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Year of the Homer: How long ball plays in October

@mike_petriello
September 29, 2019

Let's look ahead to the postseason and toward two things you are absolutely going to hear early and often throughout October. The Majors hit more home runs than ever this year. This is unarguably true. In a century and a half of baseball, we'd never seen a season with more

Let's look ahead to the postseason and toward two things you are absolutely going to hear early and often throughout October.

The Majors hit more home runs than ever this year. This is unarguably true. In a century and a half of baseball, we'd never seen a season with more than the 5,693 homers that came in 2000 ... until we saw 6,105 in 2017, and then 6,648 this year. Thirteen different teams -- nearly half of the sport -- broke or tied their previous season home run records. It's probably the biggest baseball story of 2019.

Teams that rely on the home run can't win in October. Or "small ball works better in the playoffs," or "good pitching beats good hitting," or whatever half-cooked version of this trope you're used to hearing.

The first statement is very true. The second, as we'll get to shortly, is a myth. But more importantly: What impact, in this Year of the Home Run, will the long ball have this month? October baseball is a very different beast, so how will teams that have scored a majority of their runs on home runs fare? Will the specific ballparks we'll see matter? What about the teams that do the best at preventing them?

There's a lot to unpack there, so let's break this down into several different questions.

1) Did hitting homers, or preventing them, help teams get to October?

Well, yeah. Of course. A home run is the best (or worst, if you're pitching) possible outcome of a plate appearance. It's the only kind of plate appearance that guarantees a run placed on the board. What kind of question is this?

But if we must: Look at the top eight home run-hitting teams. Seven of them (Twins, Yankees, Astros, Dodgers, A's, Brewers and Braves) made the playoffs. Only one, the Cubs, didn't. The other two playoff clubs, the Rays and Cardinals, finished 21st and 24th, respectively. We'll get to them later.

Now, look at the bottom eight home run-hitting teams. You'll find the Cardinals there, but the other seven (Marlins, Tigers, Royals, Pirates, Giants, White Sox and Orioles) not only didn't make the playoffs, they didn't come near .500. Even if you include the Cardinals, this group averaged 94 losses. Four of them lost 100.

It's the same on the pitching side: Seven of the top eight home run prevention teams (Rays, Dodgers, Cardinals, Twins, Braves, Nationals and A's), again excluding the Cubs, are in October. Seven of the top eight home run-allowing teams (Orioles, Rockies, Angels, Mariners, Phillies, Tigers and Rangers) are not, though interestingly the Yankees are among them.

Home runs: They matter toward winning. Obviously.

2) Do teams that hit a ton of home runs fare worse in October?

No. Next question.

...

OK, fine. This is a myth that simply won't seem to die, that the only way to win in October is to sacrifice-bunt-and-productive-out your way to a title. That's not really true. As James Smyth, a researcher on Yankees television broadcasts, eloquently put it, the primary driver of this seems to be that "'small ball' is considered a more virtuous way to play." That's well stated. It may be what you want to see, but it's not how winning teams succeed. As Rustin Dodd investigated in The Athletic recently, this falsehood has been floating around for literally decades.

It's not true, however, and the reasons why are relatively simple to understand. It basically comes down to these three points, the same points that have been noted for years and years:

• Scoring decreases in October. (We explained why here on Friday; basically, October baseball is tilted toward pitchers, thanks to days off and other factors.)

• Home runs drop at a lower rate than scoring. Smyth already did the research on this last spring, so let's just pay his good work forward. From 1995 through 2018, playoff teams saw their runs per game drop by 16% from the regular season, from 4.94 to 4.17 but their home runs per game dropped by only 8%, from 1.15 to 1.06. And that means that ...

• Each home run carries a greater impact. Exactly. The percentage of runs scored by playoff teams in the regular season on homers is 31%, but in the postseason, it's about 35%. Home runs happen less and matter more.

Intuitively, this makes sense. You might be able to string a rally together against lesser pitchers. You're not doing it against higher-caliber arms with the benefit of extra October days off and better defenses behind them. Justin Verlander has allowed only 64 singles in 33 starts. Good luck with that.

We can see the real-world impact of all of this over the last few years. As you'd expect, teams that out-homer their opponents tend to win more games. That effect doesn't drop in October. It gets higher.

What happens when teams out-homer their opponents?

2018: .774 winning percentage in regular season / .826 in postseason (19-4)

Wild Card era (1995-): .747 in regular season / .756 in postseason

Divisional era (1969-): .734 in regular season / .775 in postseason

"Home runs count as runs, it has never in history been less likely to score runs via the single, and pitching and defense get better in October. If you hit them, you're more likely to win." It need not be more complicated than that.

3) What about the teams that don't hit homers?

Two of our teams, the Rays (21st) and Cardinals (24th), didn't rely on home runs to get here. Not coincidentally, the Rays (1st) and Cardinals (tied for 2nd) allowed the fewest home runs on the pitching side.

