If you've watched a MLB game in the past couple years, you may have picked up on a few trends. The game is increasingly tending towards the Three True Outcomes: walks, strikeouts, and home runs.
There were 5610 home runs smashed in 2016, a kind of number which we haven't seen since the high-offense era of the late-1990's and early-2000's. Just a few days into the season, it's impossible to tell if the increase that we saw last year will continue (though if Ronald Torreyes and Jacoby Ellsbury are crushing homers, maybe home run rates really are up).
It's also difficult to pick out exactly why this surge has occurred, though it's likely due to a confluence of events. The proliferation of batted ball data, like exit velocity and launch angle, due to Statcast, concerted efforts by many players to get the ball in the air, and possibly even a juiced ball, all may have combined to suddenly elevate home run rates league-wide.
This week at ESPN, Dan Szymborski, creator of the well-know ZiPS projections, published an interesting story about how another high home run rate could affect projections. Projection systems like ZiPS regress outliers toward the mean, and last season's home run rate sure looked like an outlier, so ZiPS naturally assumed there would be fewer home runs this season than last. In his piece, Szymborski delved into which teams’ projections would be altered most if ZiPS, instead of regressing home runs toward the mean, assumed that this change in home run rates wasn't a fluke, but a new normal.
How would the Yankees be affected if home runs fly at the same rate this season as they did last year? From one perspective, they wouldn't be affected all that much. A higher home run rate benefits players that hit home runs a lot, players like Nelson Cruz, Edwin Encarnacion, and Chris Davis. Speedy slap-hitters like, say, the left and center fielders for the Yankees, stand to benefit much less.
Last year, the Yankees hit 183 home runs, four less than the average team. This year, they don't look to be much more power-oriented. Some Yankees do possess plenty of power, like Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, and Chris Carter, but the likes of Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, and Chase Headley, among others, help drag the Yankees' overall power-outlook back towards the middle.
Likewise, Szymborski's projections forecast the Yankees for the exact same number of wins (81) regardless of which level of home runs you choose. The Yankees do play in a homer-friendly ballpark that would make it seem as though they would stand to benefit from a high home run rate, but the Yankees' just don't appear to have the personnel to take advantage of a home run spike.
However, there is one area where an elevated rate of homers could affect the Yankees: playoff odds. The Yankees themselves might not benefit much from more home runs, but if the teams they must directly contend with do, then New York would have a much tougher road to October.
That's exactly what ZiPS forecasts for the Yankees. The Yankees are a .500 team in both versions of the ZiPS projections, but their division rivals, the Blue Jays, Red Sox, Rays, and Orioles all would stand to gain from more home runs. As a result, the Yankees' playoff chances would drop from 21% to 15% per ZiPS, the sixth-highest fall in the league.
The Orioles would appear to take a leap forward if homers fly at the same rate as 2016, with their projection increasing from 80 to 84 wins, the largest increase in the game. This makes sense, given their employment of sluggers like Davis, Mark Trumbo, Adam Jones, and Manny Machado.
Toronto also sees a nice boost in the elevated home run scenario, from 87 to 89 wins. The Blue Jays crushed 221 home runs last year, fourth in MLB, and while they did lose Edwin Encarnacion, they still have plenty of power left in their lineup. Finally, ZiPS estimates the Red Sox and Rays would each gain one win, from 93 to 94 wins, in Boston's case, and from 82 to 83 wins, in Tampa Bay's case.
If the Yankees truly are the only team in the division that wouldn't benefit from balls soaring over the wall at the same level they did last year, then their playoff chances would take a legitimate hit should 2016 prove to be less of a fluke and more of a new baseline. The Yankees' playoff odds weren't exactly great assuming that 2016's home run rate was a bit of an outlier, and more dingers could only serve to hurt those odds. More home runs is generally a pretty fun development, but in the Yankees' case, we may want to root for fewer round-trippers.