One odd side story of the 2016 season is the Twins seeming quest to hit 200 home runs as a team. Nick Nelson first raised the possibility back in February with an article on Twins Daily, which was followed up this week by Seth Stohs, when the Twins were seven homers shy of 200 with six games to play. Nelson briefly discussed that some of the Twins teams who had come close to 200 or exceeded it in the past were division winners, though Stohs largely just discussed the milestone as a curiosity, a 'reason to watch' over the final week of the lost 2016 season.
Since Stohs's article, the Twins got another homer, this one by Eduardo Escobar in their loss in Kansas City last night, so the club is now six away with five games to play. Whether they can make it or not isn't really what I want to talk about here (though for the record, I think they'll fall short -- a number of power hitters aren't on the roster at this point, and September, due to the weather, is the toughest time of the regular season to hit homers), but rather what 200 homers means, both to the Twins and in the larger context of MLB. I spent some time on baseballreference.com gathering data for this essay, and my main takeaways were as follows:
- Teams that hit a lot of homers and don't win aren't common, but they're not that rare, and they tend to be built along the same blueprint.
- Hitting 200 homers as a team was an indicator of team quality when the occurrence was rare, but the more common the occurrence has become, the more common it has become for a team to reach it without being a particularly good or even interesting team. If anything, teams that hit lots of homers and still lose games tend to be teams that still need a lot of work to become truly competitive.
Nelson pointed out in his own essay that, if the Twins did get to 200 homers, it would be the first time since 1964 that they managed that feat. What Nelson failed to point out, though, was that the 1964 Twins finished below .500 (at 79-83). The 1965 Twins famously made the World Series, but hit only 150 homers as a team, and the changes on the roster from '64 to '65 are illustrative: the '64 Twins had Bob Allison playing primary first base, with Harmon Killebrew playing almost 1400 defensive innings in the outfield, almost all of them in left field, In '65, the Twins moved Killebrew into the infield, where he shared time with Don Mincher, while Allison, the better defender, moved to the outfield. The reduction in defensive innings by slow-footed power hitters led to a corresponding reduction in at-bats -- Killebrew alone went from hitting 49 homers in '64 to 25 in '65 -- but a combination of improved defense and a pitching staff that pitched even better than their defense (Mudcat Grant and Jim Kaat were roughly half a run better than their FIP, while Jim Perry was over a run better) helped the club improve by over 20 games in the standings despite the power reduction -- though the team actually scored 37 more runs in '65 then they had in '64.
The '64 Twins represented the ninth time a team had hit 200 or more homers in MLB. Though the first team to do it was the 1947 New York Giants, who finished just over .500 (81-73), as a general rule, once a team hit that many homers, it was a sign that they were a quality team. The second team to break 200 homers was the 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers, who won 105 games and made it to the World Series but lost to the Yankees, then the Dodgers hit over 200 again in 1955, this time beating the Yankees in the World Series after winning the pennant with 98 victories. The Yankees would become the fifth team to break 200, doing so in their famous 1961 season where Roger Maris set the individual home run record, and though the 1956 Cincinnati team that broke 200 didn't make the World Series, they did win 91 games and finished just two games shy of the pennant.
Then, in 1962, a watershed -- the first year that two different MLB teams broke the 200 homer mark. The Giants, playing in San Francisco now, broke 200 homers, won the pennant, but lost the World Series, but a second team also managed to break 200 homers: the 1962 Detroit Tigers. The '61 Tigers had won 101 games but finished eight back of the Yankees, and seeing the gaudy home run numbers presumed that the dingers were the reason they'd lost, so they lowered the height of the right-field fence from 30 feet to 9 feet at Tiger Stadium during the off-season and proceeded to hit 209 homers in 1962. Unfortunately, the team's record fell to 85-76, and it would take until 1967 and a resurgent pitching staff led by Denny McLain before they returned to contention.
