May 29, 2013

Short Stick for the Long Ball

Which MLB team hit the fewest homeruns last season? Which team won the World Series last season? Would it surprise you to know that the answer is the same for both questions?

The 2012 Giants hit a measly 103 regular season homeruns. For reference, the Braves hit 65 homers in their first 49 games this year. Yet the Giants won their division by a considerable margin, stormed through the playoffs, and finished the year with an efficient sweep in the Fall Classic. While this isn’t the norm, it’s not exactly an anomaly. In the last ten years, only half of the championship teams have ranked in the top ten for homeruns.

Evidence suggests that a powerful lineup does not always translate into wins. In 2005, for example, the Texas Rangers led the MLB with a whopping 260 four-baggers, yet they finished third in the West with a losing record.

Seems illogical, right? A homerun is immediate offense, a minimum plus one to the scoreboard. A homer overrides several aspects of the game. It’s the best friend of a bad baserunner, the handsome older cousin of the sacrifice fly, and sneers in the face of defensive prowess. No matter how much ground a team’s outfielders can cover, they won’t be catching that 450-foot mammo.

But beneath that macho veneer of rippling muscle the homerun is riddled with soft spots and insecurities. Because every player’s ability to hit a homer is subject to a hefty set of outside influences. Weather, for instance. An aggressive breeze blowing in from center field turns would-be homeruns into routine pop outs. Even a bit of rain can slow the ball down and keep it from crossing the warning track. The venue is another important factor. Some ballparks (Great American Ballpark, Coors Field) are conducive to homeruns, while others (Target Field, Petco Park) make the homer a true manly feat. Many other offensive tools—speed, bunting, hitting for average—are far less susceptible to such variables. A single in one ballpark is a single in any ballpark.  To steal second you never have to runner more than ninety feet. A sharp liner to left-center is going to be a hit no matter the speed of the wind. It makes sense, then, that a team more reliant on stringing together consecutive hits and moving effectively on the base paths is more successful than a team with power-focused offense.

Another thing: when power hitters slump, they slump hard. Those haymaker swings turn to mighty whiffs, amount to a mountain of strikeouts.  It’s difficult to break a slump without putting the ball in play. And if the batter is swinging for the fences, pop-ups abound. A singles hitter on the other hand, especially one with a bit of quickness, can find ways to get on base even in the deepest depths of a dry spell. Hard ground balls force errors. A fast runner makes a fielder hurry his throw. Nubbers have a way of dropping just in between the outfield and the diving shortstop. Grounders find holes.

The 2013 Braves have lived and died by the homerun, and this will be the reality of their entire season. The lineup is built around power hitters. So far it’s worked out great. Is it sustainable? Who knows. Effective or not, it’s an exciting, dramatic brand of baseball.



2 Responses to “Short Stick for the Long Ball”

  1. 1
    Shaun Says:

    In a lot of cases, as far as pitcher and hitter are concerned, there is no particular reason why a hard-hit grounder is a single instead of an out or vice versa. Hitting the ball hard is what matters, which is why slugging (and getting on-base) equal offense in baseball. Teams that work counts, wait on hittable pitches and crush hittable pitches are often the teams that strikeout, walk, slug and score the most.

  2. 2
    Shaun Says:

    Pressure on the defense is great in theory and works at most levels of baseball, but once you get in to pro baseball, especially Major League Baseball, defenses can handle contact that is merely an attempt to put pressure on defense. They gobble that kind of contact up and turn it in to outs rather easily.

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