And when the Rays’ Mike Brosseau connected with a 100-mph fastball from Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman with one out in the bottom of the eighth inning and sent it over the fence in left field, the prophecy was fulfilled. The Rays had a 2-1 lead and, moments later, after closing out the Yankees in the ninth, a clinching victory that sent them to the American League Championship Series to face the Houston Astros.
And baseball had another data point on a trend that is both stunning and more than a little disconcerting — and one that keeps getting more acute. Home runs have always been the most efficient way to score, but in this postseason, they increasingly feel like the only way.
With the Rays’ win Friday night, teams are 22-1 this postseason when they outhomer their opponent, a .957 winning percentage. The only loss was by the San Diego Padres in Game 2 of their National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, when they outhomered the Dodgers by one but lost, 6-5.
Brosseau’s homer off Chapman, which came on the 10th pitch of an epic at-bat, was just the sixth hit of the night but the third homer. When the final out was recorded, the Rays and Yankees had scored a staggering 75.6 percent of the runs in their series — 34 of 45 — via homers, a record for a series of three or more games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
And while the Yankees-Rays series was an outlier of sorts, it was also the ultimate distillation of the all-of-nothing nature of the pitcher-hitter matchup today, one that has been especially visible in this postseason.
Through the division series, 50.9 percent of runs scored in this postseason have come via homers, up from 43.8 percent in the regular season and 47.0 percent in the 2019 postseason. Take away the Dodgers, who, despite leading the majors in homers this season, somehow have scored only two of their 30 runs this postseason on homers, and the figure for this postseason is 55.9 percent.
For years, a philosophy held sway that small ball — playing for one run at a time through strategies such as sacrifice bunts, hit-and-run plays and “productive” outs that move a base runner over — was the way to succeed in the postseason. The theory: Against the best pitching staffs in the game, the run-scoring atmosphere would be constricted, making every run more valuable.
But if that philosophy were ever true, it certainly isn’t today (despite the persistent entreaties of television analysts, many of whom were stars of earlier eras), not when almost every pitcher seemingly throws 98 to 100 mph with a devastating array of secondary pitches. Simply making contact is more difficult than ever, which is why hitters understand they have to maximize every bit of it.
While run-scoring typically goes down by about half a run in the postseason and the collective on-base-plus-slugging percentage of hitters drops by around 50 points, the overall home run rate typically stays about the same as during the regular season. But each of those homers, in the reduced run-scoring atmosphere, means more.
Would you care to guess how many sacrifice bunts there have been in the postseason? Try zero.
“It’s hard to bunch hits together. The pitching is too good,” Atlanta Braves Manager Brian Snitker said after his team eliminated the Miami Marlins in the NLDS. “Power is [what] plays in the postseason.”
In the division series as a whole, the eight teams homered at a rate of one every 18.7 at-bats, which is roughly equivalent to the career rates of Mel Ott, Roger Maris, Miguel Cabrera and Joe DiMaggio.
The Astros-Oakland Athletics ALDS matchup — played exclusively in the daytime at Dodger Stadium, where the ball tends to fly when conditions are warm — was its own version of a home run derby.
Before this October, Dodger Stadium, in its 58-year history, had witnessed only one postseason game with six or more homers. But this week, the Astros and A’s combined to match or exceed that number in three of the four games in their series.
“You knew to an extent,” Oakland Manager Bob Melvin said, “there was never going to be a lead that felt like it was too big.”
No team in history had hit as many as 12 homers in a playoff series of five or fewer games, but in the Astros-A’s matchup, both teams hit that many. The 24 combined homers, traveling a total of 9,862 feet, were the fourth most hit in any postseason series, exceeded only by a trio of seven-game sets. In all, 65.5 percent of the runs scored in that series — 36 of 55 — came in on homers.
“It just came down to hitting the ball over the fence,” Athletics outfielder Mark Canha said, a quote that could sum up the entire postseason so far, “and they did it a little better than we did.”