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Guardians don’t need to hit home runs to be great

Changing their game for the playoffs would be pointless

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Cleveland Guardians v Chicago White Sox Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Here’s a stupid thing I’m mad about.

In a new article at The Athletic, Jim Bowden — a guy who skimmed signing bonus money from Latin American players while working as a general manager — gives his thoughts on the “biggest problems” each playoff team is facing. In the article, Bowden — who was not a particularly good general manager, with his Reds teams making the playoffs just once in his 12 years and his Nationals teams achieving a .500 record his first season and then absolutely sucking each year until he resigned in disgrace — says the biggest problem facing the Cleveland Guardians is that they don’t hit home runs.

While he notes that Cleveland has been “fundamentally sound,” he doesn’t really give them much credit for playing a winning brand of baseball. He notes that Terry Francona has done a bang-up job and deserves to be the front-runner for Manager of the Year, but he openly wonders whether they can “win in October, like they did in the regular season, without the long ball?”

The basis for this question is that “The last few years, the teams that hit the most home runs were also the ones that advanced in the playoffs,” which is something we can easily dig into.

In 2021 the team with the most home runs was the Toronto Blue Jays, who didn’t make the playoffs at all; the team with the second-most home runs, the San Francisco Giants, lost in the NLDS. The eventual champion Braves were third and did hit more home runs than the Astros in the World Series (11 vs. 2), but the Astros had gotten there despite being out-homered by the Red Sox in the ALCS (9 vs. 11).

In the weird 2020 season, the team with the most home runs (Los Angeles Dodgers) did in fact win the World Series. But even when we’re talking about the crapshoot of the playoffs, I don’t think 2020 is a fair place to gather data.

In 2019 the Minnesota Twins had the most home runs and got swept out of the playoffs in the ALDS by the Yankees, who had the second most. Despite hitting more home runs (10 vs. 8) in the ALCS, the Yankees would lose to the Astros, who had the third most in the regular season. The Astros and Nationals each had the same amount of home runs (11) in the World Series, but the Nats won despite the Astros having more home runs in the regular season (231 vs. 288) and previous rounds of the postseason (8 vs. 14).

In 2018 it was the Yankees who led the league in home runs, but they went home after the ALDS (as did Cleveland, who was sixth in home runs that season). The World Series-winning Red Sox were ninth in home runs in the regular season and reached the championship despite having fewer home runs than the Astros in the ALCS (5 vs. 6).

That’s a few years worth of data with more noise than signal, in my opinion. Sure, home runs help win games, but so is, you know, scoring and keeping the other team from scoring. The Guardians are pretty decent at both those things, with 664 runs scored (exactly league average) and just 607 runs allowed.

The Guardians have been quick to pull up receipts on projections counting them out before the season even started (even though that’s mostly a false narrative), but here’s a real thing that they can put on the bulletin board and get fired up about. The Yankees may have almost doubled the Guardians home run total (242 vs. 122), but the Guardians have played their way into the postseason by their own brand of baseball. If they’re going to advance, they can’t count on their offense suddenly becoming something it is not. They have to keep slapping the ball to all fields, taking the extra base, playing incredible defense, and executing the game plan on the mound.

Forget FanGraphs and call out Jim Bowden, because the 2022 Guardians are better than any team he ever assembled. They also earned their place, which is more than Bowden can say about his job with The Athletic.