Home Runs and Handicapping
by Trevor Whenham - 06/29/2007
There is nothing in baseball that is more exciting, or gets more attention, than the good old home run. Think about the biggest stories in baseball in the last decade - Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, even the dreaded steroids - all have to do with hitting a bunch of home runs, or wanting to hit more. Perhaps more than any other single act in a sporting event, America has a love affair with the home run. While they are exciting to watch and talk about, handicappers have to ask a bigger question about home runs - do they have any direct relation to winning? If they do then there's money to be made, and that's really the point, isn't it? Here's a look:
The first place to start is with this season. Is there a clear connection between the success of teams and the number of home runs that they hit? Sort of, but not as strong as you might have hoped. Six of the top 10 teams in number of home runs have a record above .500 at of the end of June, while only two of the bottom 10 teams do. That would indicate that home runs tend to contribute to wins. There's a bit of a fly in that ointment, though - two of the top three home run teams are Cincinnati (No. 1 with 111) and Texas (No. 3 with 99). Both of those teams are so bad that .500 is the wildest of pipe dreams. On the other hand, the Angels (No. 25 with 60 homers) are firmly in control of the AL West, and the Dodgers (No. 29 with 54) are right in the hunt in the NL West. It's clear that there's not enough of a connection between home runs and wins in and of themselves to be meaningful in our handicapping.
One somewhat surprising explanation for the lack of a link between home runs and wins comes from looking at the comparison between runs and home runs. While you would naturally assume that the teams that hit the most home runs are scoring the most runs, that isn't entirely accurate. Cincinnati is the leader in home runs, but they are just 13th in runs scored. On the other hand, Detroit is scoring more than half a run per game more than any other team, but they are only seventh in home runs. Runs scored don't end up being a much better predictor of wins than home runs - seven of the top 10 teams have winning records, but so do four of the bottom 10. Batting average would be a better indicator than either - eight of the top 10 teams have winning records - but that's beside the point.
How about individual home runs leaders? Fans clamor for power hitters on their team, and teams regularly break the bank for a guy that can jack it over the fence with regularity. Can the presence of power hitters on a team contribute to success? Not nearly as much as you make think. Of the top 25 sluggers in the majors, only 10 of them play for teams with winning records. Cincinnati has two players - Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey, Jr. - in the top five, and it certainly hasn't helped them. Alex Rodriguez leads the league, but his Yankees are inconceivably terrible. There's a valuable lesson here. It's very easy to get seduced by what we hear in the media about home runs - they are exciting and so we hear a lot about the exploits of the heavy hitters. It's obviously important to make sure that we are not letting that excitement color our opinions and force us into betting situations that don't otherwise make sense.
The 2007 season is not even half over yet, so maybe a full season makes a difference. Was there a bigger connection between home runs and wins in recent past seasons? Again, not really. In 2006, seven of the top 10 teams had winning records. Generally, more home runs were better - the Yankees had the best record in the league and the fifth most home runs, while the Royals had both the worst record and the fewest home runs. 2005 was even less promising - only five of the top 10 home run teams had a winning record. St. Louis had the best record in the league, but only the 13th most runs. Kansas City again had the worst record (it must really suck to be a Royals fan), but they were a notch better with the 29th most homers. Texas hit 31 more home runs than any other team, but still lost four more games than they won.
So what can we conclude from this? It's pretty simple. Watch the highlights of the monstrous home runs, enjoy what you see, cheer or curse Barry Bonds or Sammy Sosa as you see fit, but don't spend a whole lot of time looking at homers when it comes time to figuring out who is going to win the game. It probably isn't worth your effort.