The 2014 MLB playoffs have provided a different feel from recent seasons. In addition to new teams like the Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles fighting for a spot in the World Series, the way games are being won has changed.
No longer is the league dominated by teams with sluggers who hit home runs left and right. In the post-steroid era, the strategy of winning with “small ball” is making a comeback.
The Kansas City Royals are the epitome of a team that is winning with this new brand of baseball. In the regular season, they finished dead last in the Majors with just 95 homers, yet they still finished 17th in total runs. Through three games in the ALCS, the Royals are undefeated in the playoffs and just one victory away from reaching their first World Series since 1985.
It’s not just the Royals who have reached this point by not being a great home-run hitting team. The St. Louis Cardinals are in the NLCS for a fourth straight season, and finished 29th in homers (105), and the only team ahead of the Royals. The San Francisco Giants are looking to reach their third World Series in five season, having ranked just 17th in home runs.
While teams in 2014 have found a way to go deep in the postseason without hitting home runs, clubs that did the same 10 years ago found themselves with no chance of playing in October. In 2004, the teams that ranked in the bottom three in home runs all finished in last place in their respective divisions, winning an average of 62 games.
Even five years ago, the most successful teams were the ones that hit the ball out of the ballpark. The New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies met in the World Series in 2009, ranking No.1 and No.2 in home runs.
Overall, it’s become much more difficult for MLB teams to score. In the 2014 regular season, teams averaged 4.07 runs and 0.86 homers per game, with an OPS of .700. Ten years earlier, the average team scored 4.81 runs per game, while hitting 1.12 homers each contest, along with a .763 OPS.
Because teams are having more trouble getting on base, they’ve had to be more creative in finding ways to score. Even though the average on-base percentage has dropped from .335 to .314 in the last 10 seasons, the number of stolen bases has increased. In their seven postseason wins, the Royals have stolen 13 bases.
However, the four teams still alive in the playoffs have used the long ball to their advantage. Both the Royals and Cardinals have seen a power surge in recent games, and the Orioles are in the hunt after leading the league in regular-season homers.
The importance of the home run, though, has certainly diminished. Kansas City’s increase in power has only resulted in eight home runs in seven games, and Baltimore’s 211 regular-season homers are fewer than the totals of seven teams from 2004.
Most of this year's playoff games have been low-scoring. Of the 20 divison series and championship series contests, 12 games have featured five or fewer total runs.
In the steroid era, small-market teams like the Royals had little chance to compete, as the bigger market clubs snatched up the league’s top sluggers. Kansas City doesn’t even have a player that ranked in the top 50 of the league’s home run hitters, but the new era of baseball doesn’t require that to compete for a championship.
While the amount of home runs continues to decrease each year, the number of teams with a chance to win should keep growing.