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June 25, 2012

Overthinking It

What Does Everyone Have Against Homers?

by Ben Lindbergh

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A homer is a hit too, you know that? Eventually everyone will believe that.”Joe Girardi
 

As much as most of us enjoy home runs, many of us can’t quite bring ourselves to trust them.

The Yankees have the best offense in baseball. Their .279 True Average entering last night trumped any other team’s. They haven’t scored the most runs in the majors, but that’s because of bad sequencing—they’ve hit very poorly in the clutch. Fortunately for Yankees fans, there’s no reason to expect that trend to continue. From here on out, they’ll keep hitting, and their hits will come at more opportune times. There’s really no reason to worry about the Yankees’ production at the plate.

That hasn’t stopped some people from worrying about it anyway. The Yankees, you see, hit a lot of home runs. And because they hit a lot of home runs, they score a high percentage of their runs when they hit them. A few years ago, Joe Sheehan dubbed the percentage of team runs scored via the homer the “Guillen Number,” in honor of Ozzie Guillen’s slugging White Sox. The Yankees’ Guillen Number before last night was 52.3 percent, over seven percent above the next-closest team’s (the Orioles, at 44.9 percent). That hasn’t prevented the team from posting the second-best record in baseball. Nor has it prevented some pundits from predicting their downfall.

This phenomenon is nothing new. Jay Jaffe wrote about it at the Pinstriped Bible over a year ago, when the Yankees were scoring a similar percentage of their runs via the homer and generating a similar amount of hand-wringing:

Never mind the fact that balls in play are subject to luck and defense, or that the one-run strategies are so often self-defeating ("If you play for one run, that’s all you’ll get,” as the great Earl Weaver liked to say). To eschew either at the expense of the longball is somehow a moral failure and a predictor of future doom in the eyes of some wags.

According to the traditionalists, the best lineups manufacture runs. They don’t just have them handed to them with a single swing. They’re made up of a bunch of blue-collar batters who aren’t afraid to get their uniforms dirty. They steal and hit-and-run and sacrifice and squeeze and hit the ball to the right side to get the runner over.

Home runs aren’t hard-nosed. They make teams seem passive—people say that the Yankees “sit back and wait for a home run,” as if their offense were on welfare or about to go bankrupt if not for a bailout. As a species, we like to be in control, or at least to have the illusion of control. That’s why some travelers feel better about driving than they do about flying, even though planes are demonstrably safer. We like our teams to be in control, too, and teams that rely heavily on the homer are rarely a managerial move away from pushing a run across. They live and die by big swings, and when the big swing doesn’t come, they can’t do much to change their fate. So instead of praising their skill at scoring via the homer, people lament their struggles to score by other means.

Yesterday, the Yankees played the Mets, which meant that the game was on ESPN. ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball broadcast team of Dan Shulman, Terry Francona, and Orel Hershiser (particularly Shulman and Francona) brought up the Yankees’ reliance on the home run early and often. It started in the top of the third, when Shulman and Francona had the following exchange:

Shulman: To grossly oversimplify the Yankees’ offense this year, when they hit home runs, they win. When they don’t, they lose. It’s not quite that simple, but they rely on the home run more than any team in baseball. Joe Girardi says ‘I don’t care how we score them, as long as we score more than the other team,’ but over 52 percent of their runs come on homers. That’s by far the highest percentage in baseball.

Francona: You know, if I was Joe Girardi, I’d say the same thing, but—the good news is, they hit a lot of home runs, the bad news is, as you get towards playoff time, it’s harder to win that way. And they know that.

One batter later, Nick Swisher hit a three-run homer to give the Yankees a 4-0 lead.

You’d think that would have been a sign. In the eighth, Robinson Cano added another home run to put the team ahead for good. Four of the Yankees’ six runs had come via the home run, and because of those six runs, they were winning the game. That didn’t stop the discussion from starting up again. Instead of portraying the homers in a positive light, the broadcasters chose to see them as an ominous sign:

Shulman: The Yankees lead the major leagues in home runs with 112. And they need them to score.

Francona: You know, they’ve become a little bit one dimensional, especially with [Brett] Gardner not in the lineup.

