The Pen: A postseason driven by home runs is a boring postseason

Hannah Keyser

This is another piece about all the home runs.

By now you don’t need stats or anecdotes or even hyperlinks to stats or anecdotes to understand that home runs are up — way up, depending on when you compare it to. (OK fine, one stat: 671 more home runs this year than in the previous all-time-high season.) Records smashed and reset and rendered slightly suspect. And we’re no longer talking projections or on pace for, either. The 2019 regular season has come and gone and wrought an unprecedented amount of power. Or at least balls hit over the fence — how much power was actually involved is a matter of some contention.

Maybe commissioner Rob Manfred will do something to revert the super-smooth, supremely symmetrical, and extra bouncy baseball back to a prior iteration that had a little less pop before next season. First, however, there’s a postseason to play.

(Yahoo illustration/Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo illustration/Amber Matsumoto)

Just a few days into October, we’ve already thoroughly dismantled the adage that teams shouldn’t rely on home runs to win playoff games — both because it was never true to begin with and because it is easier than ever to go yard. Home runs largely determined which teams made it to October — seven of the top eight home-run teams made the postseason, as did seven of the top eight teams at preventing home runs (free story idea: how did the Cubs make both those lists and miss the playoffs?) — and home runs will likely determine who wins it all. Baseball evolved to be this way because changes to the physical ball encouraged it, but also because it just makes sense to score as simply and straightforwardly as possible.

I don’t like this.

It’s cranky and crotchety and totally subjective (although I will now proceed to try to persuade both you and myself otherwise) to say so. Adding to the only number that matters at the end of the night with a single swing is definitely efficient. But — if you’ll indulge me in a little bit of romanticism — there is no endgame for spectators, and engaging with sports is entirely optional. We’re not trying to get where we’re going as efficiently as possible.

Streamlining all the scoring in a baseball game to include the fewest at-bats and actors and variables starts to beg the question of why we bother with the whole thing at all.

Consider that in the first 18 innings of postseason baseball, the most exciting inning came when the Nationals staged a comeback in the National League wild-card game on the virtue of a controversial hit-by-pitch, a walk, a broken-bat bloop single, a hard-hit ball, an error, and a baserunning decision that was either a meaningless blunder or a bit of brilliant strategy.

Of course Washington fans would have been equally thrilled, in the moment, to see their team take the lead on a long ball. But a graph of their collective heartbeats would have shown a single spike in place of a sustained period of extreme peaks and valleys (or at least I think that expresses the correct sentiment, despite my limited understanding of EKGs). Contrast that with the American League wild-card game, in which the victorious Rays scored 100 percent of their runs on homers and the whole thing was a comparative snoozefest.

Baseball is long and only getting longer. Inaction reigns. A sustained rally — one that ultimately delivers on the incremental excitement of every pitch taken for a ball and every millisecond between contact and a hit falling in front of the outfielders — is the reason to experience a baseball game live and not just wait to watch the home-run highlight reel. The sureness of a home run eliminates all but a mere instant of tension. The narrative arc is short and discrete, covering only as long as it takes for the ball to travel some 400 feet and involving no one but the batter and the pitcher, and the latter only a little.

It is so clear as to seem almost an objective fact that the most dramatic single event that can occur in a baseball game is a play at the plate, which could go either way and which will be equally and oppositely ecstatic or gut-wrenching for each fanbase in the same instant. Removing even the possibility of that element from the majority of scoring in a series renders the whole game a little less alive.

What I am describing is an aesthetic take on baseball that transcends the postseason and is ultimately a matter of personal preference. Even a persuasive argument couldn’t move teams to forgo home runs in service of variety, and increased stakes only heighten the singular concern of winning.

What I worry about for the postseason is that the home runs have become low-hanging fruit that often feel fluky instead of impressive. Nothing is ever a perfect meritocracy, but I can’t shake the feeling that it would be a farce for Justin Verlander to find himself costing his team a series because he’s prone to giving up solo shots and overall scoring is lower in October.

I want pressure to come into play this postseason. I want people to cheer for the entire time it takes to leg out a triple. I want to see a center fielder save his team’s season with an incredible throw home. I want close calls that aren’t just reviews of whether soft-pop flies possibly hit the high side of the outfield wall. OK, maybe I want the kids to get off my lawn, but I promise I don’t mind if they bat flip on an RBI double.

