MLB Home Run Race Odds: Unlikely Names Emerge

George Springer has never gone over 30 home runs, but this should be the year. (Keith Allison, Flickr)

I wonder if the first few weeks of the MLB season are a nervous time for statisticians? Do they sit around and constantly worry whether the impressive early start by a team like the Reds means their forecasts were way off, or do they just chalk it up to early oddities caused by a huge deviation and a small sample size? I would guess the latter. After all, the White Sox were on top of their division at this point last season and we saw how that ended.

Come to think of it, I probably shouldn’t just imply that baseball’s stat heads aren’t doing anything now that the season is underway. They’re constantly evaluating new numbers as they become available, and one of the trends they’re finding is exciting news, no matter which team you’re a fan of. As Jeff Passan noted this week, we’re on pace to see the most home runs in a season, league-wide, after falling 83 dingers short of the MLB record last season.

So with there potentially being more long balls than ever before this season, the home run race must be a real doozie. Surely guys like Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado, Edwin Encarnacion, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout must just be crushing it so far, right? Nope.

Your current slugging king is none other than Eric Thames, with six dingers in just 38 at bats. A former major leaguer who spent the last three seasons in Korea, Thames found his swing overseas, and has returned to dominate the National League. (Yes, even though ESPN still depicts him in an O’s hat — a team he never played a major league game with — he is now a member of the Brewers.)

Other early success is coming from one of the league’s most underappreciated sluggers, Khris Davis. Finishing top ten in at bats-per-home run in each of the past two seasons, Davis should be getting far more appreciation, but he’s spent his entire career playing for bad Milwaukee and Oakland teams.

George Springer and Yoenis Cespedes round out the batters who have hit six homers, and while both are recognizable names, neither had particularly short odds before the year. Davis had the shortest of any at 60/1; Springer was 80/1; Cespedes was 100/1; and, to Vegas’ credit, they didn’t forget about Thames at 200/1.

As for the stars like Harper and Arenado, they aren’t far behind (nobody is this early in the year). But names like Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez are in front of them, despite not even being on the board before the season. As for Encarnacion, he still trails Madison Bumgarner’s home run total.

So the question is the same it always is so early in the year: what is sustainable and what isn’t? Is our sample size on Thames too small, or will the same swing that led to 124 homers in 1,351 at bats in Korea be successful in the MLB? Will Encarnacion bounce back, or could this be a sign of an old age regression for the 34-year-old? Is Moustakas really a threat to win with a previous career-high of just 22 homers?

All we really know is that home runs should keep coming at a high rate. As for who will hit the most, here are our updated odds.

Odds to lead MLB in home runs this season

  • Chris Davis, Orioles: 9/1
  • Khris Davis, Athletics: 9/1
  • Mike Trout, Angels: 11/1
  • Nolan Arenado, Rockies: 11/1
  • Mark Trumbo, Orioles: 15/1
  • Yoenis Cespedes, Mets: 18/1
  • Bryce Harper, Nationals: 20/1
  • Eric Thames, Brewers: 20/1
  • Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins: 25/1
  • Kris Bryant, Cubs: 25/1
  • George Springer, Astros: 30/1
  • Edwin Encarnacion, Indians: 30/1

Despite some great numbers that bode well for a great power hitting season (including hitting home runs on 54-percent of all fly balls), Davis is still at a big disadvantage in this race because of his home park, where he’ll play 81 games this year. There’s a reason so many Orioles are always favored in the home run race; playing in a bandbox helps a lot.