Home Run Derby

The offensive approach of the Yankees and the Orioles—a reliance on the long ball—is a sound strategy even in this low-scoring era
September 17, 2012

Last weekend's Yankees-Orioles series was notable not only because these games were the most important at Camden Yards since 1997, but also because of the way in which the two teams went about their business. For all the talk about how baseball in the 2010s isn't about the long ball, this series certainly was. The teams hit 18 homers in their four-game series, with 51.9% of the runs coming on four-baggers. These two teams, battling for first place in the AL East, are modeling a style of baseball that was in vogue the last time the Orioles and the Yankees were playing big games against each other.

The Yankees have scored nearly half their runs on home runs (48.6%) this season. That figure leads MLB, and it would also rank as the second-highest number in MLB history, behind the 2010 Blue Jays (53.1%). With little speed—especially in the absence of injured outfielder Brett Gardner (right elbow strain)—and a lot of power that plays especially well in their home park, the Yankees are the ultimate short-sequence offensive team: Get runners on, don't waste outs (they've been caught stealing just 21 times and have only 21 sacrifice bunts all year) and rely on homers to score. It works. The Yankees are second in the AL in runs scored and first in homers. They lead MLB, by far, in the percentage of their fly balls that go for homers (16.8%).

The team that's second in that category? The Orioles, who with less fanfare are making their own history in this regard. Baltimore has a 13.8% HR/FB rate and has scored 47.5% of its runs on homers. That figure is second in MLB and would be the fourth highest in baseball history if the season had ended Sunday. The Orioles briefly moved into a tie for first place by scoring 17 of their first 20 runs against the Yankees this weekend on home runs. Somewhere, Earl Weaver—the game's biggest proponent of the three-run homer—is smiling.

This approach isn't as ill-suited to today's game—and its lowered run environment—as you might think. Teams are scoring 4.35 runs per game, the third straight season below 4.5, which is the longest run at that level since 1988--92. This has less to do with a dip in power and more to do with a lack of base runners. Strikeouts, at an alltime high, have begun to impact batting averages and OBP. Walks, at 3.01 per game, have not been this uncommon since the Year of the Pitcher, in 1968. Improved defense, most notably aggressive shifting, has chipped away at the number of singles being hit. MLB is batting .255 for the second straight season, the lowest leaguewide BA since '89, and the leaguewide .319 OBP is the lowest since '88. Power, however, has not been affected in quite the same way. Teams are hitting 1.02 homers per game, up from just below one per game in the last two years, and a figure that would have been right in line with 2007--09 or even 1995--98. The rate of homers per fly ball, 11.3%, would be the highest in the 11 years for which the baseball analytics site Fangraphs has records.

In fact, the Yankees and the Orioles are succeeding with an offensive approach that maps perfectly to today's game. Base runners are rare, so don't risk losing one to gain a single base with a steal. Singles are also at an alltime low (5.75 per game), so the value of moving a runner from first to second is smaller—don't sacrifice bunt. Home runs are available, though, so sell out for power (don't mind the strikeouts) and hit the ball in the air. The team that eventually wins the AL East is going to be the one that hits the most homers over the season's final three weeks.

FOLLOW @joe_sheehan

Long Story

With just under a month left in the season, the 2012 Yankees and Orioles rank among baseball's most homer-centric offenses

2010 53.1%

2012 48.6%

2005 47.8%

2012 47.5%

2008 47.5%

SOURCE: BASEBALL PROSPECTUS

PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONO-FENCE Baltimore clubbed 12 homers in its split with the Yankees, who, like the Orioles, have scored nearly half of their runs via the long ball. FIVE PHOTOS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)