The Twins broke the mark in both 1963 and 1964, hitting over 220 each year before making the adjustments noted above and reaching the World Series. Over the next 15 years, hitting 200 homers was more of a good team's gimmick than the sign of a great team -- the Braves, moving into home-run happy Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, managed the feat twice in 1966 and 1973, while winning only 85 and 76 games. (The latter would be only the second time that a team managed to hit 200 homers while finishing below .500.) Meanwhile the Boston Red Sox achieved their first 200+ HR season in 1970 thanks to a team stuffed full of power hitters, but finished with just 87 wins and were far out of pennant consideration. The 1977 team did better, hitting 213 homers, but still fell two-and-a-half games shy of the pennant.
It wasn't until 1982 and the 'Harvey's Wallbangers' Milwaukee Brewers that a team would again reach the World Series after hitting over 200 homers during the regular year, and it wasn't even the first year the Brewers hit over 200 -- that was in 1980, when they finished a pedestrian 86-76. Big homer seasons had settled into a pattern -- roughly every three years (sometimes more, sometimes less), a team would break 200, but usually as part of an otherwise disappointing season. The first sign that things were changing came in the mid-1980s.
In 1985, two teams broke 200 for the first time since 1962. Both were in the AL East -- the Baltimore Orioles hit 214 homers, while the Detroit Tigers hit 202. Neither was a contender for the division title, though, won by the Toronto Blue Jays as they narrowly edged out the Yankees, a dozen games ahead of the Orioles and Tigers. Then, in 1987, the ball rocketed out of ballparks around the league: five teams hit 200 or more homers that year, the Orioles, Tigers, and Blue Jays in the American League, and the Cubs and Giants in the National. The Tigers and the Giants both made the playoffs, but neither managed to reach the World Series, which was won by the Twins after hitting 196 homers during the season, but finishing with a mere 85 wins (but winning their division).
This trend, of teams with lots of homers playing well enough to reach the playoffs but not advancing to the World Series, was and remains a common refrain throughout the playoff era, but there was another reason that the 1987 season was significant -- both the Cubs and the Orioles finished below .500, just the third and fourth times in baseball history that had ever happened, and the Orioles finished at 67-95, featuring 34-year old Ray Knight at third base, 35-year old Fred Lynn in center field, and 39-year old Lee Lacy in right. Baltimore's traditionally outstanding starting pitching floundered, though two of their starters were a whole run better in fielding-independent ERA than their actual ERA. Thus was the blueprint of the bad 200 homer team born -- simply pack a bunch of aging and/or indifferent defenders in the lineup and hope they slug enough to make up for their leaden gloves.
Home runs dropped after 1987, as if baseball had been shocked by the home run explosion and chose to retreat from it. Only one team over the next near-decade broke 200 homers, and that was the 1991 Detroit Tigers who finished at a pedestrian 84-78. Then, the homers returned, starting in 1995, when the new Colorado Rockies broke 200 in their mile-high ballpark (also finishing below .500), and the Cleveland Indians broke 200 in the AL with a legitimately amazing offense, but still lost the World Series.
Then, in 1996, the floodgates erupted. Twenty-six teams broke 200 homers between 1947 and 1995; in the final four years of the 1990s, thirty teams would hit 200 or more homers, including two of the three most prolific home run hitting teams in baseball history, the 1997 Seattle Mariners and the 1996 Baltimore Orioles. The '97 Mariners finished 90-72 and didn't get out of their division series, while the '96 Orioles finished 88-74 and lost in the ALCS. Of the eight teams that hit 200+ homers just in 1996, only the Cleveland Indians finished with more than 90 wins, and only the Indians and the Orioles made the post-season (and neither reached the World Series).
And one other thing happened: the Detroit Tigers set the modern record for most losses by a 200+ homer team, and Cecil Fielder was by then a 32-year old fill-in, getting playing time where he could. The Tigers went 53-109, a mark the 2016 Twins can't beat, and a mark that wasn't even the low point in Tigers franchise history before they managed to return to the World Series in 2006.
