We live in the era of the home run. Much like basketball teams have discovered that three pointers are worth more than two pointers, or how football teams have found that passing the ball is more efficient than running the ball, baseball teams have gone all in on the value of the long ball. Players are no longer ashamed to sit back and try to drive the ball in the air, the potential for a swing-and-miss be damned.
The backlash to the rise of the home run has been loud at times. Fans cry foul when teams appear to depend on the long ball. “What happened to small ball?” they ask. Why are all the players on my favorite team trying to hit it out of the park, instead of just trying to get good wood on the ball?
Perhaps no team in baseball has faced more criticism for their home run reliance than the Yankees. Some fans of the team see their ability to crush home runs as a weakness. They see the rate at which the ball flies as a crutch. The Yankees rely too much on the home run, they say.
This sentiment is more powerful than ever right now, but it’s also not new. Managers have been forced to answer for their teams supposed over-reliance on home runs before. It’s happened right here in New York. Back in 2012, Joe Girardi had to defend his team against the same grumblings. To the critics, who wondered why the Yankees weren’t trying to make more contact and record more hits, Girardi offered: “A homer is a hit too, you know that? Eventually everyone will believe that.”
To some extent, the grumblings make sense. Today’s level of reliance on home runs is different, and humans are resistant to change. Moreover, the strategy can feel particularly frustrating when it fails, when the team doesn’t hit any home runs and scores just one or two runs. It’s at least a little understandable to feel the Yankees rely too much on homers. It’s also wrong.
The Yankees led the league in home runs in 2018. In fact, they led all teams ever, as their 267 home runs set a record. They won 100 baseball games in the process. The Dodgers were second in MLB with 235 home runs. They won the NL West and the National League pennant. The Athletics were third, with 227 home runs. They won 97 games. The Brewers were fourth, with 218 home runs. They won 96 games and the NL Central. Notice a pattern?
This is anecdotal evidence, but as I will go into further detail later, there are more than anecdotes at hand here. In the modern game, home runs aren’t a luxury; they are a necessity. They are the engine on which modern offenses run.
It’s easy to point at rising strikeout and home run rates and say that it wasn’t always like this. That the game is growing more stagnant. That today’s players are getting away from the game’s core values, of putting the ball in play, of being a true hitter.
Maybe today’s game has lost something with the rise of the three true outcomes, the home run, walk, and strikeout. Maybe not. Whether today’s statistical trends are aesthetically pleasing is debatable. What isn’t debatable is whether it’s good for a team to hit lots of home runs. Do the Yankees hit too many home runs? No. Why? Because there is no such thing as hitting too many home runs.
The Yankees do rely heavily on the home run. This is not a problem, as the best way to score is to hit home runs. The single best outcome of any given plate appearance, regardless of situation, is a home run. To some extent, I could simply point out to you that the Yankees, by FanGraphs’ all-encompassing wRC+ metric, ranked second in baseball in overall offense. I could simply note the Yankees posted a .617 winning percentage. The Yankees had a great offense and a great team. If relying too much on home runs was a crutch, then why were the Yankees so good?
We can do better. I turned, in this instance, to Guillen Number, which measures the proportion of runs a team scored via the home run. The term was coined by Joe Sheehan, after former White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. Sheehan named the metric after Guillen due to the propensity of Guillen’s teams to thrive when hitting home runs, despite the popular sentiment at the time that Guillen’s teams were reliant on small-ball tactics. This year’s Yankees led the league with an extremely high Guillen Number of 50.8%. The Yankees scored a majority of their runs on home runs this season.
The Yankees are merely one data point. So, with the help of Baseball Prospectus, which calculates Guillen Number for all teams, I took a look at how every team in the league this year did in terms of Guillen Number, and in terms of overall offense, in this case measured using OPS:
There’s not a perfect relationship here, but there’s also little indication that relying on home runs has hurt the teams that have done so. The top three teams in Guillen Number this year all had above average OPS figures. Three of the bottom four teams in Guillen Number finished in the bottom four for OPS.
