For the second consecutive year, the Orioles lead Major League Baseball in home runs. With 188 round-trippers so far, the Orioles have a solid 20-home run lead over the next closest team.1 There’s been a lot of speculation about how that translates to postseason production, since the Orioles will be facing stiffer competition and better pitchers in the coldest months of the season. Orioles fans might not need to worry; as long as the team is swinging the bats well, home runs will come.

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2013 ALCS opponents the Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers both ranked in the top 10 across all of Major League Baseball in home runs last year, as did Cleveland and Oakland. Tampa Bay came in at #11. Interestingly, the best NL playoff teams did not: only Pittsburgh hit more home runs than the league average.

In 2012, Baltimore, New York, Texas, and Oakland ranked in the top 7 of home run hitting teams, while Detroit came in just below the league average. On the NL side of things, only Washington ranked in the top 10, and eventual World Series champions San Francisco ranked dead last.

On the face of things, it appears that home runs are more important for American League teams – that’s good for the Orioles and their fans. The best teams in the AL tend to also be near the top of the home run leaderboards, but being near the top of the leaderboards isn’t a guarantee of quality.

The danger for the Orioles is that home runs sometimes appear to be their only means of generating runs.

2012 HR/FB%          
AL Playoff Team Full Season Sep/Oct NL Playoff Team Full Season Sep/Oct
NYY 16.8%  16.2% SFG  7.3%  7.8% 
BAL  14.2%  17.2%  STL  11.5%  10.8% 
DET  10.9% 12.5%  WSN  13.1%  17.2% 
OAK  11.9%  14.3%  CIN  11.5%  6.6% 
TEX  12.7%  12.7%  ATL  10.8%  7.6% 

In 2012, the teams that experienced a significant dropoff in the later months of the season (the closest we can get to playoff-only data on FanGraphs) were from the NL and lost quickly in the playoffs. Worth noting is that Oakland didn’t score much against Detroit in their lost playoff series and the Orioles and Yankees both seemed to be incapable of generating offense throughout most of their ALDS series. It’s hard to say whether the lack of home runs was a result of stiffer competition later in the season or part of the natural ebb and flow of the season, but so far, the rate at which teams hit home runs doesn’t seem to appreciably change, so long as they’re good at it in the first place.

2013 HR/FB%          
AL Playoff Team Full Season Sep/Oct NL Playoff Team Full Season Sep/Oct
BOS 11.4% 17.3% STL 8.9% 8.3%
TBR 10.4% 8.9% LAD 9.4% 8.9%
DET 11.2% 7.0% PIT 11.8% 7.0%
OAK 10.2% 12.1% ATL 12.6% 12.1%
CLE 11.5% 11.5% CIN 11.0% 11.5%

This time, the NL teams kept their rate of home runs per fly ball consistent at the end of the season while two AL teams saw their HR/FB% drop. The eventual World Series champions in 2013 crushed the ball relative to their seasonlong production, hitting home runs on over 17% of their fly balls.

It does not appear that home runs per fly ball drops late in the season, and in fact in some cases can increase – quite dramatically. It definitely helped the Red Sox to crush home runs, but as the Giants illustrated, it’s not necessary for postseason success. It’s more important that the Orioles head into October hot than it is to see them diversify their offensive production, and if recent games are any indication, they’re heading in the right direction. The Orioles have a teamwide 13.1% HR/FB% this season, which jumps to 16.7% in September so far.

Obviously, “September so far” and September/October of previous seasons are small samples – but that’s the point. As long as the Orioles can produce runs – which will more than likely come as the result of home runs – in short series, they’ll be just fine. Recent history shows that home runs can be cracked in the playoffs, sometimes even with more regularity than they are during the regular season.

1. Which is Colorado, so their 168 home runs barely count.

Patrick Dougherty
Patrick Dougherty

Patrick was the co-founder of Observational Studies, a blog which focused on the analysis and economics of professional sports. The native of Carroll County graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from Loyola University Maryland. Patrick works at a regional economic development and marketing firm in Baltimore, and in his free time plays lacrosse.