Yankees’ homer-heavy offense works fine now, and in October
Despite the odd warning of Mets manager Terry Collins, the Yankees had little trouble hitting the ball out of the reconfigured Citi Field during the second segment of this year’s Subway Series. In Friday’s loss, the Bronx Bombers went yard three times, nearly overcoming a 5-0 first-inning deficit before falling in defeat. On Saturday, Raul Ibanez’s three-run seventh-inning homer instantly erased a 3-0 deficit, and Eric Chavez’s pinch-homer moments later provided the deciding run. On Sunday, Nick Swisher’s three-run shot ended R.A. Dickey’s remarkable string of preventing earned runs, while Robinson Cano’s monster shot to centerfield in the eighth inning broke a late tie and proved decisive. All told, the Yankees outhomered the Mets 7-2 in the latter’s home park after outhomering them 8-2 in the Bronx two weeks earlier.
In recent years, a common criticism has emerged that the Yankees are too reliant upon the longball, that their offense lacks the virtue created by doing “the little things,” that their power somehow cheapens their accomplishments, and that the team’s reliance upon home runs for their scoring explains their lack of October success. The chorus has grown louder this year, as the team has struggled to hit with runners in scoring position; at times, manager Joe Girardi has had to remind a controversy-hungry press corps that a home run is a hit, too. Such criticism is unfounded, as the evidence strongly suggests the Yankees’ homer-happy way works just fine in both the regular season and the postseason.
Without a doubt, the Yankees play in a ballpark that’s particularly conducive to home runs. With its short distances down both lines (318 feet to leftfield, 314 to right) and to right-centerfield (an MLB-low 360 feet), Yankee Stadium III produced 31 percent more homers than the average ballpark from 2009 (the year it opened) through 2011 according to The Bill James Handbook 2012. Only the White Sox’ U.S. Cellular Field was more conducive, and that by one percentage point.
Even so, the Yankees have shown they can outhomer anybody in virtually any park. Not only do they lead the majors with 112 home runs — the Blue Jays (104) are the only other team with more than 93 — but their 54 homers on the road is the major league high as well, followed by Toronto and Seattle (51). They are getting longballs throughout the lineup, too: Led by Curtis Granderson’s 21, six Yankees are in double digits, while the Rangers are the only other team with more than four players in double digits.
Those Yankee homers account for a historically high percentage of runs scored. Years ago, Baseball Prospectus’ Joe Sheehan termed the percentage of runs a team derives from homers “the Guillen Number,” so named because the White Sox teams managed by Ozzie Guillen were actually much more reliant upon the longball than their manager’s smallball tendencies would have one believe. BP now tracks the Guillen Number in its daily stat reports. This year’s Yankees are scoring 52.5 percent of their runs via home runs, a rate that would rank as the second highest since 1950, which is as far back as the play-by-play record covers. The 2010 Blue Jays finished at 53.1 percent, obliterating the previous record of 47.8 percent, held by the 2005 Rangers. With the rising home run rates of the past two decades, the vast majority of the top seasons in this category are from the recent past; just nine of the top 40 occurred between 1950 and 1987, while the other 31 have occurred since 1996. Four of this year’s teams — the Yankees, Orioles (45.3 percent), Blue Jays (44.5 percent) and Brewers (43.9 percent) — would crack that top 40 if they continued their current pace.
Note that having a high Guillen Number isn’t automatically a good thing; the correlation between it and winning percentage is just .16, positive but fairly small. It’s more descriptive than prescriptive. Still, when a team combines decisive advantages in the home run department with similar advantages in their ability to get on base, a dependence upon the dinger can have a big impact. The Yankees have outhomered opponents 112-81, outwalked them 255-199, and hit .259/.334/.452 to their opponents’ .255/.314/.426. Sacrifice bunts and productive outs to the contrary, theirs is actually the more multidimensional offense.
It can sometimes seem just the opposite given the team’s failures with runners in scoring position. This year’s Yankees are hitting a meager .227/.310/.365 in such situations, including 3-for-8 on Sunday night, with two of those hits failing to score a run, and the other Swisher’s blast — a reminder that the RISP split isn’t as all-revealing as some may suggest. Prior to last night, the Yankees’ .209 batting average in such situations ranked 28th in the majors, their .311 on-base percentage 21st, their .373 slugging percentage 16th. Put that all together, and their .254 True Average (runs per plate appearance adjusted for park and league scoring levels and expressed on a batting average scale, with .300 good, .260 average, .230 replacement level) ranked 20th. That mark would be in the bottom 10 among the 240 playoff teams since divisional play began in 1969, and remember, that’s after adjusting for the change in scoring levels. Even so, that’s not a prescription for failure in the postseason; among the teams as low or lower in the RISP shortfall department are the 1990 Reds (.245), 2010 Giants (.252), and 1979 Pirates (.254), all of whom won the World Series, with the 2005 White Sox (.255) just one point higher.
Indeed, the data shows that teams reliant upon the home run actually fare better in the postseason than those who don’t. Intuitively, this should make sense; as teams face better pitching in October, an offense that can score using fewer events — a bloop and a blast, as they say — should be more successful than one needing to string together three or four hits and walks to get the same result. According to Baseball Prospectus’ Ben Lindbergh, of the 132 postseason teams in the Wild Card era (since 1995), the half who were more reliant upon home runs for their scoring, with an average Guillen Number of 40 percent, saw their scoring drop by 18 percent from the regular season to the postseason. The half less reliant upon homers, with an average Guillen Number of 33 percent — and a scoring rate already four percent lower — saw their scoring drop by 27 percent. All told, the homer-reliant teams outscored the less powerful ones by 17 percent in postseason play.
Even with their situational hitting shortcomings, the Yankees have the majors’ second-best record at 43-28, the AL’s second-best run differential and a 2 1/2 game lead in the AL East standings. With a few more well-timed hits here and there, they’d be running away from the pack, but as it is, they’re in a very strong position, and the ongoing focus on their RISP shortcomings is misguided.
Thanks to Dan Turkenkopf and Colin Wyers of Baseball Prospectus for research assistance.