Sports

The MLB home run race is shaping up to be pretty, pretty good

Vlad Guerrero Jr., Shohei Ohtani and Salvador Perez are battling for the HR crown.
Image: Getty Images

If I told you at the start of the MLB season that the league’s home run race would come down to the final two weeks of the season and would be between a pitcher, catcher, and someone in contention for a Triple Crown, you would’ve called 911 and told them a patient had escaped from the local asylum.

Shohei Ohtani hadn’t proved he could stay healthy for a full season. Salvador Perez showed flashes of 35-homer potential but had never even reached 30 in a single season. Meanwhile, we all knew Vlad Guerrero Jr. had the potential to be great, but prior to the 2021 season, several people still considered him to be overrated and overhyped. However, each of these players has come into their own in 2021 and busted into the upper echelon of baseball’s elite power hitters. Currently, Vladdy Jr. leads the Majors 46 round-trippers. Salvy Perez has 45 smackeroos, and Ohtani 44. So, who do we want to see come out on top, and who will come out on top?

When it comes to who we’d like to see win, that obviously depends on who you ask. Shohei Ohtani has been one of the biggest storylines in sports this year. He’s a modern Babe Ruth who throws 100 miles per hour and can hit a ball 500 feet. Not only that, he’s also got some speed. Ohtani has recorded 23 stolen bases on the year, and has even legged out four bunt base hits. Even in his limited time spent in the outfield, Ohtani has proven to be a capable right fielder. He struggled mightily in his lone inning in left, but I think we can chalk that one up to an unfortunate coincidence. Ohtani is the first six-tool player I’ve ever experienced. He’s an international superstar and was just named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2021. If you’re hoping to see someone lauded and praised for leading all of Major League Baseball in home runs, Ohtani is your guy.

Salvador Perez isn’t a pitcher. He plays catcher, and he hits home runs. Somehow that’s an even more shocking situation than Ohtani’s. In the 100-plus years of MLB’s existence, no catcher has ever hit more home runs in a season than Salvador Perez in 2021. Johnny Bench hit 45 back in 1970, but that season is way gone. Perez still has 15 games to take the title all for himself. Perez had shown signs of great power potential in the past, but could never seem to stay healthy long enough to really draw some attention. He’s missed only one game in 2021, and he’s showing us what we were all missing.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., in his third season of Major League Baseball, has an opportunity to do something his father (who’s currently enshrined in Cooperstown) never did: win a Triple Crown. Vladdy Jr. is currently the league leader in home runs (46) and batting average (.318) — but that’s only because Starling Marte doesn’t qualify for the AL batting title — and is third in runs batted in (104), eight behind league-leader Salvador Perez (112). The Triple Crown has become such an elusive achievement in modern baseball that anyone who comes close to wearing the metaphorical headgear would be having one of the greatest seasons in recent MLB history. For Guerrero to be so close to such an impossible achievement is jaw-dropping. Even still, he’s not going to win the MVP Award. Ohtani’s name has already been penciled in for that. So, at least give him the home run crown. He deserves some props for this historic season, right?

All three of them have compelling arguments as to why they should win. Personally, I’m in camp Guerrero. I always thought he received way too much criticism so early in his career, but I digress. Naturally, the next question would be “Who is going to take home the crown?” So, that’s where we’ll go next.

In order to figure this one out, there are a few things we need to look at:

Hot Bat — How hot is the hitter right now, and how likely are they to keep that hot streak going?

Opponents — In the final stretch, are they facing teams that give up a lot of home runs?

Venues — Even if their opponents give up home runs, are the fields they’re playing on hitter-friendly?

Usage — With Ohtani and Perez’s teams out of the playoff hunt, what is the likelihood that their managers rest them during the last two weeks of the season?

Ohtani has drastically cooled off in the home run department since the start of August. He’s hit just seven since the end of July. He hadn’t hit fewer than seven in a single calendar month the rest of the season. During this slump, Ohtani’s slugging percentage has dropped from .674 to .596. While Ohtani could break out of the slump, his competitors are just too hot with no sign of slowing for Ohtani to take the crown.

Between Guerrero and Perez, Perez has been the hotter hitter. He’s hit home runs in three of his last four games and seven since the start of September. At the end of August, Perez had a five-game home run streak as well. Coincidentally, four of those games during the home run streak came against the Seattle Mariners, and — let me just check my schedule real quick — the Royals started a three-game series with the Mariners last night. That’s good timing. That being said, Guerrero has a pretty favorable schedule as well. Of his 15 remaining games, six are against the Minnesota Twins, who’ve allowed the second-most home runs in Major League Baseball, and three are against the Baltimore Orioles who’ve allowed the most home runs across MLB. Perez also has three games against Minnesota, but those are at the end of the season, where Perez is most likely to sit, if his manager sits him at all.

As for the venues, Perez is once again at a disadvantage. Perez has 11 games left in stadiums that are bottom-seven in the league in terms of home runs factor (Kauffman Stadium & Comerica Park). Vladdy has just one such series, when he faces the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg from the 20th to the 22nd. Vladdy’s home ballpark (Rogers Centre, Ontario) is much more hitter-friendly than Perez’s and that gives him another huge advantage.

Finally, it comes down to usage. If someone doesn’t play, they don’t hit dingers. The Blue Jays are in the middle of a heated Wild Card hunt. Guerrero has been arguably their best player (Marcus Semien has been really good too), so he will not be asked to rest for likely the remainder of the season. Unless the Blue Jays clinch a playoff spot with a week’s worth of games to go, he will not miss a single game for the remainder of the season. Perez is benefitted by the fact that he’s been playing much more DH in 2021 than in year’s past. That will likely keep him available off the bench even if he’s not slated to play a given day. Still, between Perez and Guerrero, it’s Salvy who is more likely to see the bench as the season winds down.

All signs point to Guerrero taking home the home run title in 2021. While anything can still happen, it will definitely be an uphill battle for both Perez and Ohtani. I hope each one of these guys hits 10 more home runs before the season ends, but it will be Vladdy Jr. who comes out on top.

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