Last year, the Yankees hit 241 homers. It was the highest mark in baseball in 2017, and it was one of the 16 highest totals in the history of the game. Perhaps most importantly, it was done entirely without National League Most Valuable Player Award winner Giancarlo Stanton, who hit 59 homers for Miami last year and will be a big part of the Yanks' lineup in 2018.
The next question, then, is inevitable: Can the 2018 Yankees potentially break the all-time home run record? For nearly two decades, that mark has been 264, set by the 1997 Seattle Mariners of Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner.
Another way of saying that is asking if the Stanton-fueled Yankees can go deep 24 additional times over what they did last year, and the answer is sure, of course they can. But will they?
As usual, it's more complicated than it looks. You can't simply take the 59 homers that Stanton hit and add them to last year's 241 to get to 300, because Stanton will be taking away plate appearances that went to Matthew Holliday or Chase Headley or someone else, and they contributed some dingers of their own. You can't simply assume that every member of the 2018 Yanks will repeat exactly what they did in '17, because that's just not how it works.
To answer that, we turn to the projection systems. Two of them, actually, because Steamer and ZiPS, probably the two most respected public projections around, have each put out 2018 Yankees projections. It's important to note here that projections are not predictions; no one can foresee with absolute certainty unexpected breakouts or out of nowhere injuries. What they do is to take into account a player's age and history, and attempt to express a likely path forward.
For the most part, the projections are similar. Steamer sees 15 homers for Brett Gardner, for example, and so does ZiPS. But they're not identical, and there's some differences in playing time expectations between the two, so what we've done is to take the expected home runs per plate appearances number from each, average it, and give each player a total projected number based on the playing time expectations of the FanGraphs depth charts.
The record, as we said, is 264. The projected number by this method: 250. That puts the mark well within reach.
Let's quick-hit some takeaways from this ...
• A projection of 250 team home runs is phenomenal, as that would be the sixth-highest total in Major League history. Remember, the very nature of projections is to be conservative, to output the "most likely" outcome -- not the extreme outcome. What this is saying is that the projections aren't suggesting 250 if everything goes right, they're saying that one of the six highest home run totals of all time is a perfectly legitimate real-world expectation.
• A projection of "only" 40 homers for Aaron Judge may seem low, given the 52 he crushed in 2017. If this feels light, that's because it's supposed to be, given Judge's lack of track record -- remember, it took him three Minor League seasons to pile up 56 home runs. It was less than a year ago that the Yankees broke camp with right field being an open competition between Judge and Aaron Hicks. There's at least some uncertainty here.
• Similarly, a projection of 30 homers for Gary Sanchez might seem a bit conservative because he hit 33 last year while playing in just 122 games. And that's kind of the issue: Catchers face a lot more risk of injury relative to other positions, and that 30-homer projection builds in the wide array of playing time possibilities that come with donning the tools of ignorance.
• The biggest wild card here is Greg Bird, who missed all of 2016 and most of '17 due to injuries, and hit all of .190/.288/.422 with nine homers in '17. In 348 career plate appearances, he does have 20 homers, and he was very good both in '15 (.261/.343/.529) and after returning from surgery in late August last year (.253/.316/.575, plus three playoff homers). If Bird stays healthy, the power is real. If not … that's how nine players started at first base in 2017, including Rob Refsnyder, Garrett Cooper and Ji-Man Choi.
• Despite a move from Marlins Park to Yankee Stadium, the new ballpark isn't likely to significantly boost Stanton's home run output by itself, and it may not actually change it at all:
That's not to say the ballpark isn't a factor, of course. Yankee Stadium is one of the most homer-friendly parks in baseball, and Judge's home/road splits were particularly wild, as he smashed 33 homers in the Bronx (.312/.440/.725) as opposed to 19 on the road (.256/.404/.531). Only Houston, Cincinnati and Colorado saw more home runs leave the park on batted balls with a Hit Probability below 20 percent than Yankee Stadium did.
There's one other thing to keep in mind, of course. As things stand, the Yanks don't really have reliable everyday options at second base (having traded Starlin Castro to Miami for Stanton) or third base (with Headley traded to San Diego and Todd Frazier a free agent).
Right now, those two spots are slated to be manned by various combinations of prospects Miguel Andjuar, Gleyber Torres and Tyler Wade, along with last year's primary backup infielder, Ronald Torreyes. That group is projected to hit 29 home runs in 1,470 plate appearances, a conservative estimate that makes sense. Of the four of them, only Andjuar has hit double-digit home runs in a professional season, and his high was just 12, at two levels of the Minors in 2016.
It's possible that nothing changes, that those four handle the two spots all year. But it's also easy to see how quickly that home run rate could change, because 29 home runs in 1,470 plate appearances is one home run every 51 times to the plate. Compare that to Frazier, who hit 27 homers in 576 plate appearances (once every 21 times up), or fellow free agents Mike Moustakas (a homer every 16 times up) or Neil Walker (a homer every 32 times up).
We're not even considering pie-in-the-sky trade possibilities like Manny Machado or Josh Donaldson here. We're simply talking about reasonable free-agent possibilities, should the Yankees choose to go that way. It wouldn't be difficult at all to up the expected power output from those two infield spots.
But the fact that they haven't done so and are still projected to challenge the all-time record, is really the takeaway. This is a Yankees lineup with some obvious holes, and yet the possibility of being baseball's all-time power champs remains. It tells you a lot about just how much power this group has.