Baseball playoffs or home run derby?

After the Tampa Bay Rays defeated the New York Yankees in the deciding game of the American League divisional playoff, the Rays’ manager, baseball lifer Kevin Cash, called it the most exciting game he has ever been a part of. To the neutral, the game was suspenseful and dramatic. The Rays won it 2-1 on a solo home run by Mike Brosseau in the eighth inning off of Aroldis Chapman, the pitcher who had nearly hit him in the head with a 100 mile per hour fastball during the regular season.

But this was not a great game. It was three hour and 20 minutes of limited action, punctuated by three solo home runs. Traffic on the base paths was almost nil, as the Rays and Yanks combined for only six hits. They also combined for 24 strikeouts.

This is typical of the MLB playoffs so far. Strikeouts, home runs, and not enough of the other stuff that makes baseball exciting.

Through the division series, 51 percent of all runs scored have been the result of home runs. In the first two games of the ALCS, between Tampa Bay and Houston, the trend has been even more pronounced. All but two of the nine runs scored have come via the home run. (There have been lots of baserunners and some fielding gems, though.)

During the regular season, home runs produced 44 percent of runs scored. In last season’s playoffs, they produced 47 percent of them.

According to Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post, in the four division series this year, the eight teams homered at a rate of one every 18.7 at-bats. That’s roughly equivalent to the career rates of Mel Ott, Joe DiMaggio, Roger Maris, and Miguel Cabrera.

Sheinin also notes that in the 58-year history of Dodger Stadium, there had been only one post-season game with six home runs or more. But in the series between Houston and Oakland last week (played at Dodger Stadium due to the pandemic), there were six or more homers in three of the four games.

Moreover, until this year no team in history had hit as many as 12 home runs in a playoff series of five or fewer games. Houston and Oakland both hit that many last week in their four game series.

These numbers aren’t a coincidence. In recent years, batters increasingly have embraced an all-or-nothing approach and now they are doubling down on it in the playoffs.

The idea is that, with pitchers routinely throwing fast balls of 95 miles per hour or more in the playoffs, making contact is difficult enough, and stringing three hits together to produce a run is extremely hard. Hence the desire to go for broke. As Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker says, “power is [what] plays in the post-season.”

But might not a more artful approach to hitting “play” for less powerful hitters if they learned it? For example, if it’s too hard to string three singles together, why not occasionally sacrifice bunt late in games when a single run is likely to be decisive? That way, only two hits will be needed to produce a run (albeit with fewer tries to get them).

To date, there hasn’t been even one sacrifice bunt in this year’s playoffs. However, the winning run in the first Tampa Bay-Houston game scored on the unintentional equivalent of two bunts. A pair of slowly hit ground balls advanced a runner who had walked to third base, where he was able to score on a single. One run, one hit, no home runs.

Furthermore, multiple hits in an inning wouldn’t be so hard to come by if batters learned to hit to the opposite field against those ever present shifts. Modern defenses leave vast portions of the field unprotected and thus vulnerable to “hitting ’em where they ain’t.” But that approach is inconsistent with swinging for the fences, so few bother to learn it.

Is my thinking here hopelessly old fashioned — too antithetical to modern baseball “analytics”? Maybe not. Mike Elias is the head of baseball operations for the Baltimore Orioles. He’s the very model of a modern analytics guy — Yale educated and one of the architects of Houston’s data driven baseball operation.

This year, the Orioles committed the heresy of bunting for a hit. Not every Oriole, just the ones who have good speed and not much natural power. Cedric Mullins led the way and in the process may have salvaged his career. Mullins flopped in 2019 (batting average .094). This year, with bunting for a hit part of his arsenal, he batted .271. His OPS was so-so at best (.723), but maybe good enough to keep him playing regularly in center field for a while, considering his glove.

In addition, Hanser Alberto, a journeyman, has batted close to .300 during his two seasons with the Orioles by spraying the ball to all fields. His OPS isn’t great because he doesn’t walk nearly enough. But by hitting to all fields, he has batted well enough to hold down the second base job.

A batting order full of these two players won’t get a team far. However, they were important pieces of an unheralded lineup on a downtrodden team that finished middle of the pack in runs scored and above league median in OPS (and middle of the pack in home runs).

I imagine that Elias was just trying to made lemonade out of lemons. As the Orioles progress, he might well try to replace the likes of Mullins and Alberto with swing-for-the-fences guys.

I hope not, though. And I hope other teams will tilt the other way, at least a little.

Baseball needs more action on the base paths and in the field of play. It needs more runners speeding to home plate just ahead of the ball (or just behind it) and fewer trotting home.

The all-or-nothing approach is probably hurting the game. Viewers and attendees (once we are allowed back in) might be willing to watch three and half hours of strikeouts and home runs when the Yankees are playing post-season games. I’m not sure whether we will continue to watch such games during the regular season and in less glamorous playoff matchups.