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These are MLB's most improved sluggers in '18

MLB.com @_dadler

The 2018 MLB offensive leaderboards are loaded with big bats who were among baseball's most dangerous last year, too -- Mike Trout, J.D. Martinez, Jose Ramirez, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Khris Davis, Nelson Cruz and so on. But there's also a full slate of breakout sluggers.

Some of the top MVP Award candidates in both leagues were not in the same conversation in 2017. But thanks to major power surges, they've forced themselves into that debate now -- either by returning to the elite level of a past season, or making the leap from good to great.

The 2018 MLB offensive leaderboards are loaded with big bats who were among baseball's most dangerous last year, too -- Mike Trout, J.D. Martinez, Jose Ramirez, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Khris Davis, Nelson Cruz and so on. But there's also a full slate of breakout sluggers.

Some of the top MVP Award candidates in both leagues were not in the same conversation in 2017. But thanks to major power surges, they've forced themselves into that debate now -- either by returning to the elite level of a past season, or making the leap from good to great.

There are other power surgers, too, beyond the MVP Award candidates. Some have flipped the script after a down year. Others are simply breaking out -- and they're some of the most interesting names.

Here are 13 of Major League Baseball's most improved sluggers in 2018, based on increases in slugging percentage from last season to this season, and how they've done it.

THE MVP AWARD CANDIDATES

Mookie Betts: +168 points of slugging from 2017 to '18
2017 SLG: .459 | 2018 SLG: .627
Betts might be the American League MVP Award front-runner, even with teammate Martinez chasing a Triple Crown. That's because Betts has been a superstar for the Red Sox in every phase of the game. He's tapped into his power like never before -- his .627 slugging percentage is a career high by nearly 100 points over his AL MVP Award runner-up season in 2016 (.534), and the difference between now and last year is even more dramatic. In fact, Betts' 168-point increase is the largest of any qualifying hitter from 2017 to '18. How has he done it? By adjusting his hitting approach to drive the ball to left field. Betts' slugging percentage when he pulls the ball is 1.117 this season, second highest in the Majors behind only Trout's 1.136.

Christian Yelich: +111 points
2017 SLG: .439 | 2018 SLG: .550
Yelich has always hit the ball hard. But in prior seasons, his power production was limited by his heavy ground ball tendencies. This season, though, Yeli is hitting it hard and in the air, and his slugging percentage has shot up. In his first year with the Brewers, Yelich has set a new career high with 28 home runs, and his .550 slugging percentage is also his best. His rate of hard-hit line drives and fly balls -- the type that become homers and extra-base hits -- is at the highest level it's been since Statcast™ began tracking in 2015, while his ground-ball rate has steadily dropped to the lowest in any season of his career.

Video: Must C Cycle: Yelich becomes 8th Brewer to notch feat

Tweet from @_dadler: Christian Yelich's rate of hard-hit LD+FB by year since Statcast™'s intro2015: 21.1% (.416 SLG)2016: 25.4% (.483 SLG)2017: 23.9% (.439 SLG)2018: 27.5% (.550 SLG, career high)Meanwhile, his GB rate: 📉 pic.twitter.com/9T0Q5rO0H6

Matt Carpenter: +102 points
2017 SLG: .451 | 2018 SLG: .553
Carpenter's ice-cold start to the season is a distant memory. His home run barrage through the summer vaulted him into the NL MVP Award conversation. Since May 16, the day his turnaround began, Carpenter has been making hard contact as often as anybody. His 42 barrels since then -- those are batted balls with ideal combinations of exit velocity and launch angle, the type of hits that do real damage -- are third most in the Majors, behind only Davis and Goldschmidt. Carp's most torrid stretch: the 74-game span from May 21 through Aug. 13, when he belted 30 homers and 51 extra-base hits.

Video: Carpenter's historic 3-HR, 2-double game lifts Cards

Trevor Story: +102 points
2017 SLG: .457 | 2018 SLG: .559
Arenado isn't the only NL MVP Award candidate in Colorado. Story has joined him thanks to huge power numbers -- Story has 33 home runs (the most by a Rockies shortstop) and a league-leading 78 extra-base hits. He's the first shortstop in MLB history with 30 homers, 40 doubles and 25 stolen bases in a season. And Story has hit some monster shots. His 505-foot homer at Coors Field on Sept. 5 set the Statcast™ record, and his five homers of 450-plus feet this season are the most of any hitter.

Longest home runs in MLB from 2015-present
1. Trevor Story: 505 feet (Sept. 5, 2018)
2. Giancarlo Stanton: 504 feet (Aug. 6, 2016)
3. (tie) Aaron Judge: 495 feet (June 11, 2017)
3. (tie) Kris Bryant: 495 feet (Sept. 6, 2015)
5. (tie) Gary Sanchez: 493 feet (Aug. 22, 2017)
5. (tie) Nelson Cruz: 493 feet (Sept. 24, 2016)
5. (tie) Michael A. Taylor: 493 feet (Aug. 20, 2015)

Video: SF@COL: Story rips 2nd of 3 HRs a historic 505 feet

Javier Baez: +88 points
2017: .480 SLG | 2018 SLG: .568
El Mago might be the most electric player in the game, whether it's in the field, on the bases or at the plate. This season, not only has Baez been incredibly exciting to watch, he's also filling up the stat sheet. His aggressive approach at the plate -- he's swung at nearly 60 percent of the pitches he's seen, the third-highest rate in baseball -- has paid off big-time. Baez has 31 homers and 77 extra-base hits, and he sits atop the NL's RBI leaderboard with 103 driven in.

