent in 2020. 

    Yelich had a big spring and should be galvanized by the return of in-game video. He should also reclaim his status as one of the elite sluggers in baseball.

NL Contender: Pete Alonso, New York Mets (+1000)

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    New York Mets slugger Pete Alonso took baseball by storm as a rookie in 2019.

    The "Polar Bear" set a new MLB rookie record with 53 homers and hit .260 with a .941 OPS and 145 OPS+. He captured NL Rookie of the Year honors and finished seventh in MVP voting.

    Alonso's sophomore season was not as prolific on the surface. His slugging went from .583 to .490, and his OPS dropped to .817. But he still managed to hit 16 homers in the shortened season.

    At first glance, the 26-year-old's batted ball numbers are not quite as elite as some of these other guys. He has not ranked higher than the 76th percentile in average exit velocity in his first two seasons and ranked in the 61st percentile in hard-hit rate in 2020.

    But Alonso's max exit velocity might be more indicative of his upside. He led all qualified hitters with 118.4 mph max exit velocity this past season. 

    Alonso got in a good groove during spring training, hitting four homers with a 1.121 OPS in 18 games. He is an excellent candidate to pace the NL in dingers for the second time in the last three seasons.

NL Contender: Eugenio Suarez, Cincinnati Reds (+2200)

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Eugenio Suarez is sort of like Alonso in that he has not had the most eye-popping average exit velocities or hard-hit rates in the past couple seasons.

    However, Suarez consistently barrels up the baseball. He ranked in the 93rd percentile in barrel rate in 2019 and the 91st percentile in 2020. The ability to get the barrel through the hitting zone has helped Suarez put up terrific power numbers in the past few seasons.

    The Cincinnati Reds infielder hit 34 homers and posted a career-high 136 OPS+ in 2018. He then hit a whopping 29 homers after the All-Star break in 2019 en route to a total of 49 round-trippers. He followed that up with 15 more homers in 2020 despite hitting just .202 on the season.

    One of the biggest factors working in Suarez's favor is the park he calls home. Great American Ball Park was the most homer-friendly environment in 2020, per ESPN's Park Factor. It featured the eighth-most long balls in 2019.

    Suarez could use Great American's dimensions to his benefit once again in 2021.

NL Leader: Ronald Acuna Jr., Atlanta Braves (+1300)

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Atlanta Braves sensation Ronald Acuna Jr. has made strides as a slugger in each of his first three seasons in the majors.

    Acuna burst onto the scene by hitting .26 homers and posting a 143 OPS+ en route to NL Rookie of the Year honors in 2018. He finished the 2019 campaign with 41 homers despite hitting just five in the final month-plus of that season.

    The two-time Silver Slugger showed off an even greater power stroke in 2020, hitting 14 homers in just 46 games, posting career-high marks in slugging (.581) and OPS+ (152). He ranked in the 95th percentile in barrel percentage and was third among qualified hitters in hard-hit rate

    The latter two figures are especially impressive considering Acuna ranked 17th in launch angle. The only qualified hitter who ranked above him in both launch angle and hard-hit rate was Miguel Sano. Additionally, Acuna's home run-to-fly ball ratio has jumped in each of the last three seasons, topping out at 32.6 percent in 2020.

    Although the 23-year-old hit batted just .152 in spring training, he did hit five homers in 18 games. That could be scary for opposing pitchers as Acuna grows more and more comfortable during the course of the season.

    Acuna should be an MVP candidate in 2021, and he might just lead the bigs in homers.

      

    All stats obtained via Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant or FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All odds obtained via DraftKings.

       

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