The Yankees Are Winning the Dinger Battle

With the weekend now officially in the books, Aaron Judge is the new owner of the longest home run of the season. He’s also the new owner of the fastest-hit home run of the season, which is additionally the fastest-hit home run of the admittedly brief Statcast era. Allow me to note that these were two different home runs.

Aaron Judge is not the result of some kind of hype train gone off the rails. He’s not just some hot hitter who’s got number-types overexcited. Sure, he could cool off. Sure, further adjustments will be made. But Judge, in April, was baseball’s sixth-best hitter. In May, he was baseball’s fourth-best hitter. In June, he’s been baseball’s second-best hitter. Aaron Judge is a candidate to win both the Rookie of the Year and the MVP awards at the same time, and he’s doing things other players don’t do. At least, other players not named Giancarlo Stanton. Pre-Statcast, we would’ve assumed that Judge is a freak. With Statcast, we know that Judge is a freak, someone pushing the limits of on-field human capability. If you’re not in love with Aaron Judge, it’s not some noble rebellion against the media’s east-coast bias. It’s about you closing off your own heart.

Judge is amazing. He’s why every big-power type with a strikeout problem gets chance after chance. Judge is the embodiment of so many dreams come true. Here’s what’s just as nuts: Judge isn’t solely responsible for carrying the Yankees’ offense. Judge is but one soldier in the Yankees’ push for home-run supremacy.

If you click over to our BaseRuns page, you see the Yankees with baseball’s best estimated record. The Yankees don’t have baseball’s best actual record, but even there, they look awfully good. What’s a major reason behind the Yankees’ strong start? Their offense leads the majors in runs scored. It leads the majors in wRC+. It leads the majors in homers. The Yankees have simply hit the snot out of the ball.

No, no one on the team has been better than Judge, but he hasn’t done this all by himself. While the Yankees lead all teams in homers, and while Judge leads all players in homers, if you just take Judge away and replace him with a goose egg, the Yankees would still be 12th in homers, even with the Rockies and Cubs. Judge is one of the Yankees’ league-leading six players with at least 10 home runs. Second place is down at four. The Red Sox remain stuck at zero. It’s not entirely the Judge show.

The most homer-happy team of all time was the 1997 Mariners. They finished with 264 home runs, averaging 1.63 homers per game. The 2017 Yankees, so far, have averaged 1.70 homers per game, which puts them on a record-setting pace. I know that “on pace for” isn’t actually a good way to interpret early-season baseball statistics, but this still puts the performance in some context. The Yankees have resembled what would be the homer-happiest baseball team ever.

Perhaps the bigger issue is that this is the home-run era. The Yankees also happen to play in a hitter-friendly ballpark. What might be another way of treating the numbers fairly? I decided to calculate, for every team, home-run differentials. I did this on a per-game basis. You know what run differential is. This is just that, but substituting dingers. Behold the 2017 major leagues.

The Yankees lead everyone, at +0.55. In other words, on average, the Yankees have out-homered their opponents by more than one homer per two games. The Rays, in second place, are back at +0.41. Going all the way to the end, the Phillies are at -0.41, with the Mariners and Braves both at -0.39. Baseball is about more than home runs, but there’s no single event better than a home run, so you can see a clear relationship here between differential and overall team success.

The Yankees’ pitching staff has been middle-of-the-pack in terms of homers per fly ball. At the same time, they’ve allowed the seventh-fewest overall homers, because the Yankees have high strikeout and grounder rates. I know this has shifted a little bit — we’ve gone from talking about the Yankees’ offense to talking about the Yankees as an entire ballclub. But this is currently my preferred way to examine how the Yankees have accomplished what they have. In a homer-friendly environment, in a homer-friendly era, the Yankees’ offense has reflected the times, yet the pitching staff has largely resisted, outside of Masahiro Tanaka. So the Yankees have been winning the home-run battle, in what would be an historic way.

I took things all the way back to 1920, covering almost a century of baseball. I ranked everybody in terms of home-run differential per game. There have been nearly 2,200 individual team-seasons. Here’s a table of the top 15:

Top Home-Run Differentials Since 1920
Team Year W L Games HR Diff/G
Yankees 1927 110 44 155 0.75
Blue Jays 2010 85 77 162 0.66
Indians 1994 66 47 113 0.65
Giants 1947 81 73 155 0.64
Yankees 1936 102 51 155 0.63
Yankees 1961 109 53 163 0.63
Rangers 2005 79 83 162 0.62
Braves 1998 106 56 162 0.60
Yankees 1931 94 59 155 0.57
Yankees 1938 99 53 157 0.57
Giants 2001 90 72 162 0.56
Yankees 2017 37 23 60 0.55
Braves 2003 101 61 162 0.54
Yankees 1921 98 55 153 0.54
Yankees 1980 103 59 162 0.54

Usually, I limit these tables to the top 10. I stretched to 15 here so that I could bring the current Yankees into the fold. If the season ended today, these Yankees would rank in 12th place, putting them well within the top 1%. They haven’t been doing something unprecedented, and in fact, there are the 2010 Blue Jays, in second. These Yankees have been topped. But they haven’t been topped often, and something needn’t be unprecedented in order to be remarkable. Everybody, these days, seems to be knocking home runs. Yet even within that context, the Yankees have had a massive advantage, and there’s no better single advantage to have.

I can’t imagine anyone will ever top the 1927 Yankees, who homered 158 times, while coughing up a paltry 42. And for fun, I’d like to show you the four team-seasons at the extreme other end:

  • 1996 Twins, -0.71
  • 1999 Twins, -0.64
  • 1995 Twins, -0.63
  • 2000 Twins, -0.59

Those 1999 Twins went deep 105 times. The 2017 Yankees could exceed that total this evening. We don’t need to talk about the Twins anymore.

Because the point is that the Yankees are up to something incredible. Aaron Judge’s own personal visibility has exploded because he’s been hitting these jaw-dropping homers. Yet one shouldn’t overlook Aaron Hicks, Brett Gardner, Gary Sanchez, Matt Holliday, and Starlin Castro. And while the Yankees’ starting rotation has been below average in homers against, the bullpen has been second-best, thanks to a blend of strikeouts and pop-ups. No one’s hit homers like the Yankees have. Few have prevented homers like the Yankees have. So the Yankees have been in control of the home-run racket. Judge himself is worthy of your appreciation, but this has been a team-wide effort, and generally speaking, as the homers go, so goes the rest.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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The Gritty Gardners
The Gritty Gardners

Maybe the craziest part of the differential is it being so good despite Tanaka’s atrocious HR numbers. He’s nearing 20 allowed already.