In the public perception of playoff baseball, the big things (i.e. offensive fireworks) often shrivel up, while the small things (i.e. baserunning, defense, and managing) get overexposed, especially with Alex Rodriguez and John Smoltz, noted lovers of small ball and the sacrifice bunt, involved with the national broadcast. Now, in 2020, the counternarrative has become, “You must out-homer your opponent to win,” as statistics saying exactly that were thrown around during the first few rounds of the playoffs. In a piece from October 15, The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh attempted to suss out the veracity of that very notion. He found that yes, teams who did out-homer their opponent won an overwhelming majority of the time, but it wasn’t all that simple.
In Jeff Sullivan’s 2017 post for FanGraphs, he showed that in the playoffs, with more consistently excellent pitching talent, teams score less often, as batting average on balls in play declines and strikeouts rise. Across the board however, he found that home run rates in the playoffs remained stable as compared to the regular season. From this, we can see that instead of homers evaporating in the playoffs, in fact, it’s just about everything else that does. Stingier defenses take hits away, and sharper pitching makes any contact more difficult. However, when batters make solid contact, the ball travels just as far, resulting in a consistency of the home run rate between the regular season and playoffs.
Lindbergh too found that scoring, across teams and eras, became more reliant upon the home run come playoff time. According to his research, between 2015 and 2020, teams that out-homer their opponent in the regular season have a winning percentage of .771, whereas in the playoffs that number jumps to .825. Lindbergh also accounted for the growing percentage of lopsided home run totals, as teams continue to score a larger percentage of their runs off of the long-ball than in decades past. The increasing reliance upon homering, combined with the greater total number of homers leads to an atmosphere where the team who homers more almost always wins.
It’s not necessarily an argument in favor of, or against the long-ball, that war’s already been won. A home run is the single most valuable kind of offensive event in baseball, as it guarantees your team at least a run, and with a greater number of players capable of hitting a baseball over 400 feet, teams have optimized their offenses to do so. The fact that a team who out-homers their opponent is likely to win is, at this point, a near tautology: “The team who outscores their opponent is the winner.”
Yet this statement of fact ignores all the times when no team out-homers the other, or the winner is the team who was out-homered. Though that number has dropped in recent years, it still represented 35% of all playoff games as of Lindbergh’s October 15 tally. That means, on average, more than a third of playoff games are at least home run neutral, with the winning team outscoring the other in a non-long-ball dependent fashion.
The Yankees, compared to the rest of 2020’s playoff field, were particularly dependent on scoring via the home run to win games. In the 2019 regular season (the most recent sample available, consisting of more data and a lineup more representative of the one that the Yankees employed in the playoffs), the Yankees scored 51.11% of their runs off of homers, the fourth highest rate in the majors that year. In the 2020 playoffs, 31 of their 46 runs were scored on homers, good for 67.4% of all run production. Though a small increase from regular to postseason is to be expected as per Lindbergh’s study, the Yankees homered even more often than they did in the regular season, and homers made up an even larger percentage of their offense.
This, on its own, is actually great news for Yankee fans. The Yankees didn’t fall short in their bid for a 28th chip because their homer-happy approach wouldn’t translate to the playoffs. In fact, they scored more runs per game than any other playoff team with their homer-happy approach (6.57), nearly outpacing the eventual champion Dodgers, owners of the second most prolific offense on a per-game basis, by an entire run (5.61).
However, against the Rays in the ALDS, a series which they lost three games to two, each game was won by the team who led in home runs, with zero ties, as was the case in their two victories over Cleveland. For the Yankees, runs equaled homers more than any other team, so it makes sense that they were more likely to live or die by the tally of long balls. However, in the ALDS, the Rays did out-homer the Yankees in their three wins, eclipsing them in a total tally of ten to nine, despite being outscored by four runs.
In the case of the Yankees, their categorical deficit is more of an indictment of their shallow pitching staff than their offensive firepower. Although the Yankees homered more frequently on a per at-bat basis than any other playoff team, of the eight teams to advance past the Wild Card round, they allowed homers more frequently than anybody but the Oakland A’s. With a bevy of back-end pitchers no Yankee fan hoped would have to see the light of day in the playoffs receiving extended run, the Yankee offense just couldn’t out-run their poor pitching against the best arms in the American League.
The Yankees’ final playoff game was their only contest in which they scored fewer than four runs—had their pitching held Tampa Bay in check in Games Two and Three, allowing 15 runs between the two contests, they might be staring at championship number 28.