Can you win in the American League without hitting homers?

Otto Greule Jr

One of the keys to the Oakland Athletics' surprisingly wonderful season was their big improvement in the power department, vaulting from 12th in the American League in home runs to sixth. Could they have won without all the homers, though? Can anyone?

In his long interview at Athletics Nation, Billy Beane said a lot. It was a long interview. But the passage below stuck in my head, and I've finally gotten around to doing something with it. First, the passage:

Bleszinski: The team has seemingly had good pitching for a few seasons. The missing element was the offense.

Beane: And in particular, the home run. Funny how that works.

Bleszinski: I’m getting there but the offense came to life after the All Star break to finally support the pitching. What do you think…you already said home run, but what do you think was the difference?

Beane: We hit a bunch of home runs. You’re simply not going to win in this league unless you hit a bunch of home runs no matter what anyone tells you. I’ve been saying that for 10 years.

Bleszinski: Ultimately, the key is pitching and power.

Beane: Yes, it’s pitching and power in this league. Nobody has done it better the last 15 years than the Yankees. Listen, you go into Texas and you’re playing that lineup? You’re not going to bunt and steal your way to winning games. Not eight, nine, 10 games a year in that ballpark. Then they come here. You can call that my opinion but you can certainly prove it mathematically. It’s simply not going to happen without the home run. We haven’t had power and this year we did. That was a huge difference.

It's manifestly true that the Athletics' power was a huge difference. In 2011, the A's finished 12th in home runs and 12th in scoring. In 2012, the A's finished sixth in home runs and eighth in scoring. They also pushed their walks from 509 (sixth in the league) to 550 (fourth). Essentially, the fit the fools' definition of Moneyball: walks, power, and young pitching both good and cheap.

That's how the A's did it. That's how the A's had to do it, because their team batting average was lousy and (in a related note) they struck out a ton.

But is Beane right? That "you're simply not going to win in this league unless you hit a bunch of home runs"?

Well, the San Francisco Giants finished last in the majors in home runs, with 103. They also won the World Series. The National League average was 152 home runs; the four teams in the league closest to 152 were the Cardinals, Phillies, Braves, and Astros. Two playoff teams, one non-contender, and a train wreck.

Maybe Beane's not talking about the whole Major League Baseball. Maybe when he says "this league" he's referring to the American League. That's logical enough. Here's where the five American League postseason teams ranked in home runs, and ranked in order of their regular-season records: 1, 6, 2, 4, 10.

Those teams: New York, Oakland, Baltimore, Texas, Detroit.

Yeah, the supposedly power-laden Tigers actually hit only 163 home runs, 10th in the league and 16 fewer than the league average. The Tigers won the American League pennant.

That's just one year. In 2011, here's where the five best teams ranked in home runs: 1, 2, 7, 6, 3.

Care to guess which team last season ranked seventh in homers? The Tigers.

So maybe you're not going to win in this league unless you hit a bunch of home runs ... unless you have the planet's best pitcher on your side. And only one team gets to have Justin Verlander.

No, you don't have to hit a bunch of homers to win. But in the American League, at least, it makes it a hell of a lot easier.

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