Baseball is rife with sluggers these days, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to guess who will lead the Majors in homers in any given year.
Entering 2020, Luke Voit was on the heels of a season in which he hit 21 homers in 118 games. Then, in ‘20, he hit 22 in 56 games to lead the Majors. In 2019, Pete Alonso led the Majors — in his first season in the big leagues.
That just makes predicting the 2021 home run leader even more fun. MLB.com enlisted five writers to pick 10 contenders to be 2021’s Major League home run king — with each making a pick in each league.
Mike Trout — CF, Angels
2019 total: 45 / ‘20 total: 17
Any time you have a chance to take Mike Trout to lead the Majors in pretty much any offensive category, you simply have to take him — those are the rules, as long as the best player in the game is in his prime, like he is now. Somehow, Trout has never led MLB in homers, which makes it even easier to envision the likely future Hall of Famer doing so at some point before all is said and done. Trout’s career high in home runs was 45 in 2019, the last time we saw a season of more than 60 games, when he played only 134 games due to injury. That’s a 54-homer pace over 162 games.
The power is very much there: Trout’s 93.7 mph average exit velocity in 2020 was third-highest among batters with at least 100 batted balls. He made hard contact on 21.6% of his swings, which ranked fifth among that same group. And the power absolutely translates into home runs. Trout has 302 career homers, and 297 of those have been since he returned to the Majors for good in 2012. The only players with more homers since ‘12 are Nelson Cruz (311) and Edwin Encarnación (307).
Eloy Jiménez — LF, White Sox
2019 total: 31 / ‘20 total: 14
I was really hoping (somewhat foolishly perhaps?) that Trout would fall to me at No. 2, but with the perennial MVP candidate off the board, I’ll happily take Jiménez in this spot. There’s just so much to like about the White Sox phenom. He clubbed 31 homers in just 122 games as a rookie in 2019, then maintained that pace with 14 home runs in only 55 games (while increasing his OPS from .828 to .891) in the shortened ’20 season. No sophomore slump. No drop-off due to the unusual circumstances brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Put it all together and Jiménez has racked up 45 home runs in just 177 career games — a 41-homer pace over a 162-game season. He also led the American League with an 11.5 barrel percentage last season, while his 55.7 hard-hit percentage was second only to Miguel Sanó. Oh, and have I mentioned that Jiménez is only 24 years old?
Jiménez only seems to be getting better, plus it certainly doesn’t hurt that he’ll be batting in the middle of one of the most potent lineups in the Majors, likely slotting in right behind reigning AL MVP José Abreu. Jiménez figures to get plenty of pitches to hit, making 40 homers a very realistic milestone.
Teoscar Hernández — OF, Blue Jays
2019 total: 26 / ‘20 total: 16
Maybe Toronto’s Statcast darling is more of a fastball hunter than a complete hitter, but a Statcast darling Hernández remains — and he dazzled me enough last year to convince me that he’s turned a corner. Hernández has the top-end exit velocity of the Stantons, Judges and Sanós of the world (we’re serious: he tied teammate Vladimir Guerrero Jr. for the eighth-hardest hit homer of 2020, and has put up 10 110-plus mph homers in the last two seasons), and, more importantly for this pick, he’s a natural at squaring up consistently. Hernández’s 18% barrel rate last year was MLB’s fourth best, and his roughly 15% barrel rate dating back to his 2017 debut puts him with the big boys in the top 10.
If last summer was an indication, Hernández has learned how to lay off some of the breaking balls he might never really handle and give himself more chances to mash. The Blue Jays’ crowded outfield mix gives me a moment of pause, but at least FanGraphs’ ZiPS projections back me up. It’s time for our longtime favorite to do what he’s seemingly been built to do: mash.
Giancarlo Stanton — DH/OF, Yankees
2019 total: 3 / ‘20 total: 4
This pick is a gamble on Stanton’s health. Period. The injury-prone slugger’s 2017 NL MVP campaign with the Marlins — when he crushed 59 homers, tied with none other than Babe Ruth for ninth most in a single season — remains somewhat of an aberration, but it’s also a legitimately realistic ceiling for Stanton … if he plays.
Still in his prime at 31, the 6-foot-6, 245-pounder continues to impact the ball as hard and as far as anyone: He recorded the hardest-hit ball (121.3 mph) and the second-longest home run (483 feet) in 2020. And remember: Stanton returned from injury to become the first player in history to go deep in each of his team’s first five games of a postseason (six total homers).
All of that, though, means nothing if Stanton — who was limited to a total of 41 regular-season games out of a possible 222 across 2019-20 due to various injuries — can’t stay on the field. Well, the hope is Stanton no longer has to literally stay on the field, now that he’s primarily a designated hitter. Granted, that didn’t stop him from suffering a left hamstring strain last season, but it should help a little. Give me even 130 games of Stanton, and I like my chances.
Nelson Cruz — DH, Twins
2019 total: 41 / ‘20 total: 16
Yes, he’s entering his age-40 season. But it’s as if time doesn’t apply when it comes to Cruz — in fact, he seems to get better with age. Over the past five seasons, no one has hit more home runs than Cruz’s 176. The only others with more than 160 are Nolan Arenado (165) and Mike Trout (163). And only Trout and Aaron Judge have launched homers more frequently than Cruz, who averaged a home run every 13.1 at-bats over that span.
What’s crazy to think about is that Cruz has smashed 417 career homers and only led his league once, with 40 in 2014, his lone season with the Orioles. Considering he belted 57 homers in 173 games from 2019-20, a healthy ’21 could translate into winning the AL home run crown, not to mention possibly eclipsing his career high of 44 (2015).
