By Matthew Michaels
A decade after the Steroid Era concluded, and in the midst of an era of all-time high strikeout rates, batters who can mash should be a hot commodity on the market. However, home runs were plentiful in 2016, and sluggers with gaudy numbers suffered during pay day.
Mark Trumbo led the Majors with 47 round-trippers last season, and seemed in prime position to earn a big paycheck as he hit free agency. The Silver Slugger winner received little interest and ended up returning to the Baltimore Orioles on a three-year deal. The $37 million that Trumbo will take in seems like a small price to pay for all the dingers he might rake in.
Jose Bautista has been one of the best sluggers in the game, but he could only land a one-year deal for $18.5 million with the Blue Jays. His former teammate, Edwin Encarnacion, averaged 39 home runs and 110 RBI over the last five years, but only managed $20 million a year for three seasons from the Indians.
Chris Carter just turned 30 years old and mashed 41 home runs while only earning $2.5 million in 2016. The Brewers non-tendered Carter during the arbitration period and making him a free agent. Carter is a power threat, but no team is willing to fork over a few measly dollars for a known home-run-hitter. [Ed. Note: The Yankees signed Carter to a one-year, $3 million contract on Tuesday.]
Carlos Beltran and Kendrys Morales are another pair of sluggers who ended up with less money than expected. While relief pitchers have been inking historic deals this offseason, home run hitters have been left in the dark. On the surface, it seems strange that a subset of players with a particular skill that is enviable is being neglected, but there is wise decision-making going on behind the scenes.
The three-true outcomes, walks, strikeouts and home runs, are up around the league. With more round-trippers being hit, the value of a player who can belt 20, 30 or 40 home runs a season is diminished. We are seeing more guys like Chris Carter, players who bag round-trippers frequently and walk and strikeout at high rates, but do little else. Carter batted .222 last year and is poor as a first baseman. With more players like these all around, teams are not rushing to hire for this position in an over-saturated market.
This trend also speaks to how front offices are wising up on how to spend their money. Defensive value is becoming easier to quantify, and an appreciation for better gloves is hurting mashers who have to hide in a corner position. Mark Trumbo and Jose Bautista offer a known quality at the plate, but their defensive deficiencies surely bring down their cumulative value.
Ralph Kiner was a Hall of Fame masher and is thought to have said “home run hitters drive Cadillacs and singles hitters drive Fords.” While it was certainly true that for most of the last century, four-baggers equaled flashy paychecks, there is now a more nuanced approach to paying sluggers that does not rely solely on home run totals. The game has shifted and this offseason has shown that in order to cash in, players cannot be one-dimensional batters that are a dime a dozen.