At the end of play Sunday night, every team in baseball had finished its first two series of the year, and finally, after months of being told that Spring Training stats are meaningless and we have to wait for the regular season for numbers that matter, we have … a week's worth of baseball, which is still nowhere near enough time to say much, one way or another, about how the season will play out.
They are some of the most notable games of the year, however. Fan interest is high enough at the return of baseball that many will be watching teams they usually don't, both across opening week and over the next few days, before the steady grind of baseball forces many back to following their usual one or two clubs. That means much higher than normal focus, then, on the guys doing the most celebrated single act in baseball: hitting home runs.
Every year there's always a few guys who get off to really hot starts with the long ball. By the end of last April Matt Kemp, who was absolutely on fire to begin the 2012 season, led the league with 12, followed by Josh Hamilton's nine and eight apiece from Edwin Encarnacion and Curtis Granderson. Right now, the league lead is a tie between Atlanta's Justin Upton and Michael Morse of Seattle, both with five, followed by Chris Davis (BAL), Mark Reynolds (CLE), Will Middlebrooks (BOS) and Dexter Fowler (COL) all tied with four. It might therefore seem that MLB would be on pace to have more dingers this April than last, but that's not necessarily the case. There were 638 homeruns in March/April last year, and going into Sunday's action, even with the torrid start of a few guys near the top, baseball had only slugged 123 (of course, the 34 hit through Sunday's action, even before the night game between LAA/TEX got started, bumps that number up a tad).
Keep in mind as well the long layoff last season between the opening series between the Athletics and Mariners in Japan and the actual start of play for most teams: Whereas teams are already finishing up their second series this spring, on April 7th of last year most clubs were playing their third or fourth game of the season.
What does all this mean? Unlike spring training, it doesn't precisely mean nothing -- hitters are facing full MLB competition, despite the extremely small sample size. And Matt Kemp, Josh Hamilton, Curtis Granderson and Edwin Encarnacion all turned in seasons ranging from good to great at the plate last year, especially as far as home runs were concerned; except for Kemp, who missed sixty games due to injury in the middle of the season, all three of those guys were in the top four for home runs league wide last season (Miguel Cabrera finished first, of course).
So: who of the current home run leaders might see their success continue not just through the end of the month, but the end of the year?
Not to take anything away from the guy, but the first player we can probably cross off the list is Dexter Fowler. Not only is his season-high HR total 13 playing a full season at Coors, but so far the Rockies have gotten to tee off against a pair of pretty woeful pitching staffs in the Brewers and Padres. Fowler might have progressed enough in the power portion of his game to hit 20 home runs -- again, he plays at Coors -- but unless something truly wacky happens he'll be out of this conversation by June.
Mike Morse, surprisingly, would be my next cut. Morse will probably never have another 30 home run season like he did in Washington in 2011, and especially not at Safeco Field, no matter what they do with those fences. He'll still probably be the best everyday player in that team's lineup, maybe challenged by Michael Saunders depending on how well the two of them handle the field, but despite his impressive start to the season I see him finishing with between 25 and 30 dingers. That's nothing to spit at in this era of offense -- he only hit 18 last year and was a more than serviceable player for the Nationals.
After that, cross Will Middlebrooks off the list. Again, I think Middlebrooks will have a good year for dingers, but I don't think he'll be a league leader by the end of the campaign -- and of his current four, three came Sunday against a Blue Jays team that ran R.A. Dickey out there with an 80 mile per hour fastball instead of a knuckler. He doesn't have the crazy power potential that Mark Reynolds has, and I don't think Reynolds will end up there either. Reynolds could bounce back to hit 37 or so again, but his very questionable contact skills limit the damage his otherworldly power would do to opposing teams, and he too is the beneficiary of a multi-home run game early in the year off of David Price (impressive) and Kyle Farnsworth (a bit less so).
That leaves Chris Davis, who I think could be at the same place on this list as Edwin Encarnacion was last year. They're completely different hitters: Encarnacion is a right handed pull slugger who likes to leave the park to left field; Chris Davis is a lefty who can and will homer to any field at any time. In terms of pure power, Davis is one of the strongest in the league, challenged only by guys like Fielder, Miguel Cabrera and the aforementioned Mark Reynolds. Like Reynolds, Davis has little idea how to control it. Unlike Reynolds, however, Davis is able to make contact like a major league hitter. He just has poor pitch selection. The ball he took out of the park for his grand slam on Friday, for instance, was a slider tailing out towards the right hand batter's box away from him, and if just about any other hitter in the league connects with that pitch, it's a lazy flyball to left. But this was Chris Davis, so instead it landed a couple rows deep in the left field stands.
That's what separates Davis from the other guys on this list. He's both young enough, and has the correct raw tools, to be one of the league's top home run hitters. The only other guy like that on the current leaderboard is Justin Upton -- and not so coincidentally, Upton is the one guy whose hot start I think will keep him at the top of the list through the end of the year. I don't necessarily think Upton's going to hit the most home runs in baseball (it's incredibly hard to predict that at this point anyway), but he's clearly healthy, in a much better situation in Atlanta than he was in Arizona, is only 25 years old and has the potential to be one of the game's elite players. I think he makes good on that -- for a second time, because people are so quick to forget about his 2011 -- and finishes top five in the league.
It's only the second week of the season. There are still a bunch of guys who are either homerless or have only ("only") hit a couple who could finish up near the top, including but not limited to Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Bryce Harper, Ryan Braun, Albert Pujols and Giancarlo Stanton. For the time being, however, fans from Baltimore to Seattle are enjoying the hot starts for their power hitters, and in Atlanta at least, have a lot to look forward to the rest of the year.