To get a more concrete picture of how well teams that rely on the home run did on offense, I calculated the correlation between a team’s Guillen Number and that team’s OPS for 2018. That yielded a correlation of .437. That’s not a particularly strong relationship, but it’s not a weak one either. Teams that relied on home runs in 2018 generally had good offenses.
The 2018 season is just one year, of course. I repeated this exercise for previous years. In 2017, the correlation between Guillen Number and OPS was weaker, at .247, but still positive and not insignificant. In 2016, the correlation between Guillen Number and OPS was .307. In 2015, it was .473. In 2014, .233.
Again, these relationships certainly aren’t one-to-one. There’s nothing to suggest that Guillen Number entirely predicts a team’s quality of offense. It does appear, however, that there is a positive relationship between relying on home runs and putting together a good offense.
At the very least, relying heavily on home runs hasn’t stopped teams from generating offense. You might ask, then, about the inverse. How do teams that don’t rely on the long ball do in terms of offense? Perhaps there’s an even stronger connection between putting the ball in play and overall offensive production?
Those who believe that contact hitting is a superior strategy to relying on the long ball likely believe in the merits of scratching runs together. String a few singles in a row, maybe manufacture a run. Bunts, sacrifice flies, productive outs. The types of tactics that don’t require a big fly but can still yield a run or two.
What proponents of this type of offense miss is how difficult it is, especially in modern baseball, to do the things that “manufacturing runs” requires. Small-ball offense needs a steady diet of base hits, singles, luck on balls in play to succeed. It relies not only on the offense doing something right, but the defense doing something wrong. In the age of big data, with teams scheming all sorts of ways to shift and position themselves and to get batters out, this is getting harder and harder to do.
Not only that, small ball is a low-upside strategy. Hitting home runs yields one run at a bare minimum, and typically much more. A sacrifice bunt or fly will almost always yield a maximum of one run, if that. Playing for one run is a restrictive, counter-intuitive way to play when there are more rewards for being bold.
Now, let’s turn back to the data. To be sure that playing small ball, that relying on contact rather than power, is counter-intuitive, I inverted my process from before. Instead of looking at the correlation between a team’s OPS and its Guillen Number, I looked at the rate at which a team put the ball in play. To do this, I looked at a team’s plate appearances in a season, and removed all events that didn’t involve a ball in play: home runs, walks, strikeouts, hit-by-pitches.
Here’s what it looks like when we plot the rate at which a team puts balls in play against overall offense:
There’s almost nothing there, and a much worse picture than was painted by Guillen Number. I calculated the correlation between a team’s rate of balls in play and their overall offense, and saw a negative figure of -.107 in 2018. The story was the same going back in time, with a correlation of -.164 in 2017, -.149 in 2016, -.238 in 2015, and .045 in 2014.
More often than not in recent years, being a contact-oriented team that forsakes home runs in lieu of balls in play has had a negative relationship with overall offense. The results are clear: teams that relied on home runs have generally had good offenses, while teams that relied on contact have generally had bad offenses.
Of course, home run reliance is not a be-all-end-all when it comes to offense. Teams that rely on home runs can have bad offenses, and vice versa. Look no further than the World Champion Red Sox for proof. Boston ranked just 18th in Guillen Number and 8th in rate of balls in play in 2018, but rode a strong offense all the way to a World Series title.
Yet the Red Sox aren’t proof that contact hitting is what powers good teams. They are just one example of a great team that didn’t rely on home runs. Recent history has shown that not only is home run reliance not a bad thing, it has generally been a positive when it comes to a team’s hitting.
You simply can’t be too reliant on home runs if you are as good as the Yankees are at hitting home runs. It’s like saying Usain Bolt was too reliant on his speed, or Stephen Curry is too reliant on his jumpshot. The Yankees relied on home runs this year, and they had a great offense because of it. To say otherwise flies in the face of how baseball is played today. And really, do you want to stand in opposition of this?
This is the first story in Pinstripe Alley’s three-part Home Run or Bust series. Join us on Wednesday, November 21st when we take a look at the Yankees and a home run approach in the postseason.