This isn’t actually about October; it’s even bigger than that. But now is a really good time for baseball to be at its best, to showcase everything the sport has to offer — emphasis on a multitude of dynamic plays. And frankly, all the home runs are just boring.

Notes from the clubhouse

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 01: Max Scherzer #31 of the Washington Nationals warms up before the start of the National League Wild Card game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Nationals Park on October 1, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Max Scherzer warms up before his start in the National League wild-card game against the Milwaukee Brewers on Tuesday. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

At the All-Star Game in Cleveland this year, I talked to Nationals ace Max Scherzer, and his concerns about how good hitters have gotten has renewed relevance now that it’s the postseason — and especially in the wake of his first start in the wild-card game:

“I enjoy the grind so much. I enjoy trying to push myself further, trying to do more, always trying to find what my body can handle. The hardest part has been how fast the hitters can react to what you’re doing. Their level of information about how you go about the game is at so much of a higher level than it was 10 years ago. The line between good or great is always shrinking.”

Notes from the stands

In the first edition of this column I asked if you thought 2019 was a good (regular) baseball season. Unsurprisingly, for many people, it depends on whom you’re rooting for:

Just a couple of years ago I was rooting for the Brewers to win the final games of the season so they could avoid the proverbial 90-loss mark. Now, a few years later, they are contending for division titles and playoff chances. Based on my experiences and history with my team, I know it won't last long, but it’s so fun to enjoy it in the moment.Cory Smarzinski

I'm a Mets fan, so the regular season was anger-inducing. (In an unhealthy way!!!) But overall, as a general baseball fan, it was disappointing because the juiced ball seemed to cheapen run-scoring. — @reynoldstop20

If you didn’t like the season, it was probably because of the “juiced” ball (I’m catering to those people with this week’s column) and the disparity between juggernauts and teams that are tanking:

The scary thing is that four teams will probably win 100-plus games and four will lose 100-plus games this season. I don't know if that has ever happened where that many teams have reached the century mark. I certainly don't remember anything like that. There is no parity in baseball anymore. Karel

It was not a great season: too many home runs, too many strikeouts, too few balls in play, too many godawful teams, especially in the American League. Steve

No, too many homers. @jimreilly43

But what surprised me the most was how many people thought the season was great and totally watchable simply because it was baseball with all the baseball-ness and inevitable amazing performances. It’s a useful reminder that being tasked with extracting narratives is often a distraction from the visceral enjoyment most fans feel toward the sport:

Every season is different and the stories change but it is those stories that make baseball so special. Who wins and who loses might be fairly easy to predict, but the breakout star, declining superstar with a fat contract or the tragic make fans pay attention no matter who they hope will win. So for me it was a great season. Of course, the Padres winning the National League West would have been better. Charles St. Hill

1. Close races - Check. Living in an NL bubble, the Central race has been unbelievable, especially in September. A Brewers surge and Cubs collapse has kept me checking the scoreboard every night. It will likely come down to Game 162. The wild card was in reach for six teams until the last week, but home field is still up for grabs.

2. Individual performances: Yeli/Beli has been as good as it gets over the last two years. Terrible the way [Christian] Yelich went out and he still might win the batting title. He had a legit shot at being the first ever 50-30 guy before the injury.

3. Compelling trade deadline: Kind of. Would've been interesting to see what happened without the Giants getting hot at the worst time (for their front office).

4. Breakout performers: Plenty to choose from. The Mets doing the right thing and letting [Pete] Alonso play right away. Everyone on the Yankees. Ketel Marte might win the batting title. [Lucas] Giolito went from awful to awesome. Josh Bell's first half. Shane (Not Justin) Bieber. The list continues. Brian Cacic

It was a heart-breaking, disappointing year. But looking at the joy and excitement in other cities, the incredible statistics and records ... yes, it really has been a good year for baseball. Tommy Downs

So although my Phillies fell way short of expectations this season, baseball is much more than being a “die hard” for your team. With baseball you fall in love with the stories, a player coming out of nowhere to carry the team on his back, the rookie managers who take their teams to unseen heights! The World Series champions falling from grace as if the World Series team was no longer there, only a distant memory. So yes, baseball year in and year out will always be amazing! Zay

Baseball is always good. — Alex Prewett

For next week, tell me — at or on Twitter — about which individual player in the postseason you’re rooting for because you have an emotional investment in their personal story, warranted or otherwise!

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