For years, home runs have been the face of baseball. Sluggers like Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., and Alex Rodriguez revitalized interest in the league during the 1990s and 2000s, and today some of the most popular players are power hitters. While everyone remembers those who hit 40 home runs every season, it seemed like the contact hitters were left in the dust. The fact is, home runs are ‘sexy,’ and singles aren’t. But times are changing in baseball. Not only is power becoming rare, but pure sluggers are getting fazed out of the league. These days, pure power has lost its value.
This trend was exemplified on Wednesday, when ex-Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Pedro Alvarez and ex-Houston Astros first baseman Chris Carter were non-tendered by their former teams. Alvarez has averaged 28 home runs a season since breaking into the majors and Carter has averaged 30, but they were let go despite reasonable salaries. In this era of baseball, with pitchers consistently dominating, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Carter/Alvarez type coveted, but now they are free agents. Poor on-base skills and defense led to both players being non-tendered. The league has a new mold of ideal hitters, and neither player, nor any power-only hitter, fits it.
Now, it’s not that Major League Baseball has developed a phobia of home runs. Home runs are still an essential part of the game, and many of the top teams in the league hit the most home runs. But teams are recognizing that home runs aren’t everything. A decade or two ago, the best players seemingly had to hit home runs. The 2001 season was a banner year for home runs, mainly because Barry Bonds slugged 73 that season. Among the top 45 leaders in WAR that year, just one player, Ichiro Suzuki, hit fewer than 20 home runs. Skipping ahead to 2015, twenty players in the top 45 had fewer than 20 bombs. Sure, the power production of the 2000s was obviously fueled by performance-enhancing drugs, and it’s unlikely that hitters will ever approach those home run numbers again. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be just as valuable. In 2001, exactly 30 players earned at least 5.0 WAR, while in 2015, 34 players hit that bench mark. The league’s hitters have shifted to other venues outside of power to be productive, and that is hurting the long ball.
In the past, the sentiment around the league was that home runs outweigh everything else, allowing players who sold out for power to have consistent starting jobs. Now, though, teams are aware that there are other ways to gain equal value from position players without home runs. More and more players, like A.J. Pollock, Lorenzo Cain, and Jason Heyward, are popping up: players who feature elite defense, a strong bat, speed, and some pop. Players with almost no power, such as Dee Gordon, Ender Inciarte, and Ben Revere, are also ranking surprisingly high on the WAR leaderboard thanks to a well-rounded profile. They don’t need home runs to be great players.
Another factor that may be devaluing power is the solo home run. The offensive environment now features lower on-base percentages, and as a result, more solo home runs. While solo home runs aren’t exactly a bad thing, nearly 60 percent of home runs are solo shots. This means that the majority of home runs are accounting for just one run, and the impact of a home run isn’t as high as expected.
Some players who fit the power-only profile are Lucas Duda, Evan Gattis, Jay Bruce, and Marlon Byrd. These players bring low on-base percentages and average (at best) gloves to the table. It will be interesting to see how their careers play out, and how much they end up fetching on the open market. They could end up being signed for contracts lower than one might expect for a power hitter of their caliber. This could also be the case for Alvarez and Carter.
It may be that teams are realizing that other facets of the game, such as defense, on-base percentage, and base running outweigh home runs, or that well-rounded, but less flashy, players are simply more valuable than sluggers. Either way, one of the most recognized parts of baseball, the home run, is no longer as popular of a commodity, and it could result in shifts in the evaluation of players and the way the game is played.