Could one of these 3 darkhorse candidates lead MLB in home runs this season?
Did anyone expect Nolan Arenado to tie for the NL lead with 42 home runs in 2015 -- even with Coors Field's helpful aid -- after hitting only 28 in his first two seasons combined? And who can forget that when Jose Bautista exploded for 54 dingers in 2010 after posting a previous career high of 16? <o:p>
Power is such a coveted commodity these days that it's hard for a surprise candidate to climb to the top of the home run leaderboard. So, while we fully expect to see Giancarlo Stanton, Nelson Cruz and Bryce Harper leading the class again this year, who are three breakthrough candidates who just might be able to pull an Arenado in 2016:<o:p>
A top prospect since being signed out of the Dominican Republic at the age of 16, Sano's calling card has been the immense power he can generate from his 6-foot-4, 260 pound frame. Combining that with an above-average eye, Sano has terrorized the Minors, topping 20 home runs every year since 2011 (when he accomplished that feat in just 66 games.)
After missing the entire 2014 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, you could forgive Sano if he needed some time to get his swing back. After all, I sprained my ankle in sixth grade and am still using it as an excuse for my mile time. Instead, at the age of 22 last year, Sano crushed 34 home runs between Double-A and the Majors, with 18 of them coming in his 80-game big league debut.
Sano's HR/FB rate was 26.5 percent -- the sixth-highest in baseball -- but also a rate that is relatively sustainable for a leading home run hitter. Plus, he had the third-highest average exit velocity and fifth-highest average distance on all batted balls according to Statcast™.
Basically, he did a lot of things that looked like this:
Sano will also strike out in abundance, but part of that trend comes from his comfort in going deep into counts. Sano hit seven home runs with a full count, tying him for the league lead with Chris Davis and Justin Upton -- two players who had a full season of at-bats. So if Sano doesn't lead the league in homers, he may just lead it in walks.
No, I don't mean the other Chris Davis. After hitting 22 home runs with 37 doubles in his first full Major League season in 2014, the Brewers left fielder saw his slugging percentage rise nearly 50 points as he hammered out 27 home runs last year. While that's a totally respectable total, it isn't the kind of thing that wins you home-run crowns.
What's important to note is that Davis hit 20 of those home runs in August and September, 10 coming in each month.
A big reason for the difference: Davis was crushing breaking balls. While his batted ball velocity improved across the board, he saw a big boost against those whirling, dipping pitches. He hit seven home runs off of sliders and curves in 2015, compared to just three in 2014. Keep that pace over a full season and he'll be walking away with the home run title.
Take a look at the Statcast leaderboard, and Grichuk's name keeps popping up: His average distance on all hit balls was just below Kris Bryant's and just above Mike Trout's. His average generated velocity ranked second only to Giancarlo Stanton. Only six players generated a higher average exit velocity.
While Grichuk's place on the list may sound surprising -- given that Grichuk hit only 17 home runs last year and was never listed among the top 100 prospects -- this was a first-round Draft pick with plenty of power potential. As former scout Bernie Pleskoff wrote before the outfielder's Major League debut in 2014:
"Grichuk's best tool is his raw power. He has the ability to clobber fastballs. In fact, Grichuk is very selective at the plate and isn't afraid to wait for a pitch he can drive, passing on sliders out of his comfort zone."
Another point in Grichuk's favor is that, while he's one of baseball's most pull-happy batters, he also has plenty of power to the opposite field when he does go in that direction.
Grichuk also has the ability to play all three outfield positions, so with the departures of Jason Heyward and Peter Bourjos, barring a major move, there should be a full-time spot in the outfield next season. If he can keep crushing the baseball like he did last season, don't be surprised if his name is at the top of a much more common leaderboard next year.