Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

In this week’s hitting report, Michael Beller looks at the increasing importance of home runs in fantasy leagues.

By Michael Beller
April 19, 2016

Get all of Michael Beller’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.

Two weeks of games are in the books, which is similar to having 5% of precincts reporting in an election. Still, you get interesting returns that early while waiting for full election results, and we’ve already had some in the baseball world, as well. In last week’s hitting report, we discussed the league-wide home run binge, using Trevor Story as a conveyance for making the point. He has slowed down individually, but the league is still mashing homers at a prodigious rate.

Heading into play Monday, teams had hit 370 homers and scored 1,505 runs. Those 370 homers have produced 582 of this season’s runs, which translates to 38.7% of the total (I went through a listing of every homer this season to get that number. You do not want to do the same, trust me). That would be a record, breaking the one set just last year, which was the first season in which we saw nine players hit 40 homers since 2006. In other words, the high share of runs scored via the longball isn’t new. It’s the continuation of a trend that began last season.

Pitching report: Drew Smyly looks like a 2016 breakout candidate

This starts to get really interesting when you consider the overall run-scoring environment across the league. The season’s first two weeks played host to 360 games, during which there were 4.18 runs per game. Scoring in the modern era peaked at 5.14 runs per game in 2000 and has been between 4.07 and 4.86 ever since. There have been just two seasons since that high in 2000 during which there were fewer than 4.18 runs per game. Two years ago, the average MLB game had 4.07 runs, and the year before that scoring was at 4.17 runs per game. Going back to the beginning of divisional play in 1969, there have been just 10 seasons with fewer runs scored per game than what we’ve seen in the first two weeks of this campaign.

To recap, scoring is down from the late-90s and early-2000s, and is even down from where it was at the beginning of the decade. Home runs, however, have remained mostly flat, and homers are on pace to claim their greatest share of the runs-scored pie in MLB history. It would take some research to pin down why this is happening, though there are some obvious jumping-off points. Strikeouts are not the devil they once were, and teams are willing to trade contact for power and plate discipline. Specialization in the bullpen means we have more pitchers than ever capable of sitting in the high-90s. All that power on the mound translates to more homers when hitters are able to square up a pitch. No matter what’s driving the change, it will have a significant impact on fantasy leagues.

Picking the five players off to the best starts for their new teams

Power hitters have long been the most important offensive players in fantasy leagues. In the environment created in 2015 and 2016, that has only become stronger. If homers are a vehicle by which close to 40% of runs are crossing the plate, power hitters are doing even more damage in the other offensive categories, too, as a share of overall production. If two out of every five runs this year are scored on homers, but your team lacks pop, you’re going to struggle even more than usual in the RBI categories.

Last season, there were six players who finished in the top 20 in RBI who were outside the top 20 in home runs. They were Kendrys Morales, Matt Kemp, Kris Bryant, Prince Fielder, Andrew McCutchen and Buster Posey. Bryant, McCutchen and Posey are three of the best players in baseball, and Bryant just barely missed being in the top 20 in homers. Morales and Fielder were in great team contexts, with the Royals and Rangers finishing in the top seven in runs scored. Kemp is the only head-scratcher there, but he doesn’t disprove the rule. As the influence of homers vis-à-vis runs scored increases, the importance of the longball in fantasy leagues also increases.

Players to watch this week

Mike Trout, OF, Angels

No one is jumping off of a cliff after Trout’s slow start to the 2016 season. Still, it bears mentioning that Trout is just 10 for 43 with one home run and four RBI. He’s hitting .233/.333/.372 through his first 51 plate appearances, which seems impossible for a player of Trout’s caliber. If this happened over a two-week stretch in the middle of the season, it’s likely we would hardly notice. Since it’s the first two weeks of the year, though, Trout’s very un-Troutian numbers stick out like a sore thumb. The Angels have six more games this week, three more against the White Sox in Chicago before returning home for a weekend set with the Mariners. That Trout has struggled for two full weeks is bad news for those two teams.

