If you were hoping to see members of a club that prides itself on not excessively hyping and overrating its own respective teams, then this probably isn't the piece for you. And if you like homers as in home runs, then this piece probably won't get you going, either.
But if you like loads of contact, lots of speed and quality defense (we'll call it the Ichiro Suzuki special), then this might be your bag. These days, it's pretty hard to imagine how a player can be that effective when he's not hitting home runs. Particularly when I'm not talking about the guys that only hit a half-dozen home runs. I'm talking about guys that went from station to station, going through the dog days of summer just to look up at the big circle hanging under the "HR" column on their baseball card.
Being a great player while definitively eschewing the home run is exceptionally difficult, but as Matt Klaassen showed over at FanGraphs, guys can thrive even while hitting exactly zero home runs. And those are precisely the guys I'm going to look at today; the best players of 2011 that haven't hit a home run yet. Through defense, batting average, on-base skills and base-running, these guys have accumulated value like some of the game's most vaunted sluggers, even though they have as much pop as your local high school's shortstop. We'll look at the five best here, ranked inversely using FanGraphs WAR.
5) Nyjer Morgan, Milwaukee: 0.8 WAR
Morgan's a bit of an unusual case, given that he's only played in 15 games so far this season due to a finger injury. But his sample size was small enough to allow him to post a .524 BABIP. So even though Morgan was only walking 5% of the time and never hit a home run, he still managed to post a .379/.419/.586 line in 35 PA's. Toss in a ridiculously high UZR figure, and that's how you see the former National pop up on this list.
4) Nick Punto, St. Louis: 0.8 WAR
Nick Punto is an interesting player. You'd generally assume that he's awful because he's such a poor hitter, but in reality Punto's actually been a somewhat effective player. Minnesota fans may have grown frustrated because of the club's apparent affection for him, but realistically he's been such a good defensive player that he's been a near league-average player even while posting a .284 slugging percentage.
His OBP's range from absolutely unacceptable (.291 in 2007) to pretty darn good (.352 in 2006, .344 in 2008), and this season his numbers are sitting directly in the pretty darn good category. Combined with his usual high-quality defensive work, Punto's quietly been an absolutely fantastic signing for the Cards. The former Twin is on the disabled list right now, but part of me wonders whether the Cardinals would be better off playing him at shortstop in favor of Ryan Theriot once he's healthy.
3) Dexter Fowler, Colorado: 0.9 WAR
Fowler's an interesting player. Right now, he's basically a poor man's Mike Cameron: good defense in center, some power, some steals, lots of walks, but way too many strikeouts. But so far this season, Fowler's power has come in the gaps, rather than over the fence. His isolated power is still acceptable at .113 thanks to 12 doubles and 4 triples, but the fact that he's swinging-and-missing even more than normal right now certainly can't be seen as a good thing. He's currently batting .249 with a .358 BABIP; if he doesn't start to make more contact, as his BABIP drops that batting average is going to get really ugly. But we've seen solid performance from the 25-year-old in the past, and as he enters his prime he's still a center fielder with a .331 career wOBA.
2) Jamey Carroll, Los Angeles (NL): 1.1 WAR
Boy, this proving to be a great signing for the Dodgers. LA signed Carroll before the 2009 season to be the club's utility infielder, and he's been nothing but fantastic since then. Sure, he still hasn't hit a home run in a Dodgers uniform even though he's received 610 plate appearances. But he's posted a .376 OBP while playing capable defense at numerous positions, and it's particularly notable that he's played admirably while replacing Rafael Furcal for extended periods at shortstop. Like most of these guys, he's thriving with a combination of walks and a high BABIP, but for Carroll that's long been a core part of his offensive profile. The infielder has a .326 career BABIP, and has posted a mark below .335 just once since 2006.
1) Michael Bourn, Houston: 1.5 WAR
(Author's Note: Apparently Bourn wanted no part of this club, because he blasted his first home run of the season in the first inning of today's game, at essentially the same time that this post went online. Nice going, Mikey.)
This guy is pretty much following the the textbook way to accumulate value without hitting homers. He gets on base, he's an elite base-runner, and he's one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball. So even though he hasn't hit a home run this season and his career isolated power is below .100, Bourn has still been one of the best outfielders in baseball over the past couple seasons. As he gets older and loses his top-of-the-line speed, Bourn likely won't be as effective, but so far this season he's done nothing to indicate that he can't continue to play like he's played over the past few years.