Home Runs Are For Highlight Reels

The Cubs have now won 16 out of their last 20 games, and are doing so with timely hitting, efficient pitching and defense, and generally smart baseball. The Cubs. Who knew?

Also during this streak, at least until it was broken in Saturday’s win over the Astros, they had not hit a home run in 10 games, but were still 6-4 during that stretch. This says a lot of good things about a baseball team, yet we had to see news stories over the last few days bemoaning the lack of power from what is supposed to be a power-hitting lineup.

What was that record again? 6-4? Huh. Sounds pretty good to me, especially since their closer is on the DL and they’ve been getting spotty starting pitching from everybody except Zambrano and Lilly.

Here’s a truism: winning teams do NOT rely mostly on hitting home runs in order to generate runs.

In October, when the weather is cool, and pitching tends to dominate, and managers pull every single trick out of their hat, generally it is the teams who can use walks and singles and doubles and defensive lapses, plus good team speed and smart baserunning, that win the most games.

Just last night, in the Cubs’ 3-2 comeback win over the Giants, speed and baserunning and situational hitting started the two run rally in the eighth inning. Two outs, nobody on, Ryan Theriot singles. Derrek Lee executed a perfect run-and-hit by hitting the ball to right center through the vacated second baseman’s slot after Theriot took off. First and third. Aramis Ramirez, who is over the last month or more a real money player with runners on base, hit a long one off the wall that went for a double, scoring both runners. Cubs lead 3-2. Game over.

This is how you win games that matter, in October. The fact that you can do it in July, and consistently, is a step in the right direction.

So it’s been kind of funny to watch the local press getting all hyper about this “slump”. These stories are indicative of a mindset that has lasted far too long on the “homer happy” North Side.

Some fans and the media in general — and perhaps past ownership — seem a little too obsessed with home runs in Wrigley Field, and I think they’ve got it all wrong. Here’s why.

(1) Creating runs via as many tools as possible is a more sound and reliable way to win ball games. The wind is not always blowing out, and when it isn’t, it is often blowing straight in, and you absolutely will lose games in that environment if you rely on home runs for run production. And you will also lose games in October, which is when winning really matters. A team that relies on home runs is wasting an awful lot of hits and walks on inefficient ways to score, since a double drives in a walk or a single just as well as a home run does, and is much easier to hit. In fact, the Cubs are second in the NL in doubles.

(2) Pitchers who pitch for the Cubs in Wrigley Field can let their fear of short power alleys distract them from the task at hand. Fergie Jenkins did pretty well for the Cubs, because he didn’t walk hitters, and had excellent control within the strike zone, and he kept everything down. He gave up some home runs, but it didn’t matter that much because usually nobody was on base and it only happened once per start. Pitchers can win in Wrigley Field, if they can control where the ball is going. And if they can’t, do you really want them pitching for you?

(3) Since Wrigley is so unique in baseball (or at least it used to be, perhaps not so much any more), with short power alleys and little foul territory, it is vital to build a Cubs team to win in the away parks, where runs can be harder to score, such as Dodger Stadium. This is because such parks force their home teams to play economical and efficient baseball (assuming they want to win), and that style of baseball translates into any park and any weather. It’s all about personnel and execution. This applies to more than just pitching staffs, obviously. And the Cubs, for the first time in my 40 year history of watching them, seem headed in the right direction on that front.

(4) Not relying on home runs creates an aggressive attitude on the team that is contagious — it also happens to be fun to watch. This edition of the Cubs — and there is plenty of time for this to blow up, yet, keep in mind — has quite a few new players who practice patience at the plate, and try to hit the hitter’s pitch rather than the pitcher’s pitch. They’re also more willing to take walks than in the past, which contributes to opposing pitcher’s pitch counts and can build rallies. These small factors add up, and can over a full season be the difference-maker; winning an extra 10 or 20 games a year often comes down to just a few pivotal plays here and there.

Now, obviously, to take the counter-argument, a team that rarely hits home runs is going to have extra trouble, just because it is a perfectly useful way to bring in runs. Very true, and you don’t want to completely dismiss them.

But runs count no matter how you score them, and the more ways you have to score more runs than the opposition, the more games you win.

Home runs are for highlight reels.

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