Every once in a while, a theory is floated out there that the Yankees hit too many home runs to win the World Series. In that linked article, the New York Post’s Ken Davidoff presented evidence that was essentially inconclusive: out of the last ten World Series winners, comparing postseason to the regular season, five hit homers at a lower rate, four higher, and one tied. Sample size for postseason play undoubtedly is a factor, which makes his data inconclusive.
I decided to do some quick research on the past three postseasons, gathering home run and fly ball data for all teams and games. My goal was to see if there was a difference in home run to fly ball ratio. Here’s the summation of the data:
How do we explain HR/FB being 2.1% lower over the three year period? Perhaps because cold weather generally lessens a fly ball’s distance traveled.
Home runs are relatively rare in cold weather.
Over 4% of batted balls leave the ballpark in 75 degree or warmer weather, but that rate drops to about 3.2% in the kind of cold weather conditions we are witnessing in the World Series.
The most straightforward explanation for these findings is that the ball simply does not carry very well in cold weather. Batted baseballs are slowed down by air resistance in the heavy, dense air of cool April and October nights.
This seems like the most logical explanation, so on the surface, maybe people who make this “too many home runs” claim actually have a point. However, we still can’t completely accept this as what would doom the Yankees. Again, we are dealing with a mere three year sample size. Second, we need a better understanding of the ball physics behind this claim. Third, some playoff games are played in warm weather sites, despite the common thought that playoff baseball is always played in cold weather. For instance, the Yankees could play in Texas. Plus, if you believe in global warming, how much of an effect could that be? Lastly, we shouldn’t simply rely on a fewer percentage of balls leaving the park. Rather, could this Hardball Times study really just be proving good pitching beats good hitting? This could be the case considering playoff teams generally have better quality pitching.
Given what we do know, how did the Yankees fare in the past three postseasons? In all three years, the club’s HR/FB ratio was significantly lower than their regular season mark. In fact, when they were champions in 2009, they hit 5.2% fewer home runs per fly ball in the postseason compared to the regular season. There were plenty of memorable long balls in that run, but they also scored in other ways. They scored a total of 80 runs that postseason while hitting 20 homers. Of those 20, 13 were solo shots. That’s a pretty well balanced offense, which in my mind gives a team the best shot to win any game, let alone playoff baseball.
In 2010, again the Yankees hit slightly more than 5% less home runs per fly ball vs. the regular season. That time, the Rangers knocked out the Yankees in the ALCS. In that ALCS, the Yankees hit six home runs. All were solo shots, and the Yanks plated a total of 19 runs. Two issues here: 19 runs in 6 games is poor, but the other issue is the fact that these were all solo home runs. I suppose that’s the danger of relying on the home run too much: if you can’t find a different way to score, hitting a bunch of solo home runs really won’t do all that much damage.
For the 2011 postseason, I’m not going to get into HR/FB numbers since it’s such a small sample size, but there was a significant dropoff from the regular season. In the ALDS, in which the Yankees lost in five vs. Detroit, seven of their 28 runs stemmed from home runs. One of those homers was a grand slam off the bat of Robinson Cano in game one, making the other three solo shots. They only scored nine runs in the three losses, and all three solo blasts in those losses. It may be a sample size, but it is pretty clear that when the Yanks were able to score without the home run, they won with ease.
Look, this analysis is not wholly conclusive by any stretch. Thanks to Moneyball, we already know that the playoffs are a crapshoot in itself. Thus, if a team is just going to hit a bunch of solo home runs and not score in any other fashion, that team is probably in for an early exit. From this small sample, it seems like a team’s best bet is a diverse offensive attack.
In theory, of course a team could win it all hitting primarily home runs. However, as illustrated, it seems that because of the colder weather in October, home run frequency is lower. Thus, it is of the utmost importance to score runs in multiple ways. Getting on base and hitting with men on is vital, no matter if it is a home run or single. After all, it does seem like the Yankees were partially victimized by hitting too many solo home runs in 2010 and 2011. I’m not discrediting the players who hit solo home runs, however. It is more of an indictment on two things: (1) players in front of the sluggers not getting aboard, and (2) the inability to cash in scoring opportunities.
You might say that in 2009, the Yankees were less reliant on the home run, as guys like Johnny Damon and Melky Cabrera were replaced by the likes of Curtis Granderson, Raul Ibanez, Marcus Thames, and Andruw Jones since. At the same time, that 2009 team hit 244 home runs, a team record until this season. 148 of those were with the bases empty. They continued to hit more solo homers in October, which could have been a recipe for disaster had they not gotten a balanced offense in the playoffs.
In conclusion, the theory is false. Does hitting too many home runs make you less likely to thrive in the postseason? Absolutely not. In reality, lacking a balanced offense is a team’s ticket to elimination (poor pitching too, of course). If the Yanks can fire on all cylinders with a well rounded offensive output, expect a very good postseason run in 2012. If not, we could see another early exit.