Video: CIN@CHC: Javy Baez crushes a 481-ft. monster home run

Alex Bregman: +81 points
2017 SLG: .475 | 2018 SLG: .556
Bregman was a key piece of the Astros' 2017 World Series championship team, and a year later, he's become one of the league's best players, plain and simple. Bregman has 81 extra-base hits, the most of any player in the Majors, including 30 home runs. Bregman's 145 hard-hit line drives and fly balls are the most of any AL hitter this season, and one behind Carpenter for the Major League lead.

Video: Must C Clutch: Bregman's first career walk-off homer

OTHER BIG RISERS

Stephen Piscotty: +123 points
2017 SLG: .367 | 2018 SLG: .490
Piscotty's bounceback year has made him an important part of an A's team that's in position for an AL Wild Card slot and is even challenging the Astros for the AL West title. In his first year in Oakland, Piscotty ranks third on the heavy-hitting A's with 24 homers, behind Davis and Matt Olson. Only Betts has had a larger increase in slugging percentage from 2017 to '18 than Piscotty. Piscotty's 123 wRC+ -- an overall metric for offensive performance, where 100 is the league average -- is his highest since his breakout rookie effort with the Cardinals in 2015. But this production has come over a full season.

Xander Bogaerts: +121 points
2017 SLG: .403 | 2018 SLG: .524
Betts isn't the only Red Sox player with a big power increase. Bogaerts is having a career year offensively, even compared to his two Silver Slugger Award seasons in 2015 and '16. He's equaled his career high with 21 home runs, but his slugging is over .500 for the first time thanks to his 41 doubles. Manny Machado is the only shortstop with a higher wRC+ than Bogaerts' 134.

Gregory Polanco: +108 points
2017 SLG: .391 | 2018 SLG: .499
Polanco's season was unfortunately cut short when he dislocated his left shoulder while sliding into second base on Sept. 7. But if he can recover and return to the level he was playing at prior to his injury, the Pirates will have a valuable slugger in their outfield in 2019. Polanco was Pittsburgh's best hitter this year, his 23 home runs and .499 slugging percentage both tops on the team, as well as personal bests.

Eugenio Suarez: +84 points
2017 SLG: .461 | 2018 SLG: .545
With Joey Votto dealing with injuries and a power dropoff this season, the biggest force in the Reds' lineup has been Suarez. The first-time All-Star has shattered his previous bests in essentially every offensive category. Votto's 32 home runs are six more than he hit all of last season (his previous high), and his 101 RBIs rank third in the NL, just barely behind Baez and Story. Suarez's 141 wRC+ leads the Reds, ahead of both Scooter Gennett (132) and Votto (131).

Manny Machado: +74 points
2017 SLG: .471 | 2018 SLG: .545
Machado hasn't been quite as dominant since his trade to the Dodgers as he was with the Orioles earlier in the season, but he's still having a big, big year. He's now exceeded his home run total from last season, with 34, and his .545 slugging percentage is currently the highest of his career. Machado has been the best offensive shortstop in baseball by wRC+, with a 144 mark. He leads the Major Leagues in hard-hit balls, with 230, well ahead of the second-place Martinez.

Most hard-hit balls in 2018
Hard-hit: 95-plus mph exit velocity
1. Manny Machado: 230
2. J.D. Martinez: 209
3. Nick Markakis: 206
4. Mookie Betts: 204
5. Matt Olson: 202

Video: LAD@STL: Machado muscles a solo home run, his 34th

David Peralta: +74 points
2017 SLG: .444 | 2018 SLG: .518
Goldschmidt is once again in the NL MVP Award debate, but Peralta has been the D-backs' next-best hitter as they try to fight their way back into the playoffs. Peralta has set a career high with 27 homers, and he's done a ton of damage against breaking and offspeed pitches, which are often pitchers' toughest offerings. Peralta has slugged .600 against breaking and offspeed pitches (curveballs, sliders, changeups, splitters and the like), the highest of any regular MLB hitter. His .324 batting average against those pitch types is tied for second best, trailing only Jose Altuve's .337.

Nick Markakis: +72 points
2017 SLG: .384 | 2018 SLG: .457
Markakis making his first All-Star team after 13 seasons in the big leagues was no fluke. The 34-year-old veteran has been a rock for a Braves club that has seized control of the NL East with its mix of established veterans and hotshot young stars. Markakis' 174 hits lead the NL, and his 40 doubles are tied with Carpenter and Story atop the NL leaderboard. And he's ripping them -- Markakis' 206 hard-hit balls are most of any NL hitter, and third most in the Majors.

David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.