USA TODAY US Edition
Success comes one hit at a time
Long rallies or long ball? Recent playoff results make the case for getting on base
The Kansas City Royals’ five-run, seventh-inning comeback in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series began with a bloop single that landed in short right field after two Toronto Blue Jays miscommunicated and called each other off.
That was the first hit of a five-single, one-double rally predicated on the Royals’ high-contact abilities. “They weren’t really well-struck baseballs,” Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin told reporters afterward. “They just kind of rallied. They got the momentum and kept going.”
Consistently putting the ball in play, the thinking has become, is the optimal playoff offense. The San Francisco Giants won three World Series in five years with an average home run rank of 19th out of 30 clubs. Instead, they kept pressure on the opposing pitcher and defense by stringing together hits and excelling at timely situational hitting.
The Royals ranked last in home runs while winning last year’s AL pennant — and only climbed to 24th this season.
“Power production often occurs a little later in a player’s career,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “Our market is always going to dictate that we have young players, so we understood from the beginning that if we’re not going to hit the ball out of the ballpark, we can’t slow down. We’ve got to put the ball in play and play situational baseball.”
Kansas City might have assembled that kind of lineup out of necessity, but that approach is commonly touted as the best way to win in October.
“Those things are important, but it’s nice to have some power, too.” Mets GM Sandy Alderson on high contact rate and on-base percentage vs. power hitting
“I’ve heard that theory many times, that high on-base contact offense with some speed is more effective in a short series because it’s more consistent as opposed to power numbers,” New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said. “Those things are important, but it’s nice to have some power, too, and I’m sure the Cubs are happy with their lineup, which is power-oriented, and we have guys that are capable of hitting the ball out, as well.”
Alderson has seen it play out in front of him: Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy has been the surprise star of the playoffs, slugging six home runs after hitting 14 — a career high — in the regular season.
And what does Murphy do best? You guessed it — put the ball in play. He struck out once every 14 plate appearances, the best rate in the major leagues this season.
Of course, not every lineup has such a high-contact luxury. That forces annual, internal debates. Singles or slugging, rallies or homers: What’s the best way to score in the postseason?
Because the best pitching tends to be collected on playoff clubs — even more so after the trade deadline — rallies are harder to string together in October. Over the last decade, the leaguewide on-base percentage has been 14 points lower in the postseason, dropping from .325 to .311, and scoring is down nearly a run per game.
Overall, strikeout rates have risen 13%, but so far in 2015 it’s about 20%, as one of every four plate appearances has ended in a strikeout compared with one in five during the regular season.
Home run rates, however, have remained steady at about two per game no matter if it is played before or during October. The share of runs scored via the long ball has increased slightly over the decadelong sample (35% in the regular season vs. 38% in the postseason), but this year the share has jumped from 37% in the regular season to 45% in the postseason.
Paced by Murphy’s six homers (and 11 total), the New York Mets have batted .225 with a .282 OBP in October yet are holding a 3-0 lead in the National League Championship Series against a Cubs team that slugged six homers in one NL Division Series game and has a league-leading 13 in the playoffs.
“We have hit home runs, and that’s when we do our best work; I cannot deny that,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said, stressing he preferred “a formula where you can do a little bit of everything.”
Added Cubs GM Jed Hoyer, “Obviously it wasn’t our goal to be 30th in baseball in batting average. We hope to improve our contact rate and our batting average in the future, but you can only make so many changes in one season. Our guys do get on base. They do have power. And that’s really been our offense — not a lot of long rallies. A lot of short rallies.”
There have been 70 home runs hit this postseason — more than in any of the last three years.
Then how does one explain the recent success of the Giants and the Royals, who are an even more extreme practitioner of the rally-based offense?
A USA TODAY Sports analysis of ballin-play data since 2008 that was provided by Baseball Savant shows a correlation between contact percentage and playoff success.
The average for all teams was to put the ball in play on 80% of plate appearances; for playoff teams, that rose to 81% and for pennant winners to 82%, although those margins are hardly substantial.
Of the 240 team seasons since 2008, the median ball-in-play rank among pennant winners was 62 — roughly the top quarter. Only three of the 14 World Series participants ranked outside the top 90, i.e., in the top 38%.
Two other components of situational hitting correlate more strongly: The median for World Series teams’ batting average with runners in scoring position is 43rd and average with two strikes is 50th.
“Generally it’s going to be a low-scoring game,” Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said of the playoffs. “And what wins that is putting the ball in play maybe, a ball sneaks through, somebody boots a ball or a contact play scores a guy from third base. That’s generally what happens, so that’s always a concern when you’re basically a long-ball-type team.”
Then again, home run power — which the Jays have in spades — provides confidence that a comeback is always around the corner.
“When you can hit the long ball, you never really feel out of a game,” Gibbons said.
The Royals, Moore noted, have hit their share of timely postseason home runs, too. They homered in seven of last year’s 11 playoff wins, a 64% rate that was well above the 54% correlation from their 89 wins in the regular season. K.C. has jacked homers in five of six playoff wins this year, too.
“It’s very rare that you can string together five, six hits in an inning,” Moore said. “You have to pop the ball out of the ballpark now and then.”
Regular-season home run totals are important but don’t correlate as strongly as contact rates, however. The median rank among pennant winners was only 83, approximately the top third. The 2009 World Series between the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies was played by each league’s team home run leader, and the average participant in the last decade ranked 13th of the 30 clubs in home runs. On the other hand, five of the six clubs in the last three Fall Classics have ranked in the bottom half of the majors in homers, including two last-place lineups.
Even if front offices recognize that the game is a little different in the playoffs, there’s only so much roster manipulation that can be done.
“You can’t really change things for the postseason,” Alderson said. “Maybe a player here or there, but generally you’re built for the long haul with an eye toward the playoffs, and it’s difficult to make significant changes.”
Clubs are left dancing with the girl that brought them — and hoping that’s the right offensive mix.