Luis Severino paused. “What are those numbers again?” he asked.
I read them back to him. The Yankees hit 241 home runs last season. The major league record for a season is 264.
Severino smiled. “I think we can do it,” he said.
Of course, Severino is a pitcher, making it a little easier to make a bold prediction like that. Still, there’s little doubt that after acquiring Giancarlo Stanton, giving the Yankees two sluggers who topped 50 home runs a season ago, the MLB team record for home runs in a season is in play.
Asked early in spring training about the number of home runs he and Aaron Judge could hit, Stanton preferred not to mention any specific goals. “The curiosity of what we can do together is the main focus,” he said. “In terms of living up to the expectations, that’s just going to come with playing. The main goal is to win, so if our expectations help us win, it doesn’t really matter what the numbers are.”
Yes, wins are the ultimate number that matters, but the more home runs the Yankees hit, the more games they’ll win! So in a perfect world, how many home runs could the Yankees hit? It does look like a perfect storm for a record, given the record number of home runs hit across the majors in 2017. The Yankees led the majors with their 241 home runs, but four other teams topped 230: the Astros (238), Rangers (237), Athletics (234) and Orioles (232).
The 1997 Mariners set the record with that 264 figure, a mark that looks even more remarkable since only two other teams hit 200 home runs that season (compared with 17 last season). Even more remarkable is they set the record with Alex Rodriguez having a down season. He hit 23 home runs, but he had hit 36 in 1996 and 42 in 1998. Also, despite the Kingdome’s reputation as a great home run park, they didn’t actually derive a big benefit from their home stadium. They hit 131 home runs at home (one every 20.9 at-bats) and 133 on the road (one every 21.6 at-bats).
What they did have was excellent health. Ken Griffey Jr., Jay Buhner and Edgar Martinez each played at least 155 games, four others played at least 141, and while they had to patch together left field after trading Jose Cruz Jr., they still got 24 home runs from that position.
So good health is imperative for the Yankees to set the record, and we know Stanton’s injury history is spotty, though he did play 159 games last year. Judge is also coming off offseason shoulder surgery. And oft-injured first baseman Greg Bird is out six to eight weeks after ankle surgery, so he'll have to bounce back strong to approach his projections. But the Yankees will benefit from one of the best home run parks in the majors. In 2017, the Yankees hit 140 home runs at home and 101 on the road. Judge, with his opposite-field approach, took advantage of the short dimensions in right field and popped 33 of his 52 home runs at home.
Let’s look at some projections to see how the Yankees might fare. The table below lists the 2017 home run totals for the nine regulars in the Yankees' lineup, the median (50th percentile) projection from Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system along with the 90th and 10th percentile outlooks, the ZiPS projection from Dan Szymborski and the home run totals for the ’97 Mariners.
The PECOTA median projection includes 40 home runs from the bench, giving the Yankees a team total of 249. ZiPS is a little more optimistic, projecting 20 more combined home runs from Stanton and Judge than PECOTA.
One thing to note on Stanton is he’s more of a dead-pull hitter than Judge. Here’s his hit chart from 2017, including fly balls, line drives and popups:
Still, he could benefit moving into Yankee Stadium. According to the Bill James Handbook, the three-year home run factor for right-handed batters at Yankee Stadium was 123 (a 23 percent increase in home runs). The home run factor for right-handed batters at Marlins Park was 80 (decreases home runs 20 percent). Of course, Stanton hits his home runs so far, maybe it doesn’t matter, but he should like Yankee Stadium (not to mention Camden Yards and Fenway Park).
The bigger question surrounds Judge, and it points to one of the flaws of the projection system. Because projections also incorporate minor league figures for a young player, even his 90th percentile projection is for just 43 home runs. Well, we know he can hit 52, so 43 at the high end is obviously low. His high end is at least 52 and probably higher. I’m not saying he’s going to hit that many again, but it’s certainly possible he can hit 55 or even 60.
I’ve wondered what the worst-case scenario might be for Judge (aside from an injury). Many smart analysts are pointing to a significant decline, with rightful concerns about his strikeout rate and his .357 average on balls in play. I keep turning to Ryan Howard as a potential worst-case scenario. Compare their first full seasons:
• Howard, 2006: .313/.425/.659, 58 HR, 108 BB, 181 SO, .356 BABIP
• Judge, 2017: .284/.422/.627, 52 HR, 127 BB, 208 SO, .357 BABIP
While they hit from different sides of the plate, there are obvious similarities: Both had an opposite-field power approach, both were older rookies (Howard was 25, same as Judge, when he won Rookie of the Year in 2005), both drew a lot of walks and struck out a ton.
Howard never came close to that season again, though he did follow up with three more 40-homer seasons (47, 48 and 45). Still, he never hit higher than .279, and his walk rate eventually dropped from 15.3 percent in 2006 to 11.7 percent by 2011 (his last decent season before he blew out his Achilles tendon in the 2011 postseason).
It’s certainly possible Judge ends up on that same trek. I don’t think he will. For starters, he’s a much better athlete than Howard, and I think that bodes well for making adjustments. Howard’s struggles against lefties became hugely problematic, driving down his overall numbers. Judge doesn’t have that issue. Judge, as Aaron Boone said the other day, is also hugely competitive and “wants to tear your heart out.”
So I think Judge will be great. Yes, maybe 2017 could be his career season, but I like his chances to hit 50 again.
Back to the question at hand: In a perfect world, how many home runs will the Yankees hit?
275: That 90th-percentile projection from PECOTA adds up to 250 home runs from the regulars. Add another 25 from the bench and we’re at 275.
But could it be even higher than that?
305: The interesting thing about that 275 figure is that some of the totals don’t even match what the players hit just last season. So if we add 11 for Stanton, nine for Judge, four for Didi Gregorius and six for Brett Gardner, we’re up to 305 home runs. In a perfect world, that’s how many the Yankees hit.
It probably won’t happen.
But it could. And that would add up to a lot of wins.