Relying On Home Runs


I often hear fans and analysts opine that the offense is, “sitting around waiting for the home run.”  Or perhaps the criticism is, “They rely too much on the home run.”  I think these statements, while not completely wrong, are often very misleading.  Let’s examine the implications.

The idea of “waiting around for a home run” seems unrealistic to me. It sounds as though the players are just sleepwalking through the game, not trying, and just hoping someone else cranks a dinger. First of all, hitting in baseball is one of those rare things in sports in that pure effort alone isn’t always going to help. Often it can hurt – in fact, there’s a word for it: “pressing.” Swinging as hard as you can, being hyper aggressive in the count, and so on, seem more likely to hurt your swing than to help it. I also think that almost every major leaguer is giving a ton of effort every day. That’s what it takes to get to that level, and you would have to be absurdly talented to be able to cruise through at the major league level without trying.

Dingers rule. (Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s a long season, and I know there are given games or instances where a guy is on cruise control and it looks ugly – baserunning errors, admiring what he mistakenly thinks is a home run, not giving max effort defensively – but the allegation is thrown out way more often than is merited when it comes to hitting. You generally don’t need a psychological explanation as to why an offense isn’t doing well. Hitting major league pitching is hard, and sometimes you get unlucky to boot – it happens. I also think it’s important to note that, if you watch lots of home runs, you’ll see that they don’t require a “harder” swing or more effort than a normal one – it’s more perfect contact and fluid mechanics than it is flexing your muscles and grinding your bat into sawdust. If the hitters on your team look relaxed, that’s probably a good thing, even if the results are frustrating. So, I’m not sure your team is really, “waiting around for a home run” so much as it just “isn’t hitting well.”

Relying too much on the home run is another idea worth exploring. I think most people would agree that in a given plate appearance, a home run is the best possible result. But, I can imagine circumstances where a team’s approach of purely hacking for the fences at all times can be harmful.  Sometimes that’s just going to yield a lot of outs, weak contact with bad pitches to hit, chasing out of the zone, getting way too pull happy, or swinging through a ball that would otherwise be hittable. If your approach is bad because you’re desperately chasing home runs, that is a bad thing – not home runs themselves.

Perhaps the phrasing or mindset should be, “I wish this team could do things offensively other than just home runs,” instead of what almost sounds to me as, “If this team hit fewer home runs, they’d do better offensively.” Here are the top ten teams in the majors in home runs last year, and where they ranked in runs scored:

There are a million dangers of drawing conclusions from such a table. It’s only one year, it ignores park factors, and it ignores the fact that National League teams are going to score fewer runs just by virtue of the DH or lack thereof. Still, the White Sox if anything is a team that is entirely dependent on home runs for its offense – tied for 24th in BB%, 14th in batting average despite being an AL team in a hitter’s park, middle of the pack in stolen bases, etc. – and by virtue of those home runs they still managed to be 7th in runs scored. We see that these homer heavy offenses are either some of the best in the majors, or otherwise bad offenses that are being propped up to about league average by virtue of blasting homers.

On the flip side, here are the teams with the fewest home runs last year:

Here we have the worst teams in the majors, NL teams, teams that play in heavy pitchers parks, and the World Series champions. The Giants won with insane contact hitting, doubles, triples, good pitching, a park that is conducive to such an offense, and good luck. That formula can succeed. But it’s not the only one. They are clearly not the typical team that doesn’t hit a lot of home runs – check out those others on the list. Woof. If you can’t hit for power, you have to make up for it in a lot of ways to be decent, and if you don’t, you are probably going to be awful.

As a side note, I often see the observation that you need small ball to win in the playoffs, and that home run-based offenses aren’t likely to succeed in the playoffs because the pitching is better. Often, I think this assertion is wrong. Good pitching is likely to make fewer mistakes, and you need to convert those mistakes into runs – it’s more likely you drill one mistake over a fence than the possibility of stringing together a whole bunch of singles, or that you can scratch runs across when you’re giving up outs on bunts.  Further, defenses are generally better on playoff teams, and good defenses want you to put the ball in play, not to hit it over the fence where they can’t get it. The 2005 White Sox hit the 5th most home runs in the majors and did little else offensively. Here’s where the last ten World Series champions ranked in the majors in homers:

What’s my point? Home runs are awesome. And although I do wish the White Sox could take a walk, or hit some singles, I don’t want them to neuter their home run hitting too much to do it. The best of both worlds is to have a good approach AND lots of dingers. There are lots of ways to have a good offense, and blasting lots of home runs is one of them. Hitting lots of home runs is certainly not a bad thing, as some would have you believe.