Baseball is a humbling sport. Not just for the players, who fail more often than not at the plate even when en route to Hall of Fame careers. It's also humbling for those of us paid to have opinions about it. For as much as we think we know, there are always those outcomes that just seem to come out of nowhere.
Take Mark Trumbo in 2016. We thought we had a pretty good grasp of who Trumbo was -- a big-time power hitter who doesn't do quite enough else right to make up for his flaws. After hitting 30-plus homers in three out of four seasons, he had just 39 in his previous two, and was on practically nobody's radars heading into last season.
And, of course, Trumbo rather unexpectedly put together the best season of his career, clubbing 47 homers, scoring 94 runs and driving in 108 more as he demolished all reasonable expectations. Trumbo got a bit lucky, with 24.6 percent of his fly balls leaving the yards, but in hindsight, this kind of season shouldn't have been that unlikely. Trumbo had always put a ton of balls into the air and, at his peak, hit about one in five over the fence, so 2016 was within the realm of the possible, even if we didn't consider it particularly likely.
So, the question is who else might have this kind of potential in 2017. What we'll be looking for are players who might fit the Trumbo mold -- established players without much apparent upside but who nonetheless hit a lot of flyballs and might have the ability to put together one huge power season if everything clicks.
I was a bit stunned to realize Justin Upton has never hit more than 31 homers in a season. No, really. His 2016 season, disappointing on the whole, actually matched his best power season ever. With between 26 and 31 homers in five of his last six seasons, too, Upton seems like a pretty safe bet to hit that total yet again.
However, for as hard as Upton consistently hits the ball, it's hard to believe he's never had a huge power season. Last season's 18.3 HR/FB rate was actually the second-best of his career, and it was a mark that Trumbo had bested twice even before last season. However, Upton did sport a 37.9 percent hard-hit rate, and he had the 14th-longest average home run distance and was in the 86th percentile in average exit velocity on flyballs and line drives.
Upton's career has been marked by inconsistency more than any other trait, but we already saw what can happen when things are clicking for him in the second half last season. He hit just .260, but sported a .916 OPS, thanks to a .318 ISO, powered by a 27.2 percent HR/FB rate. That's what a Trumbo season would look like for Upton.
There might not be a player whose perception in the public eye is hurt more by where he plays than Brandon Belt. Oh sure, he gets plenty of national television games playing in San Francisco, but that isn't what I mean. I mean he plays in left-handed hitter's hell, AT&T Park.
Belt has all of the peripherals you would expect for an elite hitter: tremendous plate discipline, consistent hard contact and even a massive fly-ball rate that topped out at 46.0 percent in 2016. However, he was just a .275/.394/.474 hitter, and while stats like OPS+ and WAR that account for his home park recognize Belt's greatness, you don't win Fantasy championships with park-adjusted affects. The fact that Trumbo's HR/FB rate is twice as high on the road than at home doesn't really help.
So, a Trumbo-esque season where he flirts with 50 homers probably isn't possible for Belt given where he plays. However, given his skill set, if you set the over/under on home runs for him at 17.5 -- his average over the last two seasons -- I'll still take the over. Belt's HR/FB rate was just 9.3 percent last season, his worst since 2012. I'll bet on a player who hits the ball as hard as Belt getting to at least 15 percent this season, which could put him in 30-homer territory. Not Trumbo, but a strong improvement over his established level.
In terms of pure ability, Travis Shaw represents a pretty serious step down from the first two names here. If he played half of his games in AT&T Park, Shaw might not even qualify as NL-only relevant. However, Shaw has the advantage this season of playing half of his games in one of the best establishments in baseball for power, Miller Park in Milwaukee.
Shaw upped his hard-hit average to 33.3 percent last season for the Red Sox, but probably won't ever be much more than average in that regard. He simply doesn't have the pedigree to expect much more than that, which is why the Red Sox had no qualms about benching him last season and then moving him for bullpen help this offseason. The good news is, with Shaw's profile, he might not have to be much more than average at Miller Park.
For his career, Shaw has hit 12.7 percent of his flyballs over the wall, a roughly league average rate. However, he hits a ton of balls in the air, with his flyball rate hitting 44.6 percent in 2016. Shaw is going from the third-toughest home park in baseball for lefties to homer in to the fourth best, so it's fair to expect some improvement there. Even if Shaw doesn't improve as a hitter, he has a chance to take a big step forward in power production, in what could be a perfect marriage of hitter and park.