Simply put, home runs are sexy. No matter one’s take on advanced statistics or what constitutes the true worth of a player, the dinger tally impresses fans more than most other numbers. This year, a fairly curious player is within an arm’s reach of the top spot on the home run charts in the junior circuit, inducing more of a jarred reaction from onlookers than anything else. That player is journeyman Jose Bautista, now of the Blue Jays, who exited play this past Tuesday with 18 home runs, a sum good enough for the second spot in the league.
Let that sink in for a moment. While Bautista has been raking for the entire season, anyone who claims to have pegged the former Pirate, Royal, Ray and Oriole as a potential breakout candidate capable of amassing power figures of this ilk best quickly stop, drop and roll, else risk the fire from his pants spreading all over. Seriously, few thought Bautista would hit 18 home runs over the course of the entire season, let alone in his first 56 games and 234 plate appearances.
From 2006 through 2009, he averaged just 14 home runs a year, and never topped 16. In one third of the current season he has already eclipsed that mark. That current total got my mind working in its usual random fashion, wondering if Bautista is the most unlikely potential home runs leader at this point in recent history.
The first step to answering this query was to compute statistics through June 15 of each season since 1954. While June 15 is more arbitrary than not, I had to pick some point through which to trace the numbers and that date is as good as any. The next step involved determining the home run leader in each season as of the aforementioned date. For instance, Miguel Cabrera currently leads with 19 dingers; last year, we had a three-way tie at 22 between Adrian Gonzalez, Albert Pujols, and Raul Ibanez; and in 2008, Ibanez’s current teammate Chase Utley led with 22.
After that, I proceeded to calculate a three-year average of home runs for every such span from 1970-2009 in order to compare to the theoretical fourth year of the span. In other words, Bautista hit 15, 15, and 13 home runs from 2007-09, before the 18 he has knocked out of the park this season. The purpose here is to take the home run leaders as of June 15 in each of the pertinent seasons and evaluate their average home run marks for the three prior years. My hypothesis was that Bautista’s average of 14.3 home runs over the three prior years would represent the lowest average for a potential league leader. Now, of course, Cabrera has a one home run lead, but for the sake of this process let’s pretend that Bautista leads; it’s fairly unlikely he’ll ever find himself this close again.
Before discussing the results, there is a major caveat to incorporate: the players must have amassed at least 300 plate appearances in each of the three years being averaged. In other words, wonky results will skew the research; for instance, Andres Galarraga led the league in 1988 with 17 home runs as of June 15, but in 1985, the first of the three prior seasons, he only batted 79 times, knocking two balls out of the yard. Of course his average mark is going to be low given that he didn’t ever really have a chance. With that out of the way, the table below shows the players with the eight lowest three-year home run averages for players with 300 or more trips to the dish in each of those three seasons, who went onto lead baseball in home runs as of June 15 the following year:
Third time is a charm
These are the players with the lowest three-year home run averages (min. 300 PA/season) who went on to lead the league in homeruns by mid-June.
What does this tell us? Well, it suggests that Bautista’s 14.3 homers per year from 2007-09 would constitute the lowest average for a player to lead the league the next season, and by a relatively vast margin. It doesn’t tell us anything regarding his ability to continue to mash for the rest of the season, but then again that was not really the exercise. Bautista is currently in the midst of a fairly unprecedented feat by practically leading the league in dingers at about the one-third point after barely hitting any in the previous seasons. Also interesting is that his three-year average is less than his current total, a feat matched by just three other June 15 leaders.
Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.