For about 90 minutes on Wednesday night, I fully grasped the essence of the 2019 season. With the leaguewide single-season home run record ready to be broken early in the evening, several of us — me, two editors, members of ESPN’s Stats & Information group — were tracking the countdown to 6,106 home runs. Whoever hit the 22nd home run of the night would set the mark.
The action began with Trent Grisham hitting a leadoff home run for the Brewers in Miami. Todd Frazier and Brandon Nimmo soon went back-to-back for the Mets. Mike Moustakas, back in the lineup for the Brewers, hit one out. Jeff McNeil hit one for the Mets. Then the pace really picked up. Did Rowdy Tellez hit his before Jorge Soler? There goes Frazier again, about the same time Tyler Flowers cranked a three-run shot for the Braves.
By 8:10 p.m. ET, there were 10 games going on. It was impossible to follow all the action, even with multiple screens at the home office. Francisco Lindor … Jorge Polanco … Teoscar Hernandez. Isan Diaz went yard for the Marlins as George Springer homered for the Astros, then Garrett Cooper followed Diaz in the Marlins’ lineup and belted one out too. We were three from the record. Adalberto Mondesi homered for the Royals just before the A’s Marcus Semien hit the record-tying shot, a huge blast over the train tracks in Houston.
Then we paused. For six or seven minutes, nobody even scored a run. Bryce Harper came up with the bases loaded and it felt like the perfect Bryce moment, even though he obviously didn’t know history was on the line. He bounced into a double play.
Jonathan Villar came up for the Orioles in the bottom of the seventh inning of a 2-2 game and two runners on, facing Dodgers reliever Caleb Ferguson. Villar jumped all over a first-pitch fastball and crushed it 443 feet into the left-field seats — a popular landing spot for home runs in 2019 given the Orioles have set the record for most homers allowed.
“Unbelievable,” Villar told the Orioles TV crew after the game. “After I hit the home run and go into the clubhouse, somebody told me we set the new record. That’s awesome. It’s not just for me, it’s for the team.”
So, yes, there have been a lot of home runs hit in 2019 and when you’re paying eagle-eyed attention, you realize how rapid-fire they arrive across the majors. I joked on Twitter that I was going to rank the top 1,000 home runs of the season. Then I realized you actually could rank all the home runs using win probability added at the time each home run was hit. Via Baseball-Reference and a little work in Excel, I sorted all the home runs from most valuable to least valuable given the game situation.
Let’s pull out 10 random home runs from our win probability added list — of the more than 6,100 hit this season. (Villar’s record-breaking blast, by the way, ranked about 950th.)
No. 1: Rio Ruiz, Orioles — Aug. 11 vs. Astros (0.90 WPA)
Hey, so the Orioles hit the record-breaking home run and hit the most valuable home run of the season. Ruiz came up in the bottom of the ninth against Astros closer Roberto Osuna with two outs, a runner on first base and Baltimore trailing 7-6. He battled Osuna for seven pitches, Osuna throwing six changeups. He threw one too many and Ruiz gave the Orioles their best moment of the season:
Rio Ruiz crushes a two-run home run into the stands as the Orioles beat the Astros 8-7 in a wild game in Baltimore.
No. 10: Kurt Suzuki, Nationals — Sept. 3 vs. Mets (0.69 WPA)
As you would guess, the most valuable home runs are walk-offs or come-from-behind shots late in the game. Suzuki’s three-run walk-off was also one of the most memorable home runs of the season as it capped a remarkable seven-run rally in the bottom of the ninth. Suzuki’s home run off Edwin Diaz isn’t quite as valuable as Ruiz’s since it came with one out and both runners in scoring position. Even if Suzuki made an out, the Nationals would have had a chance. But it was pretty damn amazing:
— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) September 4, 2019
No. 100: Cavan Biggio, Blue Jays — June 29 vs. Royals (0.43 WPA)
Biggio is kind of the third wheel in the Blue Jays’ rookie sons-of-major-leaguers trio, but he has a chance to be an interesting player. He draws a ton of walks, so even though he’s hitting .213, he has a .350 OBP. How valuable is the 100th most valuable home run of the season? Biggio came up in the bottom of the fifth with the bases loaded and two outs and the Royals leading 4-1. His grand slam off Homer Bailey turned the Blue Jays’ odds of winning the game from 23% to 67%. Indeed, Toronto would hold on for a 7-5 victory. But the coolest thing about this home run: Craig Biggio actually faced Bailey three times in his career and went 0-for-1 with a walk, strikeout and sacrifice fly.
