In the heat of widespread steroid use, baseball was at its biggest. Or at least offense was. Led by prodigious players such as Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and countless others, home run rates were at record heights. Then, the infamous Mitchell Report was released in 2007, naming roughly 100 Major League players using illegal supplements. Ever since then, power rates have dropped off the table; in 2005, three players mashed at least 57 big flies in 2001. Only two players since then have hit more than or equal to that number: Ryan Howard and Alex Rodriguez (twice).
Relative to 1990′s standards, last season’s power numbers were anemic. Except for Chris Davis‘s resurgence at the plate and Miguel Cabrera‘s continued dominance in the batter’s box, no other batter hit at more than 36 homers. Thirty-six! Rafael Palmeiro eclipsed 36 ten times, with nine of those in consecutive seasons. If anything, power hitters are returning to the Rob Deer, Pete Incaviglia mold of 30 home runs and 170 strikeouts. Sabermetrically, a strikeout is just as invaluable as a regular out, but today’s batters are whiffing on a high percentage of their pitches. The National League Home Run King, Pedro Alvarez, hit 36 homers, but also led the NL with 186 K’s, along with a .233 batting average. Jay Bruce (3rd in the NL with 30 long balls) has a similar issue. He produces, with 43 doubles and 109 RBI’s to back this assertion. He strikes out, with 185 strikeouts. But both Alvarez’s and Bruce’s teams (Pirates and Reds, respectively) reached the playoffs this season. What exactly am I complaining about?
Historically, high home run offenses with inconsistent production don’t perform well in the postseason. Between every player mentioned so far, three have won World Series: Howard, Cabrera, and A-Rod. We all know how A-Rod won, Cabrera won in 2003 when he was Skinny Miggy, and Howard was legitimately amazing in the 2008 World Series combined with Cole Hamels. In the last four seasons, the WS winners were the Red Sox, Giants, Cardinals, and Giants. Boston’s hitter was David Ortiz, who hit 30 HR’s and a .309 average with 88 K’s, and the 2012 Giants had Buster Posey (the only member to hit more than 12 homers) hit 24 HR’s while leading the league in batting average. The 2011 Cardinals had Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman, who combined for 68 homers, 193 RBI, .300 batting average, and 151 total strikeouts. The 2010 Giants had Posey again. Of course, all of these teams had stellar pitching staffs to overcome a lack of moonshots.
So here’s my suggestion. If two players are carrying a team’s load offensively, then the other seven batters aren’t hitting very well. There are a few potential options: 1. Buy hitters, count that as a “check” for the Yankees. 2. Focus solely on pitching, which works for the Giants. 3. Replace those seven players with really strong fielders who can hit at least .250, especially at second base, shortstop, and third base. Even if these guys don’t mash the ball, if they can prevent a few runs through fielding wizardry, that’s just as good as scoring and giving up runs on errors. Plus, fielders are much less expensive than power hitters. In 2004, Omar Vizquel, the best fielding shortstop in the 1990′s and 2000′s, made $6 million dollars with the Indians, his highest amount in his career. Dmitri Young, A.K.A. Da Meat Hook, hit only 18 homers at DH in 2004 for the Tigers. He made $7.75 million. Another example, Yunel Escobar led all shortstops in fielding percentage. With an average bat, he made $5 million for the Rays, who reached, and won a Wild Card game in the playoffs on an Evan Longoria-led team. Mark Reynolds made $6 million when the Indians released him last season. Adam Dunn made $15 million.
Home runs are exciting to watch. Yoenis Cespedes was beyond ridiculous in the Home Run Derby last year, and fans pay a lot of money to see players like Mark Trumbo (now with fellow slugger Paul Goldschmidt in Arizona) launch balls into the next area code. But if a team only hits home runs, their title chances don’t look very good. It’s OK to watch “The Longest Home Runs of 2013″ on Youtube. I’ll watch it with you. However, to build a championship team, home runs should be a tertiary thought for a GM.