September 25, 2017
Can a Team Be Too Reliant on Home Runs?
On our sortable statistics menu, one of the team-level reports that you can click on is called “Team Batting - Guillen Number.” The report contains more than one stat, but it’s built around what we call the Guillen Number: the percentage of a team’s total runs that have scored on home runs. Joe Sheehan named the metric after Ozzie Guillen, whose White Sox teams were famous for playing small ball but who actually scored a huge percentage of their runs when guys like Paul Konerko, Carlos Lee, and Jermaine Dye hit dingers. Those Chicago teams led the AL in Guillen Number, in fact, from 2006 through 2008, and were among the highest in baseball before and after that.
The tongue-in-cheek history of the stat’s name is appropriate, because that’s generally been our approach to the notion that any team is too reliant on home runs. A home run is the best possible outcome for the batting team. Teams that hit a whole bunch of them are usually very good at scoring runs. Whether they might be marginally better if their fifth hitter had more clubs in the offensive bag is an unfair question, most of the time; that guy got to be as good as he is by using the approach he has. Fewer home runs doesn’t mean more ways to score, it just means more pressure to score in those other ways.
The 2012 Yankees got quite a bit of flak from the New York tabloids for being too reliant on homers, and indeed, they posted one of the highest Guillen Numbers ever, but according to True Average they were the best offense in baseball that season. History is littered with similar examples. As times have changed, though, maybe we have been too slow to change with them. Home runs are flying out of the park this year at record rates. The Blue Jays could become just the fourth team ever to score more than half of its runs on homers. The top four teams this season all rank among the eight most homer-reliant in modern baseball history (which, for these purposes, goes back to 1950).
With power being so plentiful, maybe being able to do other things well really is what sets teams apart now. In fact, maybe home run rates and totals just don’t reflect true talent as well as they did before the ball got juiced, and we should therefore be a bit wary of teams that lean on homers too heavily. With that nagging notion in mind, let’s turn our attention to two teams that looked like surprise playoff teams during the first half but that could both be at home by the time the Wild Card games are played.
The four teams mentioned above—the four that stand among the teams in baseball history to have needed homers most in order to score at all—are the Blue Jays, Athletics, Rays, and Brewers. The Blue Jays are there because they’re terrible; that’s a fairly common shortcut to the top of this list. When power is everywhere but you lack every other valuable offensive skill, you’ll tend to rank highly in Guillen Number. This year’s Jays are first in that number and dead last in TAv, a delightfully extreme example. The A’s are a modified version of that. Their offense isn’t atrocious, but it’s young, and it was built to service an ongoing rebuild.
The 2013 Cubs led MLB in Guillen Number, because they had some young sluggers who were still learning the finer points of hitting, and some low-rent free agents who were available because power was their only tool. This year's Brewers and Rays, though, have almost been good enough to reach October. Their homer barrages have been genuinely impressive. Entering Sunday, they ranked sixth and seventh in MLB in homers, respectively. However, they ranked just 12th and 15th, respectively, in TAv, and 20th and 25th, in actual runs scored. They’re 13th and 14th in walk rate, and have the highest and second-highest strikeout rates in baseball.
You can’t accuse either team’s manager or front office of sitting idly by, waiting for homers. Both teams have attempted more steals than the average club. The Brewers have the second-most steals in baseball. Milwaukee ranks fourth in the NL in pinch-hit plate appearances; Tampa Bay ranks third in the AL. Both teams are among the 10 most likely to swing at a pitch on which a runner is going. The Brewers added Eric Sogard and Stephen Vogt during the season. The Rays added Adeiny Hechavarria, Trevor Plouffe, and Lucas Duda. It just turned out that each team was better able to find unexpected power (Eric Thames, Travis Shaw, Logan Morrison) than to collect well-rounded hitters with high floors.
Whether it’s because of their eerily similar offensive profiles or not, the two teams careened into similarly disastrous slumps at the same point, right around the trade deadline, and neither has managed to come all the way out of it (though the Brewers still might). For Milwaukee, that means 52 games since July 28 during which they’ve scored 4.0 runs per game (they were at 4.8 per game before that), on 1.2 homers per game (they had been at 1.5). The bookends to that streak are two series with the Cubs, during which the Brewers scored 16 total runs (half of them on homers) and won just two of seven games.
The Rays’ problems have been far more dramatic, which is why they’re already locked out of the playoffs and the Brewers are still struggling to keep from being shoved across the threshold. Tampa Bay has scored just 3.6 runs per game since mid-July, as Corey Dickerson and Steven Souza (who were the twin engines of the offense in the first half) have fallen off a cliff. Strikeouts have swallowed them whole. That’s another angle on the Brewers’ story, too: they’re whiffing far too often. Milwaukee has 80 games in which they’ve fanned at least 10 times this season, and they’re 32-48 in those games. The Rays are second in MLB in such games, with 79, and are 31-48.
I think we’re reaching a point, at the high end of the spectrum of team strikeout rates, where there’s no way to entirely get around the problem. The Brewers are going to set the all-time strikeout rate record, and it’s eaten into their offense. The 2015 Cubs (24.5 percent) and Astros (22.9) had very high team strikeout rates, but were also able to sustain well above-average walk rates, in addition to hitting for power. Milwaukee is whiffing 25.7 percent of the time, and the Rays are at 25.2 percent. It’s possible that fanning that often makes having enough good at-bats and drawing enough walks to be a well-rounded offense impossible.
If that’s true, then maybe contact rate (or at least the ability to make quality contact and hit line drives, instead of just swinging for the fences) is becoming the separator between good offenses and great ones, and between mediocre ones and good ones. By now, we know that hitting more homers almost always means striking out more often, because of the launch angle a hitter has to create in order to clear the fences, and because of the way modern pitchers exploit the hitter’s attempts to create those angles. It seems fair to suggest that these two teams traded too much quality contact (maybe too much contact of any stripe) for the ability to hit the ball out of the park more often.
This has been an odd season, in terms of the competitive landscape. The Brewers and Rays were among the few real surprises in the playoff hunt going into the trade deadline. Most of the other good teams in the league have been carefully designed, built over the course of the last two or three years, and calibrated for immediate and maximal success. These two clubs, like the Twins and Rockies, bear the rough edges that hang off of contenders that didn’t fully expect to be here. It’s obvious that having handy replacements for certain players was not a priority. There are players who were selected for their affordability, not their absolute quality.
It’s no one’s fault that the Rays are out of the running now, or that the Brewers might well join them in the shadows once the bright lights of October come on. Even their market size isn’t to blame; both teams did a good job going out and finding quality players to fill key holes. We shouldn’t hammer them or question their will to win. If the question is simply whether or not their reliance on home runs stopped them from completing the job and reaching the postseason, though, the answer might not be the one sabermetrica is used to giving.