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Can the Yankees break the 1997 Mariners’ home run record?

 

264. That’s how many homers the Seattle Mariners crushed over the course of the 1997 season. The team, headlined by season MVP Ken Griffey Jr. and fellow all stars Edgar Martinez, and 21-year-old Alex Rodriguez set the single season home run record that has stood for the past 20 years. Though several teams have come close, including the 2005 Texas Rangers who came within four homers of history, no team yet has been able to surpass their remarkable achievement.

However, this Yankee team looks to pose a genuine threat to the ’97 Mariners team’s longstanding mark. The Bombers have already crushed a league-leading 39 homers through their first 24 games of the season. They’ve been led by their blossoming star SS Didi Gregorius, whose nine home runs trail only perennial MVP candidate Mike Trout for the league lead. Aaron Judge has proved that his rookie campaign was no fluke with his .337/.482/.640 slashline and seven more dingers. Despite his slow start, Gary Sanchez has already cracked six, punctuated by his walk off blast in Thursday’s contest. Even Giancarlo Stanton has knocked five over the wall as he battles through early season struggles.

So, can this iteration of the New York Yankees really be the team to breakthrough? Let’s take a look at current pace, projections, and breakdown of home runs by player to examine their chances at achieving this feat.

The Pace

Some simple arithmetic tells us that 264 home runs over the course of 162 games comes out to 1.63 HR/G. With the Yankees already sitting at 39 through their first 24 games, the Yankees just trail that mark with a current pace of 1.625 HR/G.

But wait! Digging a little deeper paints a more encouraging picture. The early portion of the season is notoriously home run dry, with still cold temperatures and early season adjustments dragging down the average number of home runs hit in the league. In 2017, only 860 home runs were hit across the league in the months of March and April. The average number of home runs per month throughout the rest of the year was a whopping 1,048 with no significant difference in the number of games played per month.

Indeed, the ’97 Mariners only hit 31 home runs through the first 24 games of their season, good for just 1.29 HR/G. In this light, the pace the Yankees are currently on suggests they’ve already jumped out to a lead over the record setting team.

One other factor working in the Yankees favor is the total numbers of home runs being hit across the league now versus back in 1997. Much has been made of the potential of so-called “juiced balls” being used in the league in recent years. Regardless of whether or not that’s true, there’s no denying that the league is experiencing a power surge right now unmatched by even the Steroid Era. A remarkable 6,105 home runs were hit in the Majors last season, the most in history. Just 4,640 were hit in 1997. In other words, there’s been a 32% spike in total home runs between the record setting season and last year. Regardless of the underlying factors, the conditions seem to be ripe in baseball for the Yankees to attack this record.

The Projections

Each of the projection systems paints a rosy picture for the Yankees’ power potential this season. The updated version of Fangraphs’ ZiPS projections sees the Yankees as a 295 home run team over the course of 2018. Obviously, that would smash the existing record with significant room for error. The projections see Didi, Judge, Sanchez, and Stanton all surpassing 30 home runs, with Judge getting 44 and Stanton passing 50. Beyond that, eight other Yanks are expected by ZiPS to reach double figures.

Steamer, another Fangraphs system, is a lot less optimistic about the Yankees power production. While they still project the team for an impressive 249 homers on the year, each player’s predicted total is significantly more reserved. Though this number would still put them in the top 5 best single season home run performances, it would not get them particularly close to breaking the record.

PECOTA, Baseball Prospectus’ highly touted predictive tool, is equally bearish on the Yanks. They project a nearly identical 248 home runs over the course of the 2018 season for the Bombers. The most significant difference with PECOTA is the “just” 39 home runs projected for Giancarlo Stanton. While Steamer has him in the mid-40s and ZiPS has him crossing the 50 HR mark for the second consecutive season, BP is much less optimistic. Again, it is important to remember that the seemingly pessimistic 248 homer mark would still go down as one of the best power displays in history. Clearly, the projection systems believe this Yankee team is at least within range of striking down the record.

The Breakdown

Perhaps most tellingly, let’s take a glance at how the 1997 Mariners home run total was broken down in terms of player production. Leading the pack by a mile was the transcendent Ken Griffey Jr. who bashed 56 big flies (and 147 RBIs!!) in the record-setting season. He was followed by veterans Jay Buhner and Paul Sorrento who hit 40 and 31 respectively. All stars Edgar Martinez and Alex Rodriguez added 28 and 23 to the mix, meaning their top-5 home run hitters combined for 178 of the teams 264 home runs. The team had four other players reach double figures, totaling 58 between them. 2012 Yankee hero Raul Ibanez hit the first home run of his illustrious career that season, rounding out the remaining 28 HR from the roster.

So who are the Yankees’ top-5 sluggers and how do they stack up against the 178 dingers hit by Seattle’s best players? As suggested by the projections, the front four seem fairly obvious: Didi, Judge, Sanchez, and Stanton. The group hit 169 homers between them in 2017, almost enough on their own to best the featured players for the ’97 Mariners. Even with the most guarded expectations for Judge and Stanton, and a conservative estimate of Didi’s potential power surge in 2018, 155 seems a reasonable goal for this group.

Now comes the trickier part: who will be the Yankees 5th leading home run hitter? If not for his troubled injury history, Greg Bird and his sweet swing would immediately be the favorite. Tyler Austin and Miguel Andujar have both already flashed their power potential in the early-going this season. And sleeper Aaron Hicks, if he can stay on the field, continues to progress into a talented hitter with some pop in his bat. Regardless of who you believe it may be, just one of these guys breaking out for 20 home runs seems a reasonable expectation. So, even with very reserved estimates, we can expect the Yankees top-5 to just about match their Mariners counterparts.

How about the rest of the roster? This is where it seems to become advantage 2018 Yankees. On top of each of the four guys mentioned as potential 20-HR guys, veteran Brett Gardner and youngsters Brandon Drury and Gleyber Torres each have the combination of playing time and power to minimally reach double figures. Though he’s started slowly, Neil Walker has eclipsed 12 HR in each of his eight full professional seasons, and has surpassed 16 in four of his last five. Combining these four guys and any of our three “losers” from the last section, an extremely low guess would still seem to yield a minimum of 70-ish. Looking at the projections, a number more to the tune of 80 seems likely.

Finally, the Yankees have useful pieces like Austin Romine, Ronald Torreyes, Clint Frazier, and fan-favorite Jacoby Ellsbury to round out the roster. Using the most conservative estimates, these part time players and other depth options on the roster would need to combine for just 10-20 homers to beat the record. For reference, Ji-Man Choi and Chris friggin’ Carter combined for 10 home runs last year. Those four alone hit 16 between them. Point is, finding 10 extra home runs on the roster given injuries and rest days is not particularly difficult.

The Verdict

There’s a long, long season ahead. Injuries are not just possible but likely (see: Yankees current DL) and every player goes through hot streaks and brutal slumps. But there is no question that this team’s power can go head-to-head with any team in history, even the 1997 Mariners. While a significant injury to Stanton or Judge might doom the Yankees’ hopes, the home run potential among even the depth pieces on this roster is quite staggering.

As the season progresses, be sure to keep an eye on the team home run leaderboards. Don’t be shocked if after all is said and done, the 2018 Yankees are crowned the greatest home run hitting squad in baseball history.

 

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