For all of the additional ways of analysis that have been added to baseball in the 21st century, there is still one simple offensive statistic that reigns supreme.
The home run.
If you have a team that hits them, you most likely have a chance at being a World Series champion. The Los Angeles Dodgers, for example, hit a major league-leading 118 of them last season and surely would have broken Minnesota’s single-season record of 307 had the season been a normal 162 games.
The Philadelphia Phillies weren’t nearly that powerful in their first season under manager Joe Girardi, but they have crept back into the conversation about teams capable of turning a game around with one swing of the bat.
The Phillies, with 82, finished 11th in baseball in home runs last season. That’s the highest they’ve climbed in that department since the Charlie Manuel era. Those Phillies, led by the awesome power of Ryan Howard, were second in home runs every year from 2007 through 2009 (when they set a team record with 224), then slipped to ninth in 2010 and 18th in 2011.
They were among the bottom third teams in baseball in home runs in six of the previous seven years before Girardi’s arrival.
“I like three-run homers just as much as the next guy,” Girardi said via a Zoom call Thursday after his team’s second workout at the Carpenter Complex in Clearwater, Florida. “But you also have to be able to create runs, and we will work on that as well.”
The manager would be derelict in his duties if he did not have his players work on the many ways to score a run, but he was the beneficiary of some powerful teams in New York. During his decade as Yankees manager, his teams finished first in home runs four times, including 2009 when they beat the Phillies in the World Series.
In the six seasons the Yankees made the playoffs during the Girardi era, the team finished fourth or higher in home runs. The four years they did not make the playoffs, they finished ninth, 22nd, 12th, and 19th.
Even without the designated hitter, the Phillies have a chance to improve on their home run total per game in 2021, although it’s possible the totals could drop significantly for all teams since Major League Baseball reportedly plans to slightly deaden the ball after surges in home run totals in recent years.
Girardi said he is in favor of fewer home runs if it also means fewer strikeouts and more action. His great power teams in New York were also always near the top in on-base percentage, OPS, and walks while also striking out less than the league average. That’s what Girardi wants with the Phillies, too. A season ago, the Phillies were eighth in walks and tied for third with a .342 on-base percentage.
“Our game, I really believe, needs more action,” Girardi said. “And I think that’s what baseball is trying to create, so we’re all working at this together. We don’t like the dead time in between contact ... so I prefer that we find a way to increase the action in our game and make it more enjoyable for all of us. Doubles, triples, stolen bases.”
Perhaps that is all true, but don’t expect Girardi to stop happily greeting Bryce Harper or J.T. Realmuto whenever they knock one out and the replica Liberty Bell lights up and starts swinging and ringing at Citizens Bank Park.
One of the main reasons the Phillies might build on their home run totals in 2021 is the return of Realmuto and shortstop Didi Gregorius. Without both of them re-signing, the middle of the Phillies’ order would not have been nearly as potent.
“Up and down the lineup, we have power at every position,” Realmuto said last week after it was reported the catcher had a fractured right thumb that is expected to sideline through the early stages of spring training. “We obviously have Bryce and Rhys (Hoskins) in the middle, and both those guys can hit 30 or 40 home runs at the drop of a hat if they’re healthy.
“We have that, and we have plenty of other guys in the lineup that can hit 20 to 25, and even the guys at the bottom of the lineup are capable of popping 10 to 15 home runs. When you have that, especially in a park like the one we play in, we’re going to hit a lot of home runs. We just have to do a good job of having guys on base when those home runs happen.”
If Harper, Hoskins, Realmuto, Gregorius, Andrew McCutchen and Jean Segura all matched their career highs in home runs, the Phillies would have 179 home runs for the season. It’s unlikely McCutchen will ever hit 31 again, but he was on pace to hit 27 last season. So were Hoskins and Gregorius. Realmuto was on pace to hit 30.
“It’s something I’ve worked on,” Realmuto said. “I’ve tried to kind of evolve as a hitter and obviously hit for a little more power, but try not to lose too much of my contact approach and still try to be able to put the ball in play. I think there’s a happy medium there.
“Some guys try to get a little too home run happy and they try to go for the 30-home-run seasons and they end up creating holes in their swings and don’t put the ball in play and end up having a .200 batting average. I want to be a guy who consistently puts up more power, but I also don’t want to start chasing and swinging and missing more just because I’m trying to hit home runs.”
The Phillies also have some wild cards in the power department. Scott Kingery, for instance, hit 19 home runs two seasons ago and slammed 26 in 132 games with double-A Reading and triple-A Lehigh Valley in 2017.
Odubel Herrera, who is trying to resurrect his career after a prolonged absence because of a domestic violence charge, hit 22 home runs in 2018. Recently signed free agent Brad Miller hit 12 home runs in 130 plate appearances with the Phillies two years ago. Matt Joyce, who hit 25 home runs with Oakland in 2017, could also add some pop off the bench.
And then there is Alec Bohm. He only hit four home runs as a rookie, but he’s capable of so much more.
“Absolutely, because he’s such a pure hitter,” Realmuto said. “He has that approach where he can hit a line drive to right field field any time he wants. I think he’s one of the rare guys who is going to hit 25 to 30 home runs and still have a high batting average and get on base a lot.”
If that happens in 2021, the Phillies’ single-season team record of 224 home runs could be in jeopardy.