Ronald Acuña Jr. — OF, Braves
2019 total: 41 / ‘20 total: 14
Over the past three seasons, Acuña has homered, on average, once every 15.1 at-bats. Only four NL players homered more often during that span — Max Muncy (every 13.2 at-bats), Cody Bellinger (every 14.7 at-bats), Eugenio Suárez (every 14.8 at-bats) and Kyle Schwarber (every 15.0 at-bats).
Those four are all good options themselves, but all had rough seasons at the plate in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. And everything seems to be coming together at the right time for Acuña to top the home run leaderboard: he’ll be hitting in front of reigning NL MVP Freddie Freeman (can’t get much better lineup protection than that) and unlike many other sluggers, Acuña hits leadoff and therefore is likely to see more at-bats than they will.
Juan Soto — OF, Nationals
2019 total: 34 / ‘20 total: 13
There’s no limit to how great Soto can be, because he’s only gotten better in each of his three big league seasons. The lefty hitting phenom is coming off a ridiculous slash line of .351/.490/.695 — for an MLB-best 1.185 OPS — with 13 home runs in 47 games. And he’s, uh, still just 22 years old.
Soto’s average exit velocity has climbed each year, to a career-high 92.1 mph in 2020; and his hard-hit rate has done the same, to a career-best 51.6 percent last year. Both of those marks were in the top 20 among qualifiers. And because Soto is so selective — he walked 41 times compared to 28 strikeouts — he’s learning even more how to focus on pitches he can drive, as evidenced by his 18.3 percent rate of barrels per batted ball, which ranked No. 3 in MLB. In short, whatever he hits, he destroys.
If there’s one thing to be mindful of, it’s Soto’s average launch angle, which dipped to 4.3 degrees. If he gets back to his ’19 range (12.5 degrees) while hitting near the front of a revamped Nationals lineup now featuring Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber as protection, Soto should top his 34 long balls from two seasons ago.
Marcell Ozuna — OF, Braves
2019 total: 29 / ‘20 total: 18
Ozuna was so mighty last summer that the Braves decided to bring him back with no promise of a DH. And if he’s anywhere close to the bopper he was in 2020, Atlanta will live with his defense.
Ozuna seemed like a sort of sleeping giant in St. Louis, right where Cardinals fans thought he should be in terms of hard-hit rate and exit velocity but shy on outstanding results. Well, sometimes life isn’t fair — because Braves fans got to reap the benefits when the bill for all that hard contact finally came due. Serving as the lineup protector Freddie Freeman probably dreamt about for years, Ozuna finished ‘20 roughly within MLB’s top 5% in all the Statcast goodies you want from your potential home run leader: exit velocity, hard-hit rate, barrel rate and expected slugging.
Or, of course, you could go with the baseball card stats: Ozuna was last year’s NL dinger champ, and he entered the final weekend with a legitimate shot at the Triple Crown. Here’s two more goodies that sealed the deal on Ozuna for me: Statcast classified 81% of his 2020 homers as “no-doubters” (estimated to be a dinger at all 30 MLB ballparks) — which makes sense, given that Ozuna was far and away MLB’s king in average home run distance (there’s my AL pick, Hernández, in second place). There was nothing fraudulent about Ozuna’s 2020 homer crown, and I’m betting on him to repeat.
Cody Bellinger — CF, Dodgers
2019 total: 47 / ‘20 total: 12
You know the NL is loaded with sluggers when I was debating between Bellinger and Fernando Tatis Jr. with the No. 4 pick. I ultimately settled on Bellinger, who is primed for a bounceback season after posting a .789 OPS in the pandemic-altered 2020 season. Though his overall numbers (.239/.333/.455) paled in comparison to his ’19 MVP season (.305/.406/.629), a case can be made that those numbers may have leveled out over the course of a typical 162-game season. Along with showing superstar flashes in the postseason, Bellinger hit .284 with 10 home runs and a .960 OPS over his final 37 regular-season games. That’s a 43-homer pace over 162 games — not bad for a “down season.”
Those numbers weren’t just cosmetic either. Bellinger’s barrel rate in that span was 12.5 percent, close to the 13.0 percent he posted in 2019, when he hit .305 with 47 homers and a 1.035 OPS. While he may not be able to replicate those totals in ’21, Bellinger has proven over the course of his four-year career that he’s far closer to being that player than the one who struggled out of the game in ’20. In fact, since Bellinger made his MLB debut on April 25, 2017, no player has hit more homers in the NL than his 123 — and I expect him to pad his lead even further this season.
Fernando Tatis Jr. — SS, Padres
2019 total: 22 / ‘20 total: 17
Tatis Jr. almost led the Majors in homers in 2020, spending multiple days with at least a share of the lead. Ultimately, he didn’t, hitting just two homers over his final 17 games, but I’m expecting “first 42 games of 2020” Tatis to show up in a big way in ‘21. Through Sept. 6, Tatis’ 42nd game of the year, he was tied for the Major League lead in homers with Mike Trout, with 15 apiece. Over a 162-game season, that’s a 57-homer pace.
And the power he had throughout the season backed it up. In terms of Statcast stats that indicate crushing the ball — you name it, Tatis likely led the world in it in 2020. That includes his 95.9 mph average exit velocity, 62.2% hard-hit rate and 22.1% hard-hit per swing rate. Nobody had more than his 32 barrels. Of course, rate stats may return to more normal levels over a full season, but the underlying fact that he hit the ball very hard will remain.
Of course, there’s a historical piece worth noting here, too. Only two shortstops have led the Majors in homers: Alex Rodriguez (twice) and Ernie Banks (twice). But we’re in a golden age of shortstops right now, many of whom have offensive prowess, like Tatis. It seems likely we’ll have another name on the above list, soon, so why not Tatis, in Year 1 of 14 of his new contract?