If you assumed the explosion of home runs was due to the Steroid Era and expected it would drop off when baseball made its draconian steroid policy the law of the land, you'd maybe be half-right. From 2000 through 2009, sixty-five teams hit 200 or more home runs, and many franchises hit that mark repeatedly during that time -- the White Sox, for instance, broke 200 homers eight times during the decade, and ironically did their best in the year they barely reached 200, while the New York Yankees, whose dominance ended during this decade, broke 200 every year except for 2008. By the close of the decade, the frequency of teams topping 200 homers was falling, but not anywhere near to the rate it had lived at prior to 1995 -- in 2009, four teams broke 200 homers, while in 2010, only three did, all in the AL East (Toronto, Boston, and the Yankees). But by 2012, the number was increasing again, with five teams breaking 200. In 2016, ten teams have already broken 200 homers, and the Twins probably won't be next -- that'll be either the Nationals (currently at 197 homers) or the Astros (currently at 196), possibly both.
And with the proliferation of teams hitting lots of homers comes the proliferation of bad teams hitting lots of homers. The 2016 Tampa Bay Rays have already hit over 200 homers, and they're 65-92. The 2016 Rockies have over 200 homers, and they're 73-84. Thirty-two teams who've hit 200 or more homers have finished with records below .500 (with another three finishing exactly at .500), and of those sub-.500 teams, only four played prior to the 1996 explosion. Bad teams hitting lots of home runs is not at all uncommon in today's baseball.
More to the point, bad teams who hit lots of home runs don't really have much reason to expect their fortunes will improve. As noted, the blueprint for a bad team with lots of home runs is a team that's gone with aging or indifferent defenders who hit for power, more than sacrificing in the field what they gain at the plate. It took the Tigers a decade to recover from their 65-win season in 1996 and become respectable; it took the Orioles a decade to flirt with the World Series following their 67-win season in 1987, and then another decade after that to become respectable. The Cubs are a popular pick to reach the World Series this year, but between 1987, when they hit 209 homers and went 76-86, and 2002 when they hit 200 homers and went 67-95, they were good only sporadically, sometimes springing up from the basement to squeak into the playoffs, only to emerge back into the mire a year or two later. The Rockies in 1999, the Brewers in 2001, we could go on and on pointing out that teams that hit 200 homers yet don't win are, in almost every case, not teams that are built for sudden improvement, but will generally suffer multiple years of disappointment until the slug-footed sluggers are finally weeded out of the system and replaced with more complete ballplayers. If you hit a lot of homers and win a lot of games, as the Twins did in 1963, that's different, and a sign that your power is part of what makes you a solid team.
Why, you might ask? Aren't homers homers regardless of who hits them? Well, sure, but homers aren't the only or even the most important part of a successful baseball offense. It's possible to hit a lot of homers and yet not score a lot of runs -- in fact, teams that hit lots of homers yet still lose games tend to have poorer offenses. The teams throughout baseball history that hit over 200 runs yet still finished below .500 scored an average of 810 runs in a season, compared to the teams that hit over 200 homers and finished above .500, which averaged 843 runs. Looking at the best teams, the difference is even more stark -- teams that won more than 86 games while hitting 200 or more homers averaged 860 runs. Granted, I can hear some of you wondering why this should be surprising -- wouldn't teams that win more be expected to score more runs? Yes, but the point is that the good teams scored more runs without the benefit of hitting more homers. Home runs are not an insignificant part of a successful baseball offense, but it's possible to be good at hitting homers but still be bad at offense if you're bad at getting on base and hitting for not-homers -- the Boston Red Sox have hit 205 homers and scored 865 runs, the most in baseball, while the New York Mets have hit 214 homers yet only scored 654 runs. The difference probably has more to do with Boston's team .350 on-base percentage compared to the Mets's .316 team on-base percentage. The Twins have a near league-average offense (698, where the league mean is 706) despite hitting fewer homers than the Mets and the same team OBP, but the Twins have more doubles and triples than the Mets, giving them a slightly higher team slugging percentage (.421 vs .417).
Home runs are just one part of hitting for power, and hitting for power is just one part of being a good offensive ballclub. The Twins won't become the latter until they get a better balance between the different components of offensive baseball, and they won't become an overall good ballclub until they get a better balance of all of the different components of winning baseball, including pitching and defense. If the history of other teams similar to the Twins is any indication, that might be a surprisingly long time coming.