The Tampa Bay Rays win a game of home run derby

More baseball shit you didn't ask for...

So I turn on the AL Wild Card Game last night and find out ESPN has two broadcasts; one traditional, the other one a Statcast AI broadcast on ESPN2 designed to “celebrate the numbers.”

Which kinda seems like missing the point.

That’s like taking a drive up the Pacific Coast Highway so you can celebrate your gas mileage, but if that’s what turns you on go ahead and knock yourself out.

The regular broadcast was briefly turned over to the Statcast guys and they took that opportunity to break the news that home runs are a good thing. They pointed out that seven of the top eight home run-hitting teams made the playoffs.

Tampa Bay got to the postseason ranking 21st in home runs and second in pitching so there appears to be more than one trail to the mountain top, but clearly, hitting home runs doesn’t hurt.

But what happens when a team tries to hit home runs and fails?

The Minnesota Twins

In 2019 no team in baseball hit more home runs than the Minnesota Twins and unsurprisingly, 274 of the Twins 307 home runs came on fly balls.

Also unsurprisingly, the Twins batting average dropped from .270 to .256 on fly balls and the reason is pretty simple: big league outfielders cover more ground than a Ken Burns documentary and any fly ball that doesn’t leave the park is likely to be caught.

For example:

According to Baseball Reference the Twins had 1,498 at bats in which they hit a fly ball. Remove the 274 home runs from their 383 fly ball hits, do the same thing with their fly ball at bats and the Twins team batting average on fly balls that weren’t home runs is a whopping .089.

The Statcast guys were right; hitting home runs is an undeniably good thing, the problem is trying to hit home runs and not hitting the ball far enough.   

Now look at balls hit with line drive trajectory and the Twins averaged .639. Remove the 33 line drive home runs from their line drive hits and at bats and the Twins still hit .628.

(Really hoping I did that math right: I just made myself an Irish Coffee and it’s become alarmingly apparent that I’ve worked my way up to drinking cups of coffee-flavored whiskey.)

So here’s the question: do you want the home runs fly balls give you or the batting average line drives give you?

Right now, the fly-ball-home-run approach is more popular than free ice cream in August.

The AL Wild Card Game

But wasn’t that home run hitting approach validated by the AL Wild Card Game? The Rays hit home runs, the A’s didn’t and the Rays won 5-1.

Sounds logical until you remember only four teams in baseball hit more home runs than the A’s; at times it appeared they were trying to hit home runs, but failed.

Take a look at the bottom of the first inning.

The score was still 1-0, the A’s had the bases loaded and two outs and the Rays had exactly one guy standing between second and third base. If it wouldn’t date me I’d make a Maytag Repairman joke. An opposite field single would have given the A’s the lead and changed everything that came after.

But Jurickson Profar pulled a fly ball to right field and didn’t come close to hitting it out. If Profar had hit a single to the opposite field the A’s would not have been forced to play a game of Home Run Derby they were destined to lose.

And while we’re on the subject, don’t forget that the NL Wild Card Game was won by a team that was out-homered when they hit a single and put pressure on the other team’s defense; pressure the Milwaukee Brewers couldn’t handle.

Which brings us an interesting point.

Where’s the outlier?

Right now pretty much everybody is playing Home Run Derby so it’s not much of a surprise that the teams that play it best come out on top.

But as one front office executive pointed out, some teams are so hungry for home runs they’ll play guys who hit homers, but aren’t all that hot at playing defense.

And that means there’s a window of opportunity for a team that decides to emphasize contact, getting the ball in play and making those mediocre defenders play the part of the game that gives them problems.

But that would require a GM and front office willing to swim upstream and leave the safety of running with the herd and I’m just now realizing just how mixed those metaphors turned out to be.

The 2014 and ’15 Royals showed it could be done – get the ball in play and run like hell – but it was an approach that didn’t catch on; most teams feel it’s better to play it safe, cover your ass and do what everybody else is doing.

Or is it?

Home runs are up and so are the strikeouts that go with them. Walks are also up and so is the amount of time it takes to play a big league game. Look on the other side of the MLB ledger and stolen bases and sacrifice bunts are down. And for seventh year in a row, so is attendance.

So what are the odds that all that shit is connected?

The old-school guys complain that this approach to baseball – everybody standing around waiting for someone to hit a homer – has taken strategy and excitement out of the game and made it less interesting.

Last night’s Wild Card Game featured 24 strikeouts – which translates into four full innings where a ball was not put in play – and lasted three hours and 18 minutes. Unless you’re an A’s or Rays fan, you might find that less than compelling.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking to the baseball guys I’m calling “old school” and I still haven’t met one who completely dismisses analytics. These guys are in the business of winning ballgames and if someone has information that will help them, they want to hear it.

But they also want the freedom to dismiss the information that they don’t find helpful and right now a whole lot of old school baseball guys don’t find the game’s current obsession with home runs helpful.

Here’s why:

According to Baseball Reference, since 2012 total tickets sold to home games have gone down by a total of 6,364,516.

Try celebrating that number.