MLB: “Home run or die” approach has corroded the beauty of offense

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 25: Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees follows through on a swing during the third inning against the Miami Marlins at Yankee Stadium on September 25, 2020 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 25: Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees follows through on a swing during the third inning against the Miami Marlins at Yankee Stadium on September 25, 2020 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images) /

There are more ways to score runs than by swinging for the fences. Evidence shows that MLB, from front offices on down, has forgotten this.

Offense in Major League Baseball isn’t as pretty as it used to be. Home runs and strikeouts rule the game, though the latter happens way more frequently. Rallies are rare, line drives have lost favor to fly balls, and a .250 batting average is considered acceptable, if not encouraging. What has led to the regression of the most exhilarating side of baseball?

The offensive drawbacks throughout MLB were more evident in the 60-game season. Collectively, pitchers were as fresh as they would ever be, which meant velocities were up and confidences were high. Hitters took the brunt of these ramped up qualities.

The sample size is smaller than usual, but statistics show that the league batting average was down seven points from a year ago, and the league OPS was down 18 points. Also, runs per game went from 4.85 in 2019 to 4.65 in 2020.

Low-scoring outcomes, in large part, extended into the opening week of the postseason.

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The Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds combined for six runs over 22 innings in their two-game Wildcard series. Each series between the Astros and Twins and Brewers and Dodgers resulted in nine runs combined. And the Marlins and Cubs totaled eight runs over two games.

Great pitching rules the MLB postseason, but you’d expect professional hitters to be more productive than they have been. If you had the chance to tune into various games last week, you probably witnessed an exhausting amount of strikeouts with runners in scoring position. You probably also saw plenty of batters swing out of their shoes while trying to hit some of the nastier pitches in the sport. These days, it’s tough to differentiate a 3-1 cut from an 0-2 one.

But that’s what hitting has become. The sabermetric era took storm and convinced front offices and coaching staffs that groundballs have far less potential than fly balls do. As a result, rosters and lineups now embrace the all-or-nothing approach and temper the contact approach. There is less value to the idea of putting the ball in play for the sake of forcing the defense to make a play.

The New York Yankees brought that perspective to life Tuesday night in Game 2 of the ALDS. In a 7-5 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, the Yankees scored four of their five runs via the home run; also, their 18 strikeouts broke the record for the most in a nine-inning postseason game.

Furthermore, sabermetrics sparked momentum to the defensive shift. Position players strategically realign seemingly a dozen times a game to combat hitters’ statistically-proven tendencies. The majority of hitters have decided that the best way to overcome a shift is to hit the ball over every defensive player. Hence, they activate a more extreme launch angle.

Please understand that I’m not suggesting the sabermetric influence is a sham and has no place in the game – I’m not an extreme traditionalist in that sense. Nor am I arguing that launch angle is an overrated focus that actually hurts run production.

I do believe, however, that the new era offense is less visually pleasing. Sure, fans are admiring more home runs than ever, but what about the at-bats in between? So often, it’s strikeout after strikeout after strikeout.

I can’t speak for all MLB fans, though I enjoy watching line drives up the middle, down the lines, and in the gaps. I’m also for sacrifice bunting if the situation calls for it. After all, those things lead to more run scoring just as home runs do.

I’m not sure of the last time I saw a sacrifice bunt executed. It seems like the art of bunting flies by the wayside once spring training concludes. Hitters often begin batting practice rounds by bunting, but is there intent behind doing so, or are they simply going through the motion?

The point being, there are elements of baseball that have either severely lessened or completely disappeared. Strikeouts have not lessened. MLB has seen a rise in strikeouts each year from 2016 to 2019. In 2016, teams fanned 38,982 times. Teams were on pace to strikeout 42,082 times had a 162-game season been played in 2020.

Sabermetrics, technique, and money have revamped offense. Players have fully realized the following equation: HRs = >$$. Front offices pay far less attention to the strikeout and batting average categories than they do to the home run category. They eyeball home run totals, OPS, SLG, ISO, and wRC when looking to afford a player the big bucks. Hitters know that; therefore, they’ve geared their offensive efforts accordingly.

Chris Davis smashed 47 homers in 2015, which prompted the Baltimore Orioles to offer him a seven-year, $161 million contract. He hit 38 long balls in 2016, but his home run totals fell to 26, 16, 12, and 0 in the following years. Davis’ contract is now viewed as one of the worst in the history of the game.

Rougned Odor hit 33 homers in 2016, which prompted the Texas Rangers to sign him to a six-year, $49.5 million contract extension the following spring. Odor has kept up the home run pace, but his batting average has circled the Mendoza Line for the last two seasons, and his OBPs have been well below .300 over that span. Rangers fans are at wit’s end with their seven-year second baseman.

Those are a couple of examples in which front offices were dazed by upside and failed to caution for downside.

Front offices are currently fooled by the fact that power fluctuates, and it’s not the end all be all to composing a great offense. Hitters are currently fooled into believing power is the best way to help their team and the only way to earn a generous contract. Fans are currently fooled into thinking power is the only part of offense worth watching and appreciating.

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Hitting is losing its purity for the reasons highlighted in this article. For the sake of entertainment, I hope the purity regains. More line drives, more selfless ABs, and more rallies. Rallies are more thrilling than solo home runs.