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"Home Runs Kill Rallies"

This kind of surprised me, but it turns out that you cannot always count on 140 characters of Twitter talk to give you the full account of a given subject. Sure, sometimes you can, like when Justin Bieber tweets, “Happy.” But other times, it might help to get a little bit more perspective and context.

For instance: The Kansas City Royals hired George Brett to be their hitting coach this week. It’s a long and lurid saga, but at the end of the day the Royals hired their signature player and Kansas City’s most famous athlete to come in and heroically save an astonishingly ineffective offense. It reminds of the (probably mythical) legend about a Texas town that was dealing with a fierce and terrifying mob. In desperation, the city leaders reached out to the legendary Texas Rangers — not the baseball team but the originals, the law enforcement group known throughout the state for their bravery and effectiveness. The leaders explained that they simply could not handle the mob, and the Rangers sent word that help was on the way. The townspeople waited anxiously and excitedly at the train station.

And, one Texas Ranger walked off the train.

“One Ranger?” the townspeople asked.

“One mob,” the Ranger explained.

The Royals called on Brett — one bad hitting team, one George Brett — and he answered the call, at least for a while, there’s no telling how long. He made it clear right from the start that he’s only the “interim hitting coach,” — it seems he insisted on the title — and he said that they would meet in a month to see if it’s worth continuing. That doesn’t sound like the start of a long relationship, but, hey, it’s clear that Brett isn’t really sure he wants to do this or can be any good at it. He’s just sick and tired of watching the Royals flail around and so he’s willing to give it a try. The Royals, desperate as they are, they will take whatever they can get from the best hitter who ever wore the uniform.

I did not hear the press conference live so I first heard about Brett’s “Home runs kill rallies” quote through Twitter. He apparently said those exact words at his introductory press conference, and the statement obviously caused great consternation among Royals faithful because, let’s be honest, it’s overpoweringly stupid. Home runs kill rallies the way winning lottery tickets kill bank accounts, the way hit songs kill bands careers, the way raspberry sauce kills chocolate cake. I’m sure you could make some sort of circuitous argument to make these statements sound true, but they are primarily and fundamentally false as is any argument about home runs killing rallies.

To be honest, I kind of found it hard to believe Brett said it. I’ve known Brett for more approaching 20 years, and I’ve spoken with him many, many times about hitting and I’ve never heard him say anything remotely like “home runs kill rallies.” I have heard him talk about how important it is to have your mind blank at the plate. I have heard him talk about the importance of feel in a swing — he often likens it to a golf swing. And I’ve heard him say, in a very Yoda way, that the key to hitting home runs is to not try to hit home runs.

But I never once heard him actually disparage the value of the home run. Hey, he hit more than 300 of them in his brilliant career, many of them famous like the tomahawk homer to knock out the Yankees in 1980 or the pine tar homer or the three he hit off Catfish Hunter in the ALCS or the two homers he hit in his amazing against Toronto and so on. The home runs kill rallies thing didn’t really sound like him, but, hey, it was repeated again and again on Twitter, so he obviously said it. Kind of weird, but, hey, whatever.

Then, Friday night, I mentioned on twitter that the Royals have been outhomered 24-3 since May 15 which doesn’t seem like a good trend. And a whole bunch of people responded by joking, one way or another, that Brett should be happy about this because that meant opposing teams had killed 24 rallies while the Royals had killed only three.

It was then I thought: You know, it might be a good idea to listen to the press conference and hear what the heck George Brett actually said.

It was kind of a strange press conference. Manager Ned Yost went on and on about the greatness of George Brett, his passion, worth ethic, his general awesomeness … I don’t know, that just seemed kind of weird and funny. It seemed like the mayor of Gotham City talking about how great Batman is. Isn’t the real question why the mayor of crime-ridden Gotham City still has a job?

In voice, Brett sounded even more reluctant to take the job than he had in print. Oh, he sounded passionate when talking about how he wants to share his life with the players and help them work through the bad times. But he admitted he was scared, admitted he wasn’t sure if he would like the job, admitted he had no idea if he would be any good at it. He talked about trying it for a month at least three times — when our buddy Bob Dutton asked “George, just a month?” Brett’s response was a less than persuasive, “Well, I hope not..”

When it came to hitting, Brett talked in that zen way I’d heard him talk before — he said he’s not much of a video watcher (there was so little of that when he played) and he’s not overly concerned about knowing intimate details about opposing pitchers. The key to hitting, he said, is to embrace the moment, to tackle the current situation, to be entirely AWARE. Brett said he did this by being scared out of his mind; his fear of failure heightened and focused his senses. Pitchers will throw differently on different days. Pitchers will pitch you differently depending on where you hit in the lineup and depending on the situation. You have to understand all that.