That's not fatal, but it's not great, either. Let's take a look at the last 10 World Series winners, from 2009's Yankees through 2018's Red Sox. Eight of them finished in the top half of home run teams in their seasons -- yes, even the 2010 and '12 Giants finished in the top 10 -- and another, the 2014 Giants, missed the top half by all of four homers. (They finished 17th.)

The only World Series champ to finish 20th or lower in home runs would be the 2015 Royals group that came in 24th, and while that group was a good team (they did win 95 games), we might not be talking about them at all had the Astros not kicked away a 6-2 lead with six outs remaining in what would have been a decisive Game 4 of the ALDS. The final two insurance runs in that game, for what it's worth, came on an Eric Hosmer home run.

Before the 2015 Royals, the last winners to not finish in the Top 20 for homers in a season were the 2002 Angels (tied for 21st) and 1997 Marlins (22nd). So sure, it can happen. It's just only happened three times in the last 22 World Series. This is a strike against this year's Cardinals.

4) It's better to have pitchers who don't allow home runs, right?

In theory, yes. In practice: Also yes!

Each of the last 10 World Series winners entered the playoffs in the top half of baseball in terms of fewest home runs allowed. You have to go all the way back to the 2006 Cardinals (23rd) to find a bottom-half homer prevention team winning a title. This isn't quite as rare as the "hitting home runs" part of it -- it happened in 2005 and 2002, as well -- but it's important.

Good news here for everyone except for the Yankees and Astros, though Houston has an excuse -- the short porches at Minute Maid Park have meant that 58% of their homers allowed have come at home, as opposed to 42% on the road. It's actually the opposite for the Yankees, who have allowed 47% of homers at home, yet 53% on the road.

(This obviously doesn't drill down to the pitchers actually active in October -- pitchers who allowed early-season damage before being demoted or injured, for example, won't matter -- but as a high-level indicator, it matters.)

5) But the Red Sox won last year because of contact, not homers, right?

Not exactly. You remember some of the things Jackie Bradley Jr. did, no?

As we said in a look at what changes in October:

"Last year's champion Red Sox, for all the talk about putting the ball in play, hit just .242/.327/.397 in October. That's a .724 OPS. You know who has an OPS at or near that this year? Starlin Castro. Brandon Dixon. César Hernández. These are not exactly star-level hitters."

Right. They had a similar strikeout rate to the Astros, and a higher one than the Yankees. If you care about batting average, they were behind the Astros and Brewers. What they did excel at was hitting with runners in scoring position and two outs. Interestingly enough, they also led the Majors in that in 2019, as well -- but missed the playoffs entirely.

6) What impact will the October ballparks have on home runs?

There won't be any games at Coors Field this October, but on the other hand, there won't be any games in offense-suppressing parks like Miami or San Francisco, either.

One way we can look at this is to use Statcast data that evaluates how many parks each home run would have been out of, based on distance and height of fences. For example, this Brett Gardner home run from April would have been out of just one other park aside from Yankee Stadium -- Houston.

So, we can use that to see which October parks have allowed the highest percentage of "easy" homers, which we'll define as "homers that would have been out of 10 or fewer parks."

23% -- Minute Maid Park
20% -- Yankee Stadium
15% -- Dodger Stadium
12% -- Miller Park
10% -- Oakland Coliseum
9% -- Nationals Park
6% -- Busch Stadium
5% -- Tropicana Field
4% -- Target Field
1% -- SunTrust Park

Houston (61 such "easy" home runs) and New York (49) were easily the top two parks for non-crushed home runs, so the more games we have in those parks, the more home runs we'll get. This should tell you a little about how hard it is to get the ball out in Minnesota and especially in Atlanta, which has had something of a mistaken reputation as a new "launching pad."

7) What impact will the October weather have on home runs?

A little, perhaps -- but not at parks in Tampa Bay, Houston, and Milwaukee, which have roofs. As research by Dr. Alan Nathan has shown, every 10 degrees of temperature can add or subtract about 3.3 feet of distance. That was a big deal in 2017, when Dodger Stadium saw temperatures near of 105 degrees in the first two games of the World Series.

That might be a big deal in a northeastern city like New York or especially in Minnesota, where night-time temperatures later in October can get down into the 30s or 40s.

8) So this all means...

... it means there's no one right way to win in October. The last two winners hit lots of homers (the 2019 Red Sox were ninth in the Majors, and the 2017 Astros were second), but the 2016 Cubs were built on pitching, and the 2015 Royals barely thought about power at all.

But the most important takeaway is this: Since the advent of divisional play in 1969, there has never, not once, been a postseason where teams that out-homered their opponents didn't win more games than they lost. As we said above, last year, postseason teams were 19-4 with the homer advantage. In 2017, they were 23-8. In 2016, it was 27-1.

Want to win in the playoffs? Pitch well, field well, hit well, of course. But homer well, and often, and you might just be unbeatable. It is, after all, the most valuable thing you can do at the plate.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Ballpark Dimensions podcast.