Back when Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s made an annual habit of departing early from the playoffs, Beane retaliated against the narrative that his teams didn’t put the ball in play enough, didn’t bunt or steal enough or didn’t defend well enough–in short, that they “weren’t built for the postseason.”
Beane, the executive vice president of baseball operations for Oakland, pointed out that in losing four straight Division Series from 2000-03 his team actually struck out less than its opponents in three of them.
“Do you know what wins in the postseason?” he told me. “Hit more home runs than the other team. That’s what wins. Almost nothing has a greater impact.”
Beane is right. Take the 33 postseason games from last year. Opponents hit the same number of home runs in 10 of those games. In the others, the team that out-homered its opponent went 19-4, an 83% win rate.
Last year the baseball was normal. Now we have a perfectly-balanced, lower-seam, slicker-leather baseball that flies out of the ballpark 21% more often than it did last year. Opposite-field homers of 400 feet or more are up 55% from last year! No wonder Astros ace Justin Verlander talks about how the baseball changed the objective of pitching from getting weak contact to avoiding contact altogether.
This postseason will feature the four greatest home run hitting teams of all time (Yankees, Twins, Astros and Dodgers). This is the greatest slugging season in history (.436) except for 2000. So now you want guys to push the baseball the other way and drop sacrifice bunts? Forget it.
Get ready for a postseason like no other. Forget everything you ever learned about “what wins in the postseason.” Be prepared for games that pivot on just a few swings of the bat. In this environment, with this baseball, with this hitting philosophy, home runs will determine the next world champion.
“Take the Astros’ pitching,” one All-Star pitcher told me recently. “You’re not beating Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole by stringing hits together. Not happening. You’re going to have to hit home runs. The quick strike is how the game is played. On offense you have to take advantage of a couple of mistakes. On the mound, you have to defend against it.”
“Shortening up” against Verlander and Cole to simply “put the ball in play” may not be as smart as you think. Verlander and Cole allow only 2.25 singles per game. They allowed only 19 run-scoring singles in 64 starts–but 62 home runs.
Do you know how many sacrifice bunts the Yankees, Astros and Twins each have after the sixth inning?
Do you know how many stolen bases the Yankees have in high leverage spots?
I asked an American League third base coach in August how many times he had given the hit and run sign this year. “Three,” he said.
People love to talk about “The Golden Age” of baseball, as if one window in the game’s history was better than all others. Here’s the definition of “The Golden Age” of baseball: whatever kind of baseball was being played when you were growing up. Millennials aren’t pining for 1980s style baseball.
People of a certain age like to wax nostalgically about small ball because it was part of the game when they grew up. But that’s not how baseball is played today. It’s not better or worse. It’s just different.
“Small ball” in the postseason has been dying since 2015, when the baseball first became livelier and analytics uncovered the importance of power as a more efficient way to play the game.
Recent world champions made little use of singles and sacrifices, the vaunted jewels of “small ball,” to run through the postseason. The past four World Series champions combined used fewer sacrifice hits in the postseason than did the 2014 Giants. Also take note of the decline in singles on the paths to a title:
Postseason "Small Ball" Tactics by World Series Winner
Singles Per Game
2018 Red Sox
The way to a title is with home runs. Trying to win without home runs sounds smart and even quaint, but it’s a losing formula–increasingly so. The odds of winning a postseason game without a home run have gone down since 2015. Let’s look at those games in four-year increments:
Postseason Team Games With No Home Runs
One homer is nice, but it’s even more important to hit a second home run. First, a snapshot of 2018 postseason outcomes for teams by how many home runs they hit:
2018 Postseason Win Percentage by Home Runs
That’s 17-29 (.370) when a team hits zero or one homer, and 16-4 (.800) when it hits more than one. That’s a difference in winning percentage of .430, what I call the Multi-Homer Delta.
Let’s grab a larger sample. Let’s look at the Multi-Homer Delta of 2015-18 and compare it to four-year postseason windows of 10, 20, and 30 years ago:
Postseason Outcomes by Home Runs
Zero or One HR
Hitting multiple home runs is even more important in today’s postseason baseball.
And remember, we are playing with a hotter baseball than we saw in 2015-18. Major league teams this year won only 344 games without a homer–the fewest such games in history, despite adding more than 2,000 games to the schedule in the expansion era.
A necessary word of warning: don’t make the common mistake people make today of turning complex issues into a binary choice–in this case, home runs or small ball. The subtleties of the game remain important and can swing a game. Just think about how the 2018 World Series began. In the first inning of the first game, Mookie Betts of Boston reached base on a two-strike infield single, stole second base on the next pitch, scored on a single by Andrew Benintendi, who upon the throw home advanced to second and eventually scored on a single by J.D. Martinez. It was a full breadbasket of some fresh small ball: three singles plus a stolen base equaled a 2-0 lead.
You’re bound to see such rallies at various points this postseason, and they are still cool, like vinyl and turntables. It’s just that those rallies happen less often. With the way baseball is played today, and in a tournament with the four greatest home run hitting teams in history, and with a jalapeño of a baseball, the home run is more important than ever–even, or maybe especially, in October.
So as you root for your team in the postseason, savor the multi-hit rallies that may come your way. But what you really should be rooting for is for your team to hit multiple home runs.