Shulman: They’re just 1-13 this year when they don’t hit a home run… There are those who feel, ‘Hey, it’s great, they’ve got this weapon, it’s all good.’ And there are those who feel once October comes, assuming the Yankees are playing in October, and you’re dealing with the better pitching teams, and the ball is not going to fly out of the ballpark as much—and then, Terry, can the Yankees manufacture a run here and there if they need to?

Francona: I know Joe Girardi gets tired of talking about it, because he gets asked about it and asked about it, but I think it’s a pertinent question, and one we’re not going to know. Because we know they’re most likely going to make the playoffs, but can they survive like this? It’s hard.

This is what’s known as a narrative. Narratives require no evidence. They just have to sound convincing, and this one does, if you don’t think about it too hard. After all, home runs are harder to come by in October. If you can’t score without them, how are you going to score?

Let’s see whether the numbers fit the narrative. Since the advent of the wild card in 1995, 132 teams have made the playoffs. Those 132 teams scored an average of 5.1 runs per game during the regular season, and they scored 36.5 percent of their runs on home runs.

Over the same period, 372 teams failed to make the playoffs. Those teams scored an average of 4.6 runs per game—about half a run less than the playoff teams. They scored 34.7 percent of those runs on home runs. So there’s our first factoid: from 1995-2011, playoff teams scored a higher percentage of their runs on home runs than non-playoff teams.

Okay, but Francona didn’t say that scoring a lot of runs on homers could keep a team out of the playoffs. He suggested that it might hurt a team that’s already made it to October. So what if we compare playoff teams to playoff teams?

Remember those 132 playoff teams I mentioned, the ones that scored 5.1 runs per game during the regular season? In the playoffs, they scored only 3.9, a decrease of about 23 percent. That’s not surprising: they were facing better pitchers, better defenders, and colder temperatures than they had during most of the regular season, so we’d expect them to score less often. What we want to know is whether the ones that were more reliant on home runs took a bigger hit.

So let’s split those 132 teams into the 66 that were most reliant on homers and the 66 that were least reliant on homers. When we do that, this is what we find:

Teams

Avg. Guillen #

Reg. Season R/G

Playoff R/G

Decrease

More Reliant on HR

40.0%

5.20

4.25

18.3%

Less Reliant on HR

33.1%

5.00

3.63

27.4%

The teams that were more reliant on home runs saw their scoring decrease by about 50 percent less than the others. Relying on the home run hasn’t made teams more vulnerable in October. If anything, it’s made them more October proof.

When you think about it, it makes sense that having a homer-hitting team would help. A home run is the only kind of hit that isn’t playable. A better defensive team converts more balls in play into outs, but home runs aren’t in play. In the playoffs, a team faces better fielders, and those fielders allow fewer balls to fall for singles, doubles, and triples. But almost all home runs are out of the reach of even the best outfieldes, so the opposing defense doesn’t matter. And while playoff pitchers are less prone to coughing up homers than the average arm, they’re also less likely to allow every other kind of hit. As hard as it might be to take them deep compared to the difficulty of doing that against an average pitcher, it’s even harder to string together enough hits of other kinds to score on them without going yard.

It’s true that the Yankees have a higher Guillen Number than any team that’s ever made the playoffs— the 2008 White Sox, at 47.5 percent, had the highest to date—but I can’t come up with a good reason why that would be worrisome. For one thing, their percentage is bound to come down. Only one team—the 2010 Blue Jays—has ever finished a season with a Guillen Number that high, and odds are New York’s Number is about to regress. The Yankees have the AL’s lowest batting average with runners in scoring position, which isn’t going to last. Once their luck in the clutch turns, they’ll score more of their runs on non-homer hits.

But even if the Yankees spent the whole season finding ways to kill time between three-run homers, it wouldn’t be a cause for concern. Playoff teams have higher Guillen Numbers than non-playoff teams, and playoff teams that have high Guillen Numbers keep more of their clout in October than those that don’t. If the Yankees weren’t good at hitting home runs, their reliance on hitting home runs would be a big problem. But the Yankees are the best team in baseball at hitting home runs. And even if it’s not what the narrative says, they’re better off for it.

Thanks to Dan Turkenkopf for research assistance.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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