“I know how hard the game is to play,” he said, and he hoped he could do for these hitters what Charlie Lau had done for him. In 1974, as a rookie, Brett was hitting .232 and slugging .299 coming out of the All-Star Break. Lau reworked Brett’s swing, but more than that he reworked Brett’s mind. Think gap-to-gap. Do what you’re capable of doing. Sit fastball. Adjust to the curve. Brett hit .316 the rest of the season — no homers, but Lau told him not to worry about that. The home runs would come naturally, a consequence of hitting baseballs hard. Brett would hit 11 homers the next year, 22 in 1977, 30 in 1985 when he led the Royals to their one and only World Series title.

Someone asked Brett if he is good teacher. He said he hoped so but then admitted that he actually hired someone else to teach his own kids how to hit. “I’ve found you can’t teach your own children,” Brett said, an amazing quote, one that I find much funnier than the home runs killing rallies bit. That rally-kill quote was on the last question. Here’s what he actually said:

“I’m sick and tired of watching guys try to hit three-run home runs with nobody on base when you’re down two runs in the eighth inning. A lot of times home runs kill rallies. Let’s do what you’re capable of doing. What are you capable of doing? Gap to gap, let’s hit the ball hard in the gaps. Hit a single, let the next guy hit a double. Let the next guy hit a single — there’s two runs right there. But don’t try to be a hero. Be a soldier. Just go out there and do the best you can with what you’re capable of doing and try not to be somebody you’re not. Because when that happens that’s when you start hitting .200, .170, .180, you start pressing too much.”

OK, well, technically he did say “A lot of time home runs kill rallies.” I guess if you want to hold him to that, you can. But, you know, looking at the whole thing, I don’t think he meant what Twitter thought he meant. I think Brett meant that TRYING to hit home runs can kill rallies. His clear point when the quote is read in full is that when players try to do too much, try to carry the whole team, try to swing for the fences, a lot of times they hurt the ball club. I remember once Brett talking with a young Mike Sweeney about home runs. It went something like this:

Brett: “Michael, how many home runs did you hit last year?”

Sweeney: “Eight.” (This was spring training 1999)

Brett: “And how many of those did you hit when you were TRYING to hit a home run.”

Sweeney thought for a moment and said, “Zero.”

Brett: “Exactly. Now how many outs did you make when you were trying to hit a home run.”

Sweeney nodded, he apparently had made LOTS of outs trying to hit home runs, and the point was made. I have no idea at all if this little lesson had any impact at all on Sweeney — or if he even remembers it — but it was apparent that Brett was not telling him to stop hitting homers. He was saying that home runs are a by-product of a good hitting process, they do not come by swinging harder. “Be quick but don’t hurry,” John Wooden famously said. I thought Brett was making the same point.

And I think that was the point Brett was making in his press conference too. It might work and it might not work — Brett himself is the first one to say that. But I’m pretty sure that the Royals won’t hit fewer home runs with George Brett whispering in their ears.

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50 Responses to "Home Runs Kill Rallies"

  1. PL says:

    Players make outs no matter what though, and no player, no matter what situation, tries to make an out, unless they bunt.

    • Rob Smith says:

      But players do have “weak” outs, when they strike out going for the fence on a 2-2 slider that they miss by two feet. They also get themselves out swinging at pitchers pitches and rolling them to second. The point is, you construct a good at bat with a good plan. Often the idea is to work the count, lay off borderline pitches and try to get into a 2-1 or 3-1 count where you’ll probably get a pitch to hit…. or end up with a walk. Swinging for the fences every time gives you the Dan Uggla effect. That’s where you swing at bad pitches early in the count, get behind, and then strikeout on a low and away slider that looks close, but isn’t. All the time.

  2. Reds announcer Chris Welsh, whom I think is a bright, underrated announcer, also once said that home runs kill rallies. I hope you get the chance to ask him what he meant, because my head exploded.

    • macomeau says:

      Gregg Zaun, who seems neither bright nor underrated, dropped this bit of wisdom on a Blue Jays pre-game show about a month ago too. And with none of the mitigating context Brett provided.

    • Rob Smith says:

      It goes to mindset when you’re down 3+ runs. Solo HRs are quite acceptable to the team leading the game… so the focus should be to get on base anyway possible, then keep the rally going. I’m sure nobody would object to a three run HR deeper in the game….afterall, games are won with 3 run HRs…. but I think this is what people are trying to say…. in fact, Brett stated exactly that. Trying to hit a 3 run HR with nobody on base down 3 runs is completely the wrong mindset. If anyone truly believe, however, that HRs kill rallies, then they need to have their head examined.

    • DJM says:

      Gregg Zaun is Rick