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The Great Home Run Chase Of 2021

Among the many welcome returns of MLB playing a full 162-game schedule in 2021, baseball fans have been treated to a particularly interesting home run leaderboard chase this season.1

First of all, a pitcher — yes, we cannot state this enough, a pitcher — has led the major leagues in homers for most of the season, with Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels blasting 44 bombs and counting. It’s something we haven’t seen anything close to in about 100 years, and even the likes of Babe Ruth and Bullet Rogan are imperfect comparisons for what Ohtani has done in the hyper-specialized modern game.

But after holding the MLB lead for 75 consecutive days, from late June to early September, Ohtani has recently been passed by Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who not only ranks first in homers but also in batting average. (He’s even tied for fourth in the American League in runs batted in, putting him 10 RBI out of position for a triple crown bid.) And as Guerrero and Ohtani have gone back and forth in the last week-plus, yet another challenger — Kansas City’s Salvador Pérez — has made a strong push as a potential spoiler to the Vlad-versus-Shohei battle we were expecting down the stretch.

You can see how the overall home run chase has shaped up throughout the season from the table below, which lists the MLB leaders both within each month and, cumulatively, through each month:

How the 2021 home run leaderboard developed

MLB home run leaders for 2021, within each month and cumulatively through each month of the season

April
Through Month Team HR Within Month Team HR
J.D. Martinez BOS 9 J.D. Martinez BOS 9
5 players tied 8 5 players tied 8
May
Through Month Team HR Within Month Team HR
Ronald Acuña Jr. ATL 16 Adolis García TEX 11
Adolis García TEX 16 Max Muncy LAD 10
Fernando Tatís Jr. SD 16 Fernando Tatís Jr. SD 9
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. TOR 16 Vladimir Guerrero Jr. TOR 9
Shohei Ohtani LAA 15 7 players tied 8
June
Through Month Team HR Within Month Team HR
Shohei Ohtani LAA 28 Kyle Schwarber WAS 16
Fernando Tatís Jr. SD 26 Shohei Ohtani LAA 13
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. TOR 26 5 players tied 10
Kyle Schwarber WAS 25
Ronald Acuña Jr. ATL 22
July
Through Month Team HR Within Month Team HR
Shohei Ohtani LAA 37 Joey Votto CIN 11
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. TOR 33 Pete Alonso NYM 10
Fernando Tatís Jr. SD 31 5 players tied 9
Rafael Devers BOS 27
Matt Olson OAK 27
August
Through Month Team HR Within Month Team HR
Shohei Ohtani LAA 42 Salvador Pérez KC 12
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. TOR 39 C.J. Cron COL 11
Salvador Pérez KC 38 Bryce Harper PHI 10
Fernando Tatís Jr. SD 36 José Abreu CWS 10
3 players tied 32 Hunter Renfroe BOS 10
September
Through Month Team HR Within Month Team HR
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. TOR 46 Marcus Semien TOR 8
Salvador Pérez KC 46 Adam Duvall ATL 8
Shohei Ohtani LAA 44 Salvador Pérez KC 8
Marcus Semien TOR 41 10 players tied 7
Fernando Tatís Jr. SD 39

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

The overall HR lead has changed hands a few times over the course of the season. Ohtani was merely one of five players tied for second behind Boston’s J.D. Martinez through the end of April, and the Angels megastar engaged in a seesaw battle over the top spot with Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña Jr. for most of May, with the surprising Adolis García of the Texas Rangers  jockeying for position as well after hitting 11 homers in the month. A June hot streak by Guerrero briefly vaulted him into the lead over Ohtani and San Diego’s Fernando Tatís Jr., with then-Nationals outfielder Kyle Schwarber also joining the fray after hitting an absurd 16 home runs in the month of June alone.

Unfortunately, Schwarber and Acuña’s season totals would later lose steam because of injuries,2 and Ohtani seemed to stake himself to a solid lead with a 22-homer barrage in June and July combined. But a stretch of nearly two weeks without a home run in late July and early August opened the door for Guerrero, who belted three over that span to pull within two homers of the leader. Ohtani quickly expanded his lead back to five over Guerrero, however, which is where things sat as September approached.

Meanwhile, other dark horses were galloping into the race.

Guerrero’s teammate, Blue Jays second baseman Marcus Semien, had smashed 24 home runs by the end of July, and he added eight more in August to pull within four of Tatís for fourth place (and within 10 of Ohtani) on Aug. 31 — and he wasn’t done yet.

And the biggest power-hitting star of August was maybe the most unexpected contender for the home run crown: Pérez, a 31-year-old catcher on a bad team who had never hit more than 27 bombs in a season before 2021. After hitting the equivalent of 30 homers per 162 games last year (11 in 60 team games), Pérez had 10 homers through the end of May 2021 — a respectable total, especially for a catcher. But then he really started pouring it on: nine homers in June, seven in July and an MLB-best 12 (!) in August, helping Pérez leapfrog Tatís into No. 3 on the MLB leaderboard behind only Ohtani and Guerrero. And he wasn’t done yet, either.

With just a pair of home runs so far this month, Ohtani was chased down by Vlad Jr. on Sept. 12 and passed by Pérez on Sept. 16. As the K.C. catcher has hit eight additional homers this month, he eclipsed 40 on the year, becoming just the eighth catcher3 to ever hit that many in a season. A little over two weeks later, Pérez broke Johnny Bench’s all-time single-season catcher record of 45 blasts, which had stood unchallenged for 51 years.

Currently tied with Guerrero for the MLB lead, Pérez could very well be the interloper we never saw coming to crash Ohtani and Vlad Jr.’s summerlong HR party. The same might even be said of Semien, who leads all hitters with nine home runs this month and is six back of the leaders with 13 games left to play. (Tatís remains in the mix, too, though he has fallen behind both Pérez and Semien, in addition to Guerrero and Ohtani.)

After multiple ties and lead changes over the past week and a half, this home run race has saved some of its best for last. Closing in on the finish line is a special group, featuring MLB’s most exciting player, two of its brightest young stars, a great veteran having a career year and one of baseball’s most underrated players. As fans of the sport, what more could we ask for?

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. No offense to Luke Voit, who edged out José Abreu 22-19 for the HR crown in 2020’s abbreviated slate of games.

  2. Acuña’s tally was frozen at 24 homers after a torn ACL ended his season in early July.

  3. Among players who played at least half of their games at the position.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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