Alonso, Bellinger, Trout or Yelich? Handicapping the home run race

ByDavid Schoenfield ESPN logo
Tuesday, August 27, 2019

I get it: Hitting 20 home runs isn't what it used to be. Thirty home runs in 2019 might barely elicit a yawn at season's end, and even 40 home runs might register only a simple, "Well, that's a nice season."

But, come on, 50 home runs is still 50 home runs, and we have four players with a terrific shot at reaching that threshold: Cody Bellinger and Mike Trout are tied for the major league with 42, and Christian Yelich and Pete Alonso are on their heels at 41. We had multiple 50-homer sluggers in 2017 with Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, but we've had more than two players reach 50 in just two seasons: 2001 (Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Luis Gonzalez and Alex Rodriguez) and 1998 (Mark McGwire, Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr. and Greg Vaughn).

No matter what you think of the juiced ball of 2019 or some of the juiced players of the past, we have a chance at a rare foursome of sluggers. Let's break down the home run race and where our four sluggers have excelled and how each might do down the stretch (all stats through Sunday, although Alonso and Trout did not play Monday, while Bellinger went 0-for-3 and Yelich went 2-for-2 with two walks).

Cody Bellinger

Home runs: 42

On pace for: 52

Areas: 23 pull, 15 to center, 4 to opposite field

Favorite count: 6 HRs each on 0-0, 1-2 and 2-2

Team he has punished: .370/.443/.907, 8 HRs in 13 games vs. Diamondbacks

Pitch he has clobbered: 17 of his 42 have come against four-seam fastballs (and nine more against two-seamers/sinkers)

After a bit of a sophomore slump in 2018, Bellinger made some adjustments in the offseason with hitting coaches Robert Van Scoyoc and Brant Brant, most notably moving closer to the plate -- like much closer. He now stands right on top of the plate, his back left foot now wedged in the back front corner of the batter's box, his front elbow dangling over the inside part of the plate, daring pitchers to throw him inside. The goal was to get Bellinger closer to the load and swing path he had as a rookie in 2017, when he hit 39 home runs.

Usually, a batter moves closer to the plate to give himself better plate coverage -- the outside third of the plate now feels like a pitch down the middle. The risk is getting jammed inside, especially on fastballs on the hands. Bellinger has improved on pitches on the outside part of the plate, but interestingly enough he has really improved on pitches inside:

Outer third:

2018: .288/.378/.405

2019: .293/.389/.580

Inner third:

2018: .171/.282/.342

2019: .288/.414/.654

Last year, even though he was well off the plate, he struggled on inside pitches. His swing-and-miss rate on inside pitches has dropped from 29% to 18% and he has increased his line-drive rate while reducing his pop-up rate (a big reason he hit .171 on inside pitches last year). He's quick enough through the zone that he can still rip those pitches.

Of note: After one of the greatest Aprils in major league history -- he hit .431 with 14 home runs -- his monthly averages have dropped each month: .319, .272, .265 and .235 in August. He still has eight home runs in August and is slugging .593 for the month, but he's looking to find the sweet combo of power and average he had the first two months.

Remaining schedule: He has four games this week at Arizona and two series against the Rockies -- although both in L.A. -- and a three-game series at Baltimore could be fruitful. The Dodgers end the season on the road in San Diego and San Francisco, two difficult home run parks.

Mark he's chasing: Shawn Green holds the franchise record with 49 home runs.

Mike Trout

Home runs: 42

On pace for: 51

Areas: 24 pull, 16 to center, 2 to opposite field

Favorite count: 8 HRs on 2-2

Team he has punished: .323/.488/.871, 10 HRs in 17 games vs. Rangers

Pitch he has clobbered: He's hitting .327 and slugging .939 with nine home runs in 49 at-bats against changeups.

