Tuesday’s AL wild-card game was a showdown between 2016’s two most exciting teams, which over the previous six months had fought to a tie in 2016’s most exciting division. By “exciting,” I mostly mean suspenseful; suspense breeds excitement, even if it’s the sickening sort that leaves you shaking on the couch while your team’s season slips away, wishing you’d never found out about baseball. And what breeds suspense? I’d argue that it’s uncertainty — not knowing an outcome you care about.
After each of the past two regular seasons, I’ve crowned baseball’s most exciting club by searching for the team whose season made us most uncertain. To do that, I looked at the cumulative change in each team’s daily odds of qualifying for the division series, as calculated by Baseball Prospectus. Every morning, BP estimates each team’s chances of making it to the DS by simulating the rest of the season thousands of times. The teams whose odds moved more (in either direction) from opening day to October — based on nightly updates to the standings and depth charts — kept us in constant suspense.
If we divide the season into six equal segments, we see that the AL East was the most suspenseful division during each slice — especially down the stretch, when the other division leaders locked up their races, but the East remained unresolved.
No teams contributed to the chaos more than the AL wild-card combatants, Toronto and Baltimore, who finished first and second, respectively, in total division series–odds movement after playing to identical 89–73 records and clinching their spots in the play-in game on the last day of the season.
The AL East rivals even came as close as they could to a draw in their season series, with Toronto taking 10 of 19. So it was fitting that their matchup on Tuesday took two extra innings to determine which team would advance.
You know how Round 20 wrapped up: Buck Showalter became the latest manager to bow to the tyranny of the save stat, using almost every pitcher in his bullpen but for the best one. While Zach Britton paced in the pen, wondering whether he’d warmed up as a prank, the mercurial Ubaldo Jiménez went back to being Bad Ubaldo. After allowing consecutive singles, Jiménez centered a flat fastball to Edwin Encarnación, a hitter who feasts on most fastballs and drove this particular pitch 440 feet.
Here’s another way we could describe what went down: The team that hit more homers won. Six of the seven runs scored in the game came on dingers, which was also fitting for a faceoff between two of baseball’s five most home run–reliant teams. And that tells us something about Toronto’s odds of topping Texas in the ALDS.
At the first sign of a postseason slump, teams that pound their way to the playoffs tend to encounter the criticism that hitting dingers doesn’t work in October. After his team scored a combined three runs in the first two games of last year’s ALCS, for example, Jays manager John Gibbons was asked whether Toronto was too reliant on the long ball, which had powered baseball’s best offense during the regular season. “I don’t think it’s a curse,” Gibbons said. “That’s what got us to this point in a lot of ways. That’s who we are.” In Game 3, the Jays hit three home runs and scored 11 runs.
Is there such a thing as an offense that is built to mash during the regular season but is ill suited for the playoffs? This is a question we can answer statistically. Baseball Prospectus offers a stat called Guillén number, so named by BP cofounder Joe Sheehan after former White Sox manager Ozzie Guillén, whose small-ball tactics earned accolades even as his teams lived and died by the dinger. Guillén number computes the percentage of a team’s total runs that score on home runs. The average team in this homer-happy season scored 39.3 percent of its runs on homers, well below the Orioles (51.9 percent, second all time, according to Sheehan’s newsletter) and the Blue Jays (46.1 percent). (The Mets ranked second, with an NL-record 51.1 percent.) As Sheehan noted this week, no 2016 team won fewer games in which it went homerless than the Jays, who were 9–34 in such games. The 2012 Yankees were the last team to win fewer homerless contests, and that team had detractors, too; as manager Joe Girardi said in response to the skeptics that season, “A homer is a hit too, you know that? Eventually everyone will believe that.”
The evidence indicates that Girardi was right. Although relying on homers doesn’t guarantee offensive greatness — see the middling Mets and Orioles lineups — regular-season Guillén number is weakly, but positively, correlated with run-scoring. (The higher a team’s Guillén number, the more runs it tends to score.) And even in October, a home run–reliant offense seems to retain a slight advantage. I ordered the 176 playoff teams from the wild-card era (prior to 2016) by Guillén number, highest to lowest, and divided them into two same-sized groups. Teams from both groups hit worse in the playoffs, but the teams in the more homer-reliant half of the sample sustained a slightly smaller decrease in production. In other words, more of their run-scoring survived.
If you’re wondering whether the supposed penalty might appear at the extremes — well, we can check that, too. And even if we divide the playoff teams into four groups or eight groups, the more homer-heavy teams come out on top. The 22 teams whose high Guillén numbers placed them in the playoffs’ top octile (I checked; it’s a word) saw their scoring decrease in October by only 19 percent.
If you think it through, it makes sense that homer-reliant teams would be more immune to October outages. Granted, home runs are harder to hit during the playoffs, when the pitchers are better and the weather is colder. But that’s only because everything is harder to do during the playoffs, thanks to the increased quality of competition. Defenses are stronger in October, too — this year’s Cubs, for instance, have held opponents to a historically low batting average on balls in play. From 1995–2015, the league-wide batting average on balls in play was .298 during the regular season, but only .284 in the playoffs. That makes it harder to bunch enough nonhomer hits for a run-scoring rally, which undoes the slight advantage that contact hitters might have against good heat. If you can clear the fence, you don’t have to worry about the ball being caught (unless there’s an Upton nearby).
So why does hitting home runs still have a bad rep? It might be because teams that depend on the dinger look worse when they slump. In close postseason games, fans’ heart rates rise as each out ebbs away. When batters swing for the fences and can’t connect, some primitive, impatient part of the spectator screams do something, pleading for the hitter to just put it in play. Each whiff is a crisis, whereas contact creates hope. And while we might forget the good times, frustrations never fade.
If you find yourself in this situation, don’t be deceived. The Blue Jays might not make it deep into October. But if they exit early, it won’t be because their dependence on dingers doomed them from the start. If anything, it made them more likely to last.