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Baby Bombers: How Rookies Helped Smash MLB’s Home Run Record

By: Andy Cooper

STATS’ data and research delve into the historical rise of rookie home runs and the unlikely shattering of a 17-year-old mark

Alex Presley strode to the left-handed batters’ box Sept. 19th at Comerica Park having hit fewer home runs this season than five major league pitchers. Imagine the surprise when the Detroit Tigers’ journeyman then lifted a ball over the right-field fence to break a tie with 16 other hurlers and force another with history.

The unlikeliness of Presley’s homer marking MLB’s 5,693rd of 2017 wasn’t the only odd event concerning power hitting that evening. Not long after Presley’s shot cleared the fence, Kansas City Royals outfielder Alex Gordon slugged No. 5,694 to break the single-season all-time record previously set in 2000.

Gordon possesses the worst slugging percentage of any of baseball’s 148 qualifying players.

Presley nor Gordon certainly won’t be mistaken for No. 1 on this year’s slugging and home run lists – Giancarlo Stanton, who is attempting to become the sixth player in MLB history to hit at least 60 homers. Stanton stands at 57 entering play Tuesday, 20 more than his previous career high and the most since Ryan Howard’s 58 in 2006.

But even with Stanton’s power surge, we won’t match the steroid-assisted 2000 barrage when 47 players hit at least 30 homers and 16 smashed at least 40. It’s quite unlikely there will be many more than the 34 players who have gone deep at least 30 times, and we’re certainly going to fall short of 16 power hitters cranking 40.

So how does home run No. 5,694 come to happen then? Look no further than the Baby Bombers, and start with two in particular.

New York Yankees phenom Aaron Judge hit Nos. 49 and 50 on Monday to break Mark McGwire’s rookie home run record set in 1987. Judge is homering an average of every 10.54 at-bats, which also would break McGwire’s rookie record of 11.37.

Third on that list? Los Angeles Dodgers 22-year-old rookie Cody Bellinger, who set the NL rookie record with his 39th homer Sept. 22 to pass Wally Berger in 1930 and Frank Robinson in 1956. Entering play Tuesday, Bellinger is clearing the fences every 11.90 at-bats. The only other rookie in the last 15 years to come even somewhat close to Judge’s and Bellinger’s averages is Jose Abreu with a homer in every 15.44 at-bats in 2014.

But Judge and Bellinger aren’t the only youngsters crushing baseballs. Rookies are homering more this season than any other in baseball history. The previous rookie mark was set in 2015 and last year’s total trailed right behind, but neither compare to the number of baseballs rookies have unloaded on in 2017.

Entering Tuesday’s action, 10 rookies have at least 20 home runs – four more than in any other season – with a strong possibility a couple more names get added to the list. This is the first time ever multiple rookies have hit at least 35, and not since 2007 when Ryan Braun (34) and Chris Young (32) burst onto the scene have two rookies cracked 30.

In 2000, with a host of veterans leading the home run charge, only Mark Quinn of the Kansas City Royals – who was out of the league for good after 2002 – and Lance Berkman hit the 20-homer mark with 20 and 21, respectively. And maybe the profound difference in rookie homers from the top two home run years in MLB history can be traced to a difference in approach.

STATS noted back in April the theory that hitters are being coached now more than ever to hit the ball in the air. Even in 2000, the overall hits that went for home runs was at just 12.58 percent. That’s less than last year and far lower than 2017’s all-time high percentage entering Monday’s action.

No matter how Judge was being coached to swing, he couldn’t make contact during his cup of coffee with the Yankees in 2016, striking out 42 times in the 83 official plate appearances after homering in the first at-bat of his career.

The strikeouts are there this season, too, but he’s connecting and has a 38.2 fly-ball percentage that ranks second among rookies behind Bellinger (42.0). Judge’s batting WAR is 5.1, which is the highest for a rookie since 1915, and his overall WAR of 7.6 is tied for fifth all-time among rookies with Shoeless Joe Jackson.

And when Judge connects, boy does he connect. He owns the four highest exit velocities on home runs in all of baseball and five of the top six when any type of hit is included. His average exit velocity on all hits of 95.6 tops every player with at least 30 hits, and his 1.026 OPS is a rookie’s best since Ted Williams in 1939.

Presley and Gordon tying and breaking MLB’s all-time home run record might’ve been anti-climactic, but the lead up to those moments was anything but. Judge added some flare to the record Monday, and the rest of his rookie brethren also can take pride in helping make history – however unlikely it seems.