If there’s one cliché in baseball that refuses to die, it’s that the game changes come playoff time. Conventional wisdom holds that teams need to “shorten up”, put the ball in play, and grind out runs in the playoffs since the pitching is so much better.
Supposedly, you can’t rely on home runs. I’m someone naturally skeptical of conventional wisdom. “This is the way we’ve always done it” is the most dangerous saying in the world. I can’t help but think, especially after watching the last three MLB playoffs closer than any since 2009, that that conventional wisdom doesn’t hold up.
One sub-idea that ties into this is that home runs are fewer and farther between in the playoffs. On the one hand, it kind of makes sense, right? Playoff teams tend to have better pitching and far more aggressive use of relievers, so it’s not a huge leap to say that power drops off in October.
Of course, playoff teams tend to have better hitters too. You’d think that an increase in both the pitching and offense columns would cancel each other out, but the edge in relief pitching does more to suppress offense than better hitters do to optimize it. In 2018 alone we saw runs per game per team fall to 2.79 in the postseason after averaging 4.45 in the regular season.
Fewer runners cross the plate in October, and of course runs correlate almost perfectly with batters reaching base. Accordingly, teams have to find a way to optimize their chances of reaching base, and that means doing what you can to hit more home runs:
Playoff home runs track regular season production really closely, far closer than total offensive production. Postseason home runs go up by 0.01617 per game over the regular season, a difference that, in real terms, is effectively zero. What changes is that there are fewer men on base; teams hit the same number of home runs, they’re just more likely to be solo shots. That’s not the fault of the lineup, though. It’s caused by the defending team.
When you step away from conventional wisdom, of course this makes sense. Better pitchers, better defenses, and most importantly, aggressive defensive positioning makes it harder and harder for balls in play to turn to hits. One of the more underrated factors in the Red Sox’ World Series win was their constant shuffling of Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi and J.D. Martinez in the outfield. While Jackie Bradley Jr. held down center field, the former three were rotated in and out of the lineup depending on the ballpark and situation. When on the road in the World Series, Betts and Martinez would swap coverage depending on the hitter’s tendencies.
If it felt like every single fly ball hit to the outfield against Boston was flagged down, that’s because it pretty much was. It wasn’t luck or some preternatural instinct, though, as the outfielders were simply positioned where the Red Sox’ analytics team told them to be. That kind of advanced approach to defense actually makes it harder to “put the ball in play”, and lowers the relative value of contact. Therefore, players will be more inclined towards hitting home runs, and that’s reflected in the numbers.
What about teams with extreme home run reliance, though? Can they survive in the playoffs, and does the offense hold up? Conventional wisdom would hold that a team with a higher Guillen number — the percentage of runs a team scores that come from the home run — would struggle to score in the postseason. In reality, it makes no difference. Offense in general dips come October, but it dips universally for everyone.
The 30 teams that have made the playoffs since 2016 range in Guillen number from mid-50% to half that. Yet there’s no correlation between a higher Guillen number and a greater decline in postseason scoring. The correlation coefficient in this set is just 0.1, so slight it may as well be noise.
Related to the conventional wisdom around playoff small ball is that home runs, while useful, don’t guarantee you winning. Even if the traditionalist accepts the math presented above, they’ll fall back on the idea that hitting home runs doesn’t lead to victory. Fortunately for us, it’s easy to see this kind of binary. In a given series, did the team that hit the most home runs win or not? If conventional wisdom is to believed, this binary should break down as either 50/50 or a majority of wins going toward the team that doesn’t hit more home runs, since that wisdom holds that victory doesn’t necessarily follow the long ball approach.
Hitting more home runs leads to series victories almost two-thirds of the time. More importantly, failing to hit at least as many home runs as your opponent means you can expect to lose a series about three quarters of the time. Home runs are good, and you should hit as many as you possibly can.
Of course, there are times when teams defy this math. Of the 23 series since 2009 where the team with fewer home runs wins, three came from one team in 2014. The San Fransisco Giants were out-homered by the Nationals in the Division Series, Cardinals in the Championship Series, and by the Royals in the World Series.
