If home runs didn’t count, who would be good at baseball?

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Khris Davis wouldn’t. Neither would Chris Davis, but for different reasons.

When was the last time you bought a baseball? They’re crazy expensive! Without going on a bargain hunt, here’s one Rawlings baseball, fully licensed with Rob Manfred’s signature, for $22.79.

In a nine inning game, MLB teams can go through 100 or more baseballs. That’s $2,000-3,000 per night on just the ball! No doubt, MLB teams don’t pay the MSRP, but it’s a lot of money all the same. For a little perspective, the lowest level minor leaguers make $1,300 per month (before taxes and clubhouse fees) for a three month season. An extra inning game could cost more on baseballs alone than the yearly salary of one of the players!

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In spite of the exorbitant costs of expelling baseballs from the playing field, players are actually rewarded for their efforts! We can forgive foul balls because they are often unintentional. But Khris Davis launched 48 home runs last year— on purpose! Going by the retail price, MLB should send him a bill for $1,093.92.

To curb equipment spending, MLB could simply disincentivize home runs. However, we still want batters to try to hit the ball hard. The easiest compromise is to just make home runs not count. If the hitter smacks one over the fence, it’s just a do-over, and the plate appearance continues with the count unchanged.

Clearly, everyone will immediately agree to this change. It’s neither stupid nor frivolous and solves a totally real problem that I didn’t just make up. If home runs didn’t count, who would be the best players?

Pitchers

For pitchers, the answer is pretty easy, going by DIPS theory. We’ve eliminated one of the three true outcomes. All that remain in the pitcher’s control are strikeouts and walks + hit-by-pitches. To find the best pitchers when home runs are irrelevant, simply look at strikeout-to-walk ratios. Everything else is mostly noise.

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Strikeout-to-walk ratios are already a pretty good way to evaluate pitchers, if you had to use just one metric. Here are the MLB leaders among qualified starters in 2018:

Batters

The pitchers list isn’t surprising, but now it gets interesting. Since the creation of baseball, hitting a home run was the single best possible outcome for a batter in any given plate appearance. Several players have created successful careers by hitting lots of long balls, even with few other skills. If we take homers out of their toolbox, how do we separate the good hitters from the bad?

For starters, we’ll have to calculate some basic stats with home runs taken out of the equation. Here are the 2018 leaders for on base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS with home runs taken out. To be clear, real slugging percentage is total bases / plate appearances. For our without home runs version, we’ll use:

total bases – (home runs X 4) / plate appearances – home runs

The same principle holds true for the other stats as well. We have to take home runs out of all parts of the formulas. Otherwise they would count homers as outs instead of do-overs. Additionally, wRC+ (normal, not with home runs removed) and the actual stat from real life will be provided for context.

On to the leaderboards!

First, here’s on base percentage:

Home runs don’t really impact the on-base leaders very much. This is because a homer is equal to a walk for the purposes of on-base.

Here’s a look at slugging percentage:

While all of these guys were pretty good hitters in actuality, this is a significant difference from real life. Mookie Betts is the only player in the top five that is an elite hitter. Corey Dickerson becomes the top slugger in all of baseball. We know this is getting bizarre when Mallex Smith is third on a slugging percentage leaderboard!

Finally, let’s look at OPS:

Betts stands tall once again. Perhaps this leaderboard is notable for who isn’t on it. Mike Trout finished 25th in OPS without home runs. We’ve effectively reduced him to a David Peralta-caliber hitter by taking home runs away. J.D. Martinez finished just ahead of him at 23rd (Jose Martinez of the Cardinals sandwiched in between).

These are the tops of the leaderboards sans home runs, but what about the bottom? Who are the worst hitters in baseball by OPS when dingers don’t count?

A word about Chris Davis: while researching this article, I created a bunch of different statistics without home runs. The tables you see above are just a the handful that tell the best story. On every single homer-free stat, Davis finished dead last. The one exception was on-base percentage, on which he finished second last, just above Mike Zunino.

There are two types of hitters on the bottom of the no-home runs OPS pile. Some, like Davis and Lewis Brinson, were just flat out terrible hitters in 2018. They perform poorly not so much because of the home runs removed, but because their OPS were so low to begin with.

The second type are actually quality hitters in real life that rely heavily on cranking the ball over the fence. Naturally, this includes three true outcomes poster boy Joey Gallo. Khris Davis, the MLB leader in home runs, finished just outside the bottom ten with a .457 OPS without dingers.

Making Meaning from Meaningless

This is all hypothetical and means nothing, of course. However, not too long ago, this might have been relevant data. These stats are not ballpark neutralized. As such, they reveal which players might be affected by environment more than others.

For example, Khris Davis relies on home runs to provide value. He’s simply not a MLB player without them, especially since he’s a designated hitter. He happens to play in Oakland which is tough park for home run hitters. If he moved to Boston, Cincinnati, or some other great hitter’s park, his production would fluctuate more than Mallex Smith making the same change.

That being said, all of these stats are basically obsolete for the purposes of player evaluation. In the public sphere, we do have stats adjusted for ballpark (among other factors). Statcast metrics such as barrel rate and x-stats are exponentially more useful as well. The front offices that actually make these decisions have stats that are better still than those to which we have access.

For that reason, this is just a thought experiment. Unless the cost of baseballs keeps rising…


Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983

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