Predicting Who Will Lead the AL and NL in Home Runs in 2022
Never mind the cliche. Everyone digs the long ball.
Even as the game gets smarter and more attentive to key analytics, nothing is more entertaining than watching who can hit the baseball the farthest.
That's what brings us to this exercise. We want to predict who will lead the American and National Leagues in home runs, based on existing information and the projections of the game's most exciting players.
Let's take a closer look at some of the players who are most likely to contend for and win the home run titles in both leagues.
In the Hunt
Yordan Alvarez, Houston Astros
Alvarez was one of five Silver Slugger finalists for the Astros last season after leading the club with 33 home runs and 104 RBI. B/R ranked him as the 10th-best power hitter in baseball, as he was equally productive against right-handed pitching (.874 OPS, 20 HR) and left-handed pitching (.881 OPS, 13 HR). But remember, last year Alvarez was fresh off arthroscopic knee surgery on both knees and should be fully recovered this season.
Giancarlo Stanton, New York Yankees
We were reminded last season of what Stanton looks like as a healthy member of the Yankees lineup. The first time it happened was 2018, when he hit 38 home runs and 100 RBI. He wasn't healthy for much of 2019 and 2020 but returned last year to blast 35 homers with 97 RBI. It looks like Stanton is back to being himself.
Rafael Devers, Boston Red Sox
Devers is coming off a season in which he ranked ninth among AL hitters with 38 homers and posted a .568 xSLG. He continues to get better after his breakout season in 2019 when he posted a 132 OPS+ with 32 home runs and an AL-leading 54 doubles. If Devers continues on this trajectory, he's going to compete for home titles at some point.
Eloy Jimenez, Chicago White Sox
Health held Jimenez back from reaching his full potential last season, but the power is still there for the 25-year-old White Sox left fielder. In his first two major league seasons, Jimenez had xSLG of .522 and .546, respectively. The .546 clip in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season ranked in the top 7 percent in the league, per Baseball Savant.
Manny Machado, San Diego Padres
Every Padres player should be working with a chip on his shoulder after the team's disappointing 2021 season. Machado fell just short of the 30-home run mark with 28, but he slugged with the very best of them. His .531 xSLG ranked in the top 10 percent of the league, and he averages 31 home runs over a 162-game season. It's reasonable to expect him to be in the mix, even hitting in the pitcher-friendly Petco Park.
Kris Bryant, Colorado Rockies
Bryant hasn't hit 30 or more home runs since 2019 and has done it only twice since his NL MVP year in 2016. But he just signed up to play in the hitter-friendly Coors Field, which should open up some opportunities for him.
Kyle Schwarber, Philadelphia Phillies
There is a case for Schwarber to be much higher on this, but it just goes to show how good the other hitters must be. He enters his first season with the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, known as hitter-friendly, and the past two 162-game seasons (2019 and 2021) his xSLG has ranked in the top 8 percent or better.
Austin Riley, Atlanta
Projections have Riley with anywhere from 29 to 35 home runs this season, which certainly wouldn't be enough for the crown, but it says a lot about how much his power is respected. Something to note is just how much his xSLG has steadily improved in his three MLB seasons so far. As for homers, Riley hit 18 in 2019, his first season, and 33 in 2021.
AL Contender: Aaron Judge, New York Yankees
Judge is a perennial contender to lead the league in home runs, and this year is no different. Once again, he will have protection with some combination of Josh Donaldson, Anthony Rizzo and Giancarlo Stanton.
That's perfect for someone who's already led the AL in homers before, posting 52 in 2017 when he came second to Jose Altuve in MVP voting.
Last year, Judge posted a .594 xSLG, which ranked in the top 2 percent in the league. It was his career high since posting a .662 xSLG in 2017.
FanGraphs projects 41 long balls for Judge in 2022. He is already in talks for a contract extension, but just imagine if the season drags on without him getting it. That could be added motivation for Judge to ball out.
AL Contender: Salvador Perez, Kansas City Royals
Perez tied for the AL lead in homers last year, though his career numbers suggest it was an outlier for the 31-year-old catcher. Prior to 2021, he had never hit more than 27 home runs, which he did back-to-back years in 2017 and 2018.
Still, his power numbers over the past two seasons are impressive. With a small sample size in 2020, Perez had a .626 xSLG, which ranked in the top 2 percent of the league, and it was .566 last year.
What's different about this year is the added protection of Bobby Witt Jr., the No. 1 prospect in baseball, along with Andrew Benintendi.
FanGraphs projects a regression to the mean for Perez with 36 home runs in 71 fewer plate appearances. But if he gets a similar number of chances as last year, it's reasonable to believe he can replicate that performance.
AL Contenders: Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels
There are fair questions about whether the injuries Mike Trout has piled up in recent years will have an impact on his performance at the plate. But we're still talking about the best player in baseball until proven otherwise.
Trout has averaged 39 home runs per 162 games in his 11-year career and he's twice gone over 40.
Even in 2019, when Trout dealt with a foot injury that limited him to 134 games, he hit a career-high 45 home runs.