VERDUCCI: Why the new MLB slide rule is here to stay

Dexter Fowler, OF, Cubs

Fowler’s likely pretty happy that he spurned the Orioles to re-sign with the Cubs in February. Not only is he on one of the best teams in baseball, he’s off to the best start of his career since becoming a regular in 2009. Fowler is 15 for 40 with two homers, three doubles, one triple and nine walks against 11 strikeouts, translating to a .375/.510/.650 slash line. He has scored nine runs and driven in nine of his own, while starting all but one game thus far. Fowler’s offensive talents were always a perfect fit with this Cubs team, and he’s enjoying the fruits of being the regular leadoff man for one of the most potent lineups in the league. Fowler likely won’t sit in any games against the Cardinals and Reds this week.

Delino DeShields, OF, Rangers

When the Rangers promoted Nomar Mazara after Shin-soo Choo went to the DL, DeShields’ fantasy owners likely got a bit nervous. Conventional wisdom held that if Mazara swung the bat well, DeShields could be in trouble when Choo returned. Jeff Bannister might have to rethink that original calculus. DeShields is one of the hottest hitters in baseball over the last week, going 11 for 22 with a homer and two doubles in his last five games. The lingering issue, however, is his swing-and-miss tendency. DeShields has struck out at least once in all but two games this season, racking up 16 whiffs in 50 plate appearances. That could force him out of the lineup, unless the results when he puts the ball in play are overwhelmingly strong. The Rangers don’t have any matchups this week with extreme strikeout pitchers, though they do have a tough string against Dallas Keuchel, Jose Quintana and Carlos Rodon Thursday through Saturday.

JAFFE: Stumbling out of the gate: Players off to worst starts for new teams

Colby Rasmus, OF, Astros

Houston will face Derek Holland and Cole Hamels in its first two games this week. Both of them are left-handed starters, which could mean Rasmus is out of the starting lineup until Thursday. Rasmus has just one plate appearance against a lefty this season, and that resulted in an out. A.J. Hinch might actually be doing his team a disservice by sitting Rasmus against lefties. While the 29-year-old has struggled against southpaws in his career, he was surprisingly quite good against them last season. Rasmus had 140 plate appearances against lefties last year, slashing .252/.364/.471 with seven homers and five doubles. The Astros have been good as a team with lefties on the mound this year, posting a .379 wOBA in 40 plate appearances, but Rasmus has been one of their best individual hitters during the first two weeks. It would be nice to see him get at least one start against a lefty this week.

Miguel Sano, 3B/OF, Twins

It’s officially time to worry about Sano. The 23-year-old was expected to place himself alongside the great, young players in the league this season, especially after he was right there in half a year as a rookie in 2015. Instead, he’s just 7 for 39 with 17 strikeouts in 46 plate appearances. That’s a strikeout rate of 36.9%, which is similar to the frequency that got Joc Pederson benched in Los Angeles last year, despite the fact that he had the most raw power in the Dodgers’ lineup. It really doesn’t matter how much power you have if you’re striking out in two out of every five trips to the plate. Sano needs to figure out how to start making more consistent contact. Then he can worry about showing what he can do in the power department. The Twins play every day this week with just one intimidating matchup looming in the form of Stephen Strasburg on Sunday.

Prospect Watch

Trea Turner, SS/2B, Nationals

Danny Espinosa is playing shortstop mostly every day for the Nationals. Danny Espinosa is hitting .161/.289/.194. Danny Espinosa isn’t likely to have his starting gig for much longer. In his place will be Turner, the No. 9 prospect according to MLB.com. The 22-year-old is already doing work at Triple-A Syracuse, slashing .424/.525/.606 in nine games. He’s 14 for 33 with a homer, three doubles and five RBI. He has walked seven times against six strikeouts, and has swiped four bags without being caught once.

The eye-popping stats behind Noah Syndergaard’s dominant start

Turner can’t match Espinosa’s glove, but he’s certainly good enough giving the gulf between the two at the plate. Turner logged 44 plate appearances with the Nationals last season, going just 9 for 40 with 12 strikeouts. We can excuse that for anyone making his debut at 21 years old, but especially for someone who immediately went back to raking when he returned to the minors. Turner will be immediately relevant in fantasy leagues when he gets the call to the majors, and is worth adding in stashing in leagues where that is doable.

GIF of the Week

Yasiel Puig is one of the guys who regularly makes baseball fun. At the plate, in the field and on the basepaths, Puig has fun playing the game, and makes it more enjoyable for those of us who watch. The latter of those three came into play as he legged out a hustle double against the Diamondbacks last week.

That’s one impressive slide.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)