No. 500: Charlie Blackmon, Rockies — May 11 vs. Padres (0.27 WPA)
The 500th most valuable home run is still pretty valuable. Blackmon came up in the bottom of the eighth against Craig Stammen with the Rockies trailing 3-2. Stammen threw a 2-2 slider into Blackmon’s sweet spot and he crushed it to right field to tie the score. Alas, the Padres scored in the top of the ninth off Wade Davis, and Kirby Yates fanned the side in the bottom of the ninth for the save.
No. 1,000: Derek Dietrich, Reds — April 13 vs. Cardinals (0.19 WPA)
Remember Dietrich’s hot start? Filling in for the injured Scooter Gennett, he hit five home runs in April, then tied for the MLB lead with 12 home runs in May. By the end of May, he was hitting .260/.366/.707. Some were suggesting he should make the All-Star team. His home run off Adam Wainwright was a towering fly ball into the Cincinnati bullpen that gave the Reds a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the seventh inning (they would win 5-2). Dietrich did not make the All-Star team and he is now hitting .194 with 19 home runs. May was a long time ago.
No. 2,500: Scott Kingery, Phillies — Sept. 10 vs. Phillies (0.12 WPA)
This one just happened and was one of the craziest home runs of this crazy home run season. It came off Max Fried with the score tied and two outs in the bottom of the third. This is still in the 60th percentile of most valuable, so a home run in the top half of the list for the season is still going to come in a close game, although it might come early. What made Kingery’s home run so unusual is it was an inside-the-parker after Ronald Acuna Jr. almost robbed him:
— Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) September 11, 2019
No. 3,073: Pete Alonso, Mets — May 17 vs. Marlins (0.10 WPA)
This is about the halfway point of the list for the season. Alonso has hit many memorable home runs among his 47, but this wasn’t really one of them. It was No. 13 of the season for him, off a 1-0 cutter from Trevor Richards in the top of the second inning. Actually, Richards made a pretty good pitch as Alonso reached for it and, well, this swing produced a 418-foot home run:
— David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield) September 12, 2019
No. 4,000: Thairo Estrada, Yankees — May 6 vs. Mariners (0.08 WPA)
The Yankees have hit 276 home runs, one behind the Twins as they battle for the all-time record. Estrada has only three of those, but this was the first home run of his major league career and had to be a huge thrill — it came off fellow Venezuelan Felix Hernandez. This one makes me kind of sad though. It came in the second inning and the two-run shot gave the Yankees a 5-0 lead and was already the third home run Hernandez had given up in the game. In his Cy Young season in 2010, Hernandez gave up more than one home run in a game only once all season.
No. 5,000: Yandy Diaz, Rays — April 17 vs. Orioles (0.03 WPA)
We’re into the 10th percentile of home runs and, as you would expect, these aren’t exactly game-changing moments. Diaz’s solo home run in the bottom of the third inning off David Hess extended Tampa’s lead to 6-0. It also knocked Hess from the game as the Rays hit three off him in two-plus innings. For the season, Hess has given up 28 home runs in only 77 innings. A quick search reveals that among pitchers with at least 50 innings, that’s the highest rate of home runs per nine innings in MLB history. Three of the top four have come in 2019. Did we mention a lot of home runs have been hit this year?
No. 6,125: Rio Ruiz, Orioles — Aug. 10 vs. Astros (0.00 WPA)
So, this is kind of remarkable. Rio Ruiz has hit the most clutch home run of the 2019 season … and the least clutch. Baseball-Reference only goes to two decimal points, so a lot of home runs grade out as having 0.00 win probability added. To break the tie, I picked the home run that came with the widest gap in the score at the time of the home run.
This home run — a day before Ruiz hit his walk-off — came in the seventh inning with the Astros leading the Orioles 20-1. I went back and watched the highlight and Astros announcer Todd Kalas delivered the deadpan line of the year: “Orioles fans have something to cheer for.”
What happens when the least valuable home run of the season is hit? Well, it’s not much different than a lot of the other home runs. The fans above the scoreboard in right field scrambled for the ball. Ruiz did sprint pretty fast around the bases and his teammates greeted him in the dugout with high-fives and chest bumps. Even a home run with a 19-run deficit feels pretty good:
— David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield) September 12, 2019
Now, to confess, I could have picked another home run from this same game. Yordan Alvarez hit a home run in the top of the ninth with the Astros leading 21-2. You could argue that was the least valuable home run of 2019 since it came later in the game and increased the score margin.
But it seems more fitting to end it with Ruiz. In the year of the home run, it all comes back to the Orioles.