It was an unprecedented level of success for a team without much power, but of course it was made possible by Madison Bumgarner dragging the Giants through the playoffs by the scruff of their necks. Bumgarner ended up the NLCS and World Series MVP in a career-defining performance. But here’s the thing: If you are trying to bank on repeating a once in a lifetime event, you’re most likely going to fail.
The reality is, you’re much better off to hit the same way you hit all season once the playoffs roll around. For 90% of teams, that involves working the count and hitting home runs, and that even extends to individual players. Aaron Judge and Mookie Betts are natural rivals, even if they’re too nice to behave that way. They’re the best players on their respective teams, the crown jewels of both farm system overhauls, and to boot they’re even the two best defenders in baseball at the position they share. Come October those similarities start to disappear.
In 18 career playoff games, Judge sports a healthy 160 wRC+, which matches up well with his 155 career wRC+. His walk rate is 15.2%, compared to a career rate of 16.7%. His average drops in the postseason from .273 to .254, but he makes up the difference by increasing the power of each batted ball. His HR/FB% goes up 27 basis points in the playoffs, showing Judge really is selling out for the home run, which is supposedly so frowned upon. His playoff slugging percentage? Up 62 basis points. His playoff ISO? Up 81 basis points.
Now, Mookie Betts. He’s played 21 career playoff games, so actually a closer sample to Judge than you’d think - mostly because 2018 was the first time he’d been out of the divisional round. Unlike Judge, Betts has been abysmal in the playoffs, and had Boston lost the World Series, would almost certainly worn the collar as a scapegoat. He has a career 65 wRC+ in October, less than half his robust 135 regular season mark. It’s not just the top-line where Betts struggles, either.
His walk rate actually increases 0.7 basis points, which is close enough to call negligible. That’s about the only good news. His HR/FB rate goes from 11.6% in his career to 3.3% in the playoffs. His batting average drops 70 points, and unlike Judge, Betts doesn’t compensate with more power. His slugging and ISO fall dramatically in the playoffs, by 177 and 101 points respectively. For a player seen by so many as the antithesis of the fly ball-launch angle revolution — which in itself isn’t true and merits its own article — Betts’ approach changes in the playoffs. He adjusts to what conventional wisdom says should be done, and he’s borderline unplayable at the plate because of it.
The truth is, grinding and manufacturing helps out the pitcher more than anyone else. Take Chris Sale for example. He gives up about 0.41 singles per inning pitched. Extra-base hits are overwhelmingly the result of a home run-focused approach, hitting the ball as hard as possible in the air. Conventional wisdom says to avoid that, right? Focus on going base to base.
This means you need three singles in an inning to score a run, and there’s about a 1.2% chance of doing that against Sale. There’s a 7% chance that you’ll hit a home run against him in any given inning. When facing the best pitchers in baseball, you are so, so much more likely to hit a home run than work station to station, and the end result is the same number of runs.
Lastly, there’s the change in the way managers approach playoff games. Jack Morris is gone and not coming back. Starters aren’t throwing ten innings in Game Seven anymore. With a dozen men in the bullpen, most pitchers don’t even get to see two trouble spots in a start. Think about the 2018 Wild Card Game against Oakland. Luis Severino was allowed to get himself out of trouble in the fourth after loading the bases, but was taken out in the fifth with two on and nobody out, despite having surrendered no runs.
Two on, nobody out and down by two runs, what Oakland really needed was a home run. It would put them ahead and change the complexion of the game in a big way. Instead, Severino is gone, replaced by Dellin Betances, one of the most effective run-preventers in all of baseball, and Oakland gets nothing. If it were 15 years ago, Sevy is probably allowed to finish that inning, or at least isn’t pulled so early. That means it’s more advantageous to work station to station. With the quantity and quality of bullpen pitchers in the playoffs in this era, though, you need your offense to strike quickly and decisively, lest you get caught staring down the likes of Betances or Josh Hader.
Home runs are good, and they go an awful long way in helping you win. That holds true in the regular season and in October. The Yankees didn’t get bounced in the ALDS because of an over-reliance on home runs, and there needn’t be a change in offensive philosophy. Keep hitting home runs, improve your own run-suppression, make better bullpen decisions, and things will take care of themselves.
This is the second story in Pinstripe Alley’s three-part Home Run or Bust series. Join us on Friday, November 23rd for the final installment, where we do a deep dive into the power profiles of Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres.