Taking a look at the Toronto Blue Jays home run reliant lineup, and whether or not is was the blame for their postseason failures.
Over the last two seasons the Toronto Blue Jays have provided us, the fans, with exciting, and riveting playoff baseball. Admittedly, the ending to the past two seasons have seemed abrupt, but the journey was more than worth it, despite the outcome.
This is why for the last two seasons, after the Blue Jays were eliminated from the playoffs, I never quite understood the cries from a subsection of fans, and some media about the team not being built to compete in the postseason. The most popular complaints being “Home runs don’t win playoffs games” and “We need a team that can manufacture runs”.
Out of curiosity, I decided to take a look into these popular postmortem assessments to see if they indeed had any merit or, are they simply the easy go to complaints for the water cooler chat the following morning? An easy way for armchair managers and GM’s to say “I told you so” because, of course the team lost, so they had to be right. I mean, predicting failure in a game rooted in failure, is tough. Sarcasm thick enough there?
I started out by looking to find the magic number for wins in the playoffs. Why? Because there is always a gold standard number available that turns the win expectancy from a negative to a positive. As it turns out five runs, similar to the regular season, is the tipping point for wins in the postseason.
Looking back as far as 2010 (attempted to keep the research limited to this era) through 2015, there have been 152 games in which a team has scored five or more runs in the playoffs. Of the 152 games, 128 of them were wins, for a .842 winning percentage. As a comparison I ran the same report for four runs over the same time period, and unsurprisingly, the winning percentage dropped dramatically to .537 (29 of 54). When 4 or less runs were calculated it dropped even more to .310 (85 of 274). Just exactly how these teams get to five runs is a matter that we will look into later.
Do teams who are much better at manufacturing runs prove to be better in the playoffs? Or, is it possible we have some recency bias over the past half decade thanks to the Giants and Royals? Is it likely we choose to forget that these teams won their respective titles with pitching and defense? This is where I had to look back into history (1970 starting point) for some numbers for comparison. Considering the success of the Giants and Royals since 2010, it only seemed appropriate to see if their success was a staple of playoff baseball, or an aberration.
Here’s what I found. During the respective world series runs (2010, 2012, 2014) the Giants played a total of 24 postseason games where they didn’t hit a single home run. They would win 16 of these games for a winning percentage of .667. The Royals, although they didn’t win in 2014, were to include due to their style of play being relevant. In both (2014, 2015) the Royals played a total of 12 games where they didn’t hit a home run. They would win 8 of these games, for a winning percentage of .667, same as the Giants.
In direct contrast, playoff teams from 1970-2015 played a total of 884 games where they failed to tally a single home run. Of the 884 games, only 297 of them turned out to be wins for these teams. That’s a winning percentage of .336. Which is a dramatic difference from the .667, the Royals and Giants achieved during their years of success. Though it does seem the 2016 postseason is trying to make up for the departure from the rule. At the time of this article being constructed there were 21 games where a team failed to homer this postseason, and remarkably only one of these games turned out to be a win. That’s an astonishingly low .047 winning percentage.
As it turns out, the truth, as always, lies somewhere in between.
Another narrative that comes up a lot is the “too many strikeouts, not enough balls in play” argument. Mostly, this is used in conjunction with the argument that if a team is striking out too much they have little opportunity to string hits together to score runs. Typically, this line of thinking tends to forget the rules of BABIP, and weak contact. Not every ball put into play, turns into a hit. In fact, only roughly 30% of the them do. Some simple research shows over the past five postseasons the teams involved averaged a defensive efficiency of .708. Meaning, nearly 71% of balls put into play, not including home runs, were turned into outs.
Considering this argument, I decided to look back over the last four seasons to see how this theory works out. What I decided is, should a team be able to string hits together, that means they should be able to average more than a hit an inning, or ten or more per game. This thought comes from the five runs per game rule, where it typically takes twice as many hits without the aid of home runs to accomplish.
After checking through the most recent seasons (2013-2016) it was noted that approximately 36.5% (each season was relatively close, with a high of 37% and a low of 35%) of the 4860 games played during a regular full season had a team reach 10+ hits in game. Conversely, each respective postseason saw that percentage drop nearly ten percentage (high of 32.8% in 2014, to a low of 19.5% in 2016) points to 27.5%. Immediately this tells us that the ability to string hits together to obtain 10+ per game is nearly 10% less likely to happen in the postseason. Why? Facing the best pitching staffs, and typically the best defensive teams remaining in the postseason, makes the likelihood of accomplishing this goal much more difficult.
With the knowledge that stringing hits together in the postseason is historically difficult, and reaching the magic number of five runs means you have greater than an 84% chance of winning. I took a look at how many postseason games from 2010-2015 matched the criteria of 10+ hits, 5+ runs, with 0 HR. Of the 462 games played there were exactly 18 games that matched that total, or 4.2%. Those teams went 16-2, which is excellent; however, you have only a 4.2 % chance of stringing that many hits together to score 5 or more runs, without the aid of a home run. What are the odds a front office plans for that outcome while building a team? Probably zero.
Since it would be utterly irresponsible to state baseball games can only be won with the assistance of the home run. There is, as they say, more than one way to skin a cat. Without a doubt teams can win games by out-hitting their opponents. However, with the caliber of pitching in modern day MLB getting seemingly better every year, the ability to string together offense on a consistent basis, is nearly impossible.
How important are home runs in today’s game? Very. What about the playoffs? Even more so. When October rolls around, runs are typically at a premium, especially late in games with the power bullpens most teams employ. This is where quick sequence offense comes into play.
Oddly enough the percentages over the past 46 years say a team is more likely (.526) to win a game when striking out 10+ times with one home run, compared to not hitting any, and striking out 10+ times (.330). Pretty significant difference. Unsurprisingly adding 2+ HR to that formula dramatically jumps your chances of winning (.597) said playoff game.
As previously stated there are a myriad of ways to win a baseball game, including a playoff game. However, as it has been shown, a team’s ability to strike quickly with the long ball, is often vastly underrated for the sake of petty argument. This is where we find the Blue Jays recent playoff results. One ended at the hands of a team able to score runs without the aide of home runs, at pretty much a historical level. The most recent snuffed out by a team whose bullpen put together, and continues to put together a record setting performance, and whose offense scored 58% of its runs with home runs, despite being out hit 32-25.
In summary, before turning attention to the manager, and batting coach to point the finger of blame. Take some time to understand that the team was constructed to do the most damage possible in the playoffs, but were simply outplayed in each season ending series. These things happen in playoff baseball. And, while lineups can be tweaked, the ability to strike quickly on offense is historically the difference between winning and losing in the playoffs. Things just don’t always turn out the way they are supposed to. If they did, there would be no need to play in October.
*Featured Image Credit: kdemerly (flickr) UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
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Wade is a long time baseball fan who has been involved with the game for over 30 years. Including as a former college player, amateur pitching coach, and blogger.