The Tenth Inning – Week 5

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The Tenth Inning – Week 5 ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>

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By Mike Ivcic

Homeruns have become the standard by which most hitters are judged as far as power is concerned. Fans love to see homeruns, and nothing in baseball has the ability to be more damaging to a pitcher than getting a couple of outs and allowing a couple of runners, then making a very good pitch and seeing the ball leave the yard anyway. A few teams have even built their team around the longball, scrapping players with high averages and good on base percentages for a lineup with eight or nine players with above average power, who might hit .250 but will clear the wall a minimum of 30 times every season.

A number of significant moments prove this as true. Chase Utley is clearly the best player on the Phillies, who have been the best team in the National League the past two seasons. Yet Utley’s contract will likely never supersede the deal that teammate Ryan Howard just received; Utley makes $15 million, Howard will make between $20-25 the next six seasons. Players like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa “brought baseball back” from the loss of the 1994 World Series, even though it came at the expense of a black eye with the steroid scandal. David Ortiz continues to be employed by the Red Sox simply for the “threat” of a homerun. And so it goes.

But I will argue that the homerun may be the most detrimental aspect of a baseball game for an offense, and that teams (and subsequently, ballparks) that are built around homeruns are doomed to fail. Allow me to explain.

First, from the hitter’s perspective, it’s all about the mentality. Allow me an illustration. First and third, bottom of the ninth, down by three with no one out. Typically, this situation would call for simply just getting on base in some form. At worst, the bases would be loaded, and a single or double would score one or two runs, cutting the deficit. But, rather than use a backup infielder who may have a .290 average and a .350 OBP, the manager selects a veteran with a .245 average, .303 OBP but has hit 20+ homeruns in seasons past. He rolls over on a changeup because he’s trying to pull the ball for a homerun instead of doing what the infielder would have done – wait on the pitch and go the other way for an opposite field single – and, despite scoring a run, grounds into a double play that virtually eliminates the scoring threat, and his team loses by two.

Too often, that scenario presents itself in the major leagues, and that mentality has trickled down to the minors and collegiate level. I’m not extolling for Billy Bean-style baseball that has been implemented in Oakland (because how many championships have they won with that style?), and I certainly understand the need for power both in the lineup and on the bench. But homeruns have a way of coming back to haunt teams well beyond the current team – a factor that often times is thought, but never mentioned.

There are a handful of examples to use when discussing an entire franchise’s commitment to homeruns, but none better than Colorado. From day one of their existence in 1993, it was always assumed that first Mile High Stadium and now Coors Field would be hitter’s parks, and the original Rockies’ team was built as such. Dante Bichette, Andres Galarraga, Larry Walker, Vinny Castilla, Ellis Burks – that team could flat out mash. The problem was that they couldn’t pitch, and it eventually buried the team for basically a decade. Even with attempts to lure big name pitchers to Denver – Mike Hampton, Denny Neagle, and Darryl Kile all signed big deals – it never paid off in a playoff berth. That was until they instituted the use of the Humidor to provide additional moisture to the ball and allow for less homeruns. Suddenly the Rockies have made two of the last three postseasons and gone to a World Series. No longer are they thought of as an offensive team – how can they be when Troy Tulowitzki is their cleanup hitter? – but they can pitch and play defense in what is actually a rather big yard, and suddenly they have become successful.

On the flip side, there are two parks that are very renowned for giving up the longball – Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati and Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore. In both cases, the stadium was built during a time when the team was thriving (Baltimore) or had just had a decade of fairly good success (Cincinnati). Both teams had lineups that could match up top-to-bottom with any other in the league, and maybe because of that fact or just merely out of coincidence, both parks became homer-happy fields. Not surprisingly, neither team has been all that good in recent years, mostly because the Reds and Orioles have both had the same problem – a lack of top-tier pitching. Why? Well, if you’re a pitcher who’s entering his prime at 26-28 years old with a chance to play anywhere, and you get similar offers from, say… Cleveland and Cincinnati (similar markets, divisions, weather, etc.) which would you choose? Cleveland, who’s known for having a park that leans towards being more pitcher-friendly, or Cincinnati, where balls fly into the Ohio River on a frequent basis? It’s a no-brainer for any good pitcher – take the money first, and the better ballpark second.

It’s the reason why teams like Texas and Philadelphia, along with the two above, will struggle to SIGN top-tier free agent pitchers. It doesn’t mean they won’t be drafted or traded for, but once this Phillies team fades, it will be tough to get good pitchers to want to pitch in that ballpark. Meanwhile Atlanta, Oakland, Detroit, San Diego, New York (NL), and even places like Washington, Seattle, and Milwaukee could all bid for those top level starters and, pending financial ability, sign them, because of the lure of pitching in a bigger ballpark. Clearly other factors do apply, and the Yankees will always be able to sign good pitching regardless of how Yankee Stadium plays, but it’s no coincidence that the teams more often than not that qualify for and win in the postseason are teams that can pitch and play defense, not hit homeruns. And the ballpark is a significant help in that.

Here’s hoping – for the sake of the franchises and the teams that play there – that Florida, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and Oakland will all continue to play in vast, spacious stadiums more conducive to doubles, bunts, and excellent pitching. Because THAT is what’s truly exciting to a baseball fan.

Trivia Question
Last week’s answer: The 1990 Cincinnati Reds are the last team to lead or be tied for the lead for every single day of an entire season.

This week’s question: Walk-off homeruns have once again become commonplace in Major League Baseball, with nearly double digits last week alone. Who is the active leader all-time in walk-off homeruns?

 

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