Trout has already reached his career in home runs, not that he has changed his game much. His swing rate remains one of the lowest in the majors, ranking 143rd out 146 qualified batters. His chase rate, however, is sixth lowest, so when he swings he's usually swinging at strikes. The one thing Trout has been able to do through the years is add a few more fly balls each season. His annual fly ball rate:

2016: 25.5%

2017: 29.1%

2018: 33.3%

2019: 35.2%

While Bellinger has crushed inside pitches in 2019, that has actually been the one relative area of weakness for Trout, at least compared to 2018:

Inner third:

2018: .325/.481/.625

2019: .238/.448/.476

Trout has been ridiculously consistent all season with an OPS over 1.000 each month. He remains a man without flaw.

Remaining schedule: Trout has 18 home runs against the Rangers and Mariners, but the Angels are done with Seattle and have only two games left against Texas. They have seven games against Houston, five against Oakland and three each against Cleveland, Tampa Bay and the Yankees, so Trout is facing most of the American League's top pitching teams the rest of the way.

Mark he's chasing: Troy Glaus holds the franchise record with 46 home runs.

Christian Yelich

Home runs: 41

On pace for: 51

Areas: 19 pull, 10 center, 12 to opposite field

Favorite count: 8 HRs on 0-0 and 1-0

Team he has punished: .341/.509/.976, 8 HRs in 13 games vs. Cardinals

Pitch he has clobbered: He's hitting .381 with 6 HRs in 63 at-bats against changeups.

Like Bellinger, Yelich got off to a roaring start with 14 home runs by the end of April. He has been more consistent than Bellinger since then, hitting .365 in June and .352 in July, with a .935 OPS in May his worst month. He has battled some minor back issues throughout the season and has missed 14 games. Those 14 missed games have cost him an estimated five home runs.

As you can see from those counts above, Yelich loves to hit early in the count. He has hit another five home runs when the count is 0-1, so 21 of his home runs have come on the first or second pitch of the plate appearances. How that compares:

Yelich: 21 HRs

Bellinger: 16

Trout: 15

Alonso: 15

Remaining schedule: Yelich has killed the Cardinals the past two seasons. After Monday's game, he still has five games left against them. He also has seven against the Cubs, and the Brewers end the season at Cincinnati and Colorado, both great home run parks and both teams' pitching staffs playing out the string. Could be the perfect way for Yelich to make a late rush. Don't forget his September for the ages last year when he hit .370 and mashed 10 home runs.

Mark he's chasing: Prince Fielder holds the Brewers' record with 50 home runs.

Pete Alonso

Home runs: 41

On pace for: 51

Areas: 18 pull, 18 to center, 5 to opposite field

Favorite count: 6 HRs on 0-1

Team he has punished: .240/.350/.680, 7 HRs in 15 games vs. Marlins

Pitch he has clobbered: He has hit .290 and slugged .724 against four-seam fastballs

Here's a fascinating nugget about the rookie slugger: He has seen the lowest percentage of pitches in the strike zone of any qualified hitter in the regular season (Josh Bell and Bryce Harper are second and third on this list). His chase rate of 30% is actually slightly above the MLB average, so it's not like he has benefited from great control of the strike zone. What he has managed to do is still punish pitches even in pitchers' counts: He has hit 18 home runs in those, best in MLB, and his .515 slugging mark is also best in the majors.

Of course, when he does get ahead in the count, he's even more lethal: .352/.533/.852. (Trout has the best OPS in hitters' counts, hitting .468/.664/1.106.) Alonso has more swing-and-miss in his game then the other guys here, but he keeps making enough adjustments. August has been one of his best months, as he's hitting .302/.388/.616.

Remaining schedule: The Mets have more home games remaining, but Alonso has hit well at Citi Field even though it's not a great home run park. He has slugged 21 of his home runs at home in 208 at-bats compared to 20 on the road in 263 at-bats. He seems to thrive off the emotion of Mets fans, although that could dissipate if the Mets fall out of the race. Like Yelich, he has road trip to Colorado and Cincinnati and then finishes at home against the Marlins and Braves.

Mark he's chasing: He already has tied the Mets' team record, so he's going after Aaron Judge's rookie record of 52.

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