Who Will Win The Nationals Home Run Race?

Washington Nationals v Los Angeles Dodgers
Washington Nationals v Los Angeles Dodgers / Harry How/GettyImages

In Wednesday's series finale against the Dodgers, the Nationals did something they hadn't done in a while: they mashed five home runs in a game. That was the team's first five-homer game of the season, and they only did it once last season. The last time the team hit more than five in a game was in 2021, when Jon Lester joined Juan Soto (twice), Josh Bell, Trea Turner and Tres Barrera in routing the Marlins. Yes, Jon Lester, the then-37-year-old pitcher, homered in that game. That's the kind of miracle it takes for these Nationals to hit six in one game.

As you may have heard, the weather is getting warmer and baseballs are starting to get the few extra feet of carry they need to turn a extreme-dinger league into an extremer-dinger league. If you hadn't heard, you can step outside and see for yourself. As the sun intensifies so does the crack of major-league bats, as was clear when the Nats jumped on their old friend Noah Syndergaard and several Dodgers relievers. It begs the question: who will win the Nationals home run crown? The quick answer is, at the moment, nobody knows.

It's time to update my preseason preview of the team's prospective home run hitters. As was expected, the 2023 Nationals are, so far, really bad at hitting home runs. They are 28th in MLB in home runs, but hey, at least they're first in singles! Their high-average, low-power offense sums up to the 22nd best offense, which shows the relative weight of power hitting versus singles hitting. The team's home run leaderboard, therefore, is unimpressive compared to most other teams, but it is an intriguing collection of potential power hitters.

Current Nationals HR Leader - Lane Thomas

Here's the rankings after two months of play: Lane Thomas leads with eight, followed by Jeimer Candelario and Keibert Ruiz with seven, CJ Abrams with six, Luis Garcia with four, Alex Call with three, and Riley Adams, Corey Dickerson, and Joey Meneses at two. That final name is the most surprising, after an explosive homer binge last year and a few WBC blasts before the season. After such heroics, I predicted Meneses would lead the team and "should easily get to 25 homers or more". That prediction is clearly in jeopardy early in the season, and Joey's power outage has led to several others making a case in the long ball department.

Seven or eight home runs in two months is solid, and if any of the three team leaders keep pace and finish the season with 21-24 home runs that would be a decent shot at the team lead. Twenty-ish home runs is what you might call league-average power, and that seems to fit the profiles of Thomas, Candelario, and Ruiz. Notably, none of those players have ever reached 20 in a season before, so that will be the goal for the trio. Candelario and Thomas have been the team's two most consistent hitters overall, but there's not much reason to expect any sudden power surges from them.

Keibert Ruiz has been up and down for most of the season, and his two-homer game and three-homer series against his former team was a huge jump to his overall power numbers right at the end of May. Ruiz is a contact-first hitter with middling exit velocity numbers, but that doesn't mean he can't go deep: his barrel% and xSLG are excellent, he's still young and improving, and his elite ability to avoid strikeouts gives him more balls in play to be productive with. If there's any hitter on the cusp of a breakout right now it's Keibert, who has been one of the unluckiest hitters in baseball this season. His energetic performance in Los Angeles is a flash of a potential star, and one that might run away with the home run lead if he can stay healthy.

Luis Garcia and CJ Abrams complete a young trio with Ruiz that is brimming with potential. Each have shown impressive power in spurts; Abrams has been a pleasant surprise in that area while Garcia has somewhat disappointed. Abrams has run a lower batting average and higher slugging than expected, and his six home runs are an encouraging sign for a speedy shortstop who contributes in other areas. His homer against Noah Syndergaard was particularly impressive as he crushed a changeup on the outside edge to the pull side. The 22-year-old is starting to put it together. He's a work in progress at the plate but has above-average raw power that he is beginning to get to in games. Most of that applies to Garcia, 23, as well, who followed Abrams with an even more impressive pull-side home run off of Brusdar Graterol. Garcia seems power-hitter-ish at his best but has struggled with inconsistency as a major leaguer.

There's plenty of time for Ruiz, Abrams, and Garcia to develop, but the sooner they can show power gains, the better. It would be an excellent sign for the franchise's future if any of them can become legitimate power-hitters: that means homering every week on average, or five-plus times each month, or getting to 25-30 in a season. It's not clear if these three will ever get there, but I think there's a chance, especially for Luis Garcia. Things are going decently for them so far. It's not too late for a much-needed breakout from a member of the core.

Joey Meneses is the one player who we already know is capable of ascending to elite-power territory. Being 5th in MLB in hits (huh?) is a decent consolation prize, but his first two months have left fans wanting. He's getting his bat on the ball plenty, but he hasn't been in fence-swinging mode all season. It's fair to wonder whether he was a flash in the pan that has since faded, but that's almost certainly too harsh for someone hitting .300. Here's the ideal scenario: Joey starts swinging just a little bit harder and hitting the ball a little bit higher and recaptures his '22 form. His ability to hit many kinds of pitches in many locations out to all fields is rare, and if Joey goes streaking he can inspire the Nats youth to follow suit. There's a realistic scenario where Joey, Keibert, Luis, and CJ all join Lane and Jeimer in hitting 15+ home runs, maybe more, and maybe enough to vault a few teams and become a dinger-threatening team on the whole.

This team is already much better than I expected this season, and that plus the improving weather is fueling such optimism for the rest of the season. Home runs are on the menu, and they can unlock another level of production for an already-decent offense. I'm obliged to mention Stone Garrett at the end here, who is a realistic long-shot type of power hitter who could throw in some bonus bombs. Dominic Smith doesn't seem to have enough voltage to challenge any of his teammates but a couple of homers would go a long way for him, and the same mostly goes for Corey Dickerson and Alex Call. Those three don't figure to factor into the wig-donning leaderboard, but there's a big difference between a three-homer season and a thirteen-homer season, it remains to be seen which mark they might end at.

Future Nationals HR Leader - Lane Thomas?

Here's some final predictions just for the fun of it. It looks like it could be a neck and neck race for the crown, and I'll say that Lane Thomas wins it in tortoise-like fashion with a career-high total of 25. He has a penchant for jumping on early-count fastballs, especially against lefties, and has slowly improved at the plate overall. His improvements have enabled him to seize the leadoff spot in the lineup, and he figures to remain there through the season and get the most chances of any Nats hitter. He doesn't have above average exit velocity, max exit velocity, or barrel%, but that doesn't necessarily matter. He has a similar profile to Marcus Semien, who is a star with a huge contract and a great glove, but has nearly identical exit velo and barrel stats to Thomas. Both players lead off, hunt fastballs and pull them in the air, which is enough to rack up home runs with middling raw power. Here's the 2023 slash lines for Thomas and Semien: .284/.340/.456 with 8 HR and .295/.366/.485 with 8 HR. Disregarding defense, Lane Thomas is a perfect fit as the value-menu Semien, who also has 8 homers now.

Jeimer Candelario will be close behind and will reach 20 for the first time, although some of his missiles may be launched while wearing another team's colors. I still believe in Luis Garcia, and not just because I have predicted his breakout several times before, and he will also reach the 20 mark. CJ Abrams' plate discipline is worrying and the everyday workload for Keibert Ruiz's lower body is even more so; I would be surprised if CJ, Keibert, or Joey Meneses managed to reach over 20 but the three should at least come close. At the end of the day the title, which is currently held by Juan Soto in four straight seasons (sharing 2019's honor with Anthony Rendon), is absolutely anybody's to take.

All stats via FanGraphs and StatHead