This season, the Angels hope to have him healthy with reigning AL MVP Shohei Ohtani and Anthony Rendon also in the lineup. The FanGraphs projection has Trout with 40 long balls.
It's the most pressure Trout has faced in his career, and the proper way for an all-time great to respond to that is by contending to lead the league in homers.
Ohtani finished last season with 46 long balls, despite hitting just .216/.379/.422 with nine home runs in 235 plate appearances over the final two months of the season. That tells me he's enough of a threat to compete for this title, even if he struggles.
He sets the tone for this Angels lineup. On Thursday, he became the first MLB player to both throw the first pitch and bat leadoff for his team.
AL Contender: Joey Gallo, New York Yankees
There are two things you can rely on with Joey Gallo: He's going to strike out and he's going to hit home runs. His 162-game average is 41, and he's hit 40 or more twice in his career.
Last year, Gallo fell just short of the 40-mark with 38 home runs. In his first full season with the Yankees, he will enjoy the luxury of batting further down in the lineup, presenting an interesting challenge for a pitcher battling the sixth spot or lower.
Gallo's power is undeniable.
He consistently posts maximum exit velocities that rank in the top 7 percent of the league, though his xBA is among the worst, per Baseball Savant. Gallo could reasonably lead the league in both home runs and strikeouts.
AL Leader: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays
When a 23-year-old is coming off a season in which he led the AL in on-base percentage (.401), slugging (.601), OPS (1.002), OPS+ (167) and the league in total bases (363) while tying with Salvador Perez for the MLB home run title (48), it's difficult not to make him the favorite to repeat it.
Unlike Perez, whose career shows 2021 as mostly an outlier, these are the earliest returns on Guerrero, who enters his fourth MLB season. With each season, his power numbers improve.
He struggled somewhat debuting in 2019, hitting 269/.336/.442 for a 109 OPS+ with 24 home runs in his first 183 games in the big leagues. Any concerns about Guerrero seem like a lifetime ago, and even in 2019, it wasn't a question about his power.
Now, B/R ranks him as the top power hitter in baseball and the Blue Jays' lineup atop the AL.
NL Contender: Matt Olson, Atlanta
Olson set full-season career highs in nearly every notable offensive category last season, including home runs (39), RBI (111), OPS+ (153) and total bases (305).
Now, the Atlanta native joins a much better team, the defending World Series champions.
There is talk in Atlanta about Olson flirting with the franchise home record (51), which was set by Andruw Jones in 2005.
That's overly ambitious, wishful thinking from the hometown. But he's certainly good enough to lead the league in homers.
FanGraphs projects 44 home runs for Olson this season. It can't be overstated how much talent Olson will have around him, with protection from Austin Riley, Marcell Ozuna, Eddie Rosario and Ronald Acuna Jr.
NL Contender: Juan Soto, Washington Nationals
He posted 29 home runs, a .534 slugging percentage, 175 OPS+ and 6.8 oWAR last season. Imagine what his home run numbers would look like if pitchers didn't know better than to face him straight up.
The fact that Soto led the majors in walks (145), intentional walks (23) and on-base percentage (.465) speaks to the idea that he's the best hitter in baseball. And even despite teams trying to avoid him, Soto still hit .313 with a 175 OPS+ in 654 plate appearances.
Did we mention Soto is only 23 years old? You never hear about that.
While FanGraphs projects 36 home runs for Soto, it would not be wise to underestimate him.
NL Contender: Ronald Acuna Jr., Atlanta
Logic dictates Acuna is one of the game's best power hitters with a clean bill of health. He was an MVP front-runner last season before suffering a torn ACL.
Maybe it's unfair to expect him to lead the league in homers fresh off this type of injury, but it's not out of the question.
Acuna had a 93.8 exit velocity, 53.9 HardHit%, .605 xSLG and 24 home runs in 360 plate appearances last year.
He entered the season as a contender to lead the league in homers and win the MVP.
Acuna will also benefit from being surrounded by the emerging Austin Riley, Matt Olson, Marcell Ozuna and Eddie Rosario in Atlanta's lineup. Pitching around him will be close to impossible, so his opportunities should be plentiful.
NL Leader: Pete Alonso, New York Mets
Watching Pete Alonso effortlessly win the Home Run Derby last year had a lasting effect. Then consider his numbers: 91.0 exit velocity, 47.3 HardHit%, .541 xSLG and 37 home runs in 2021.
Alonso also leads all hitters with 106 long balls over the past three seasons, which includes a rookie-record 53 homers in 2019. He basically entered the league as one of its best power hitters.
All he's been missing in his career is proper protection.
So the Mets added Starling Marte, Eduardo Escobar and Mark Canha in the offseason. On Opening Day, Alonso batted cleanup between Francisco Lindor and Escobar. He didn't homer but went 2-for-4 before he was substituted for Dominic Smith.
FanGraphs projects 43 home runs for Alonso, who is more than capable of going over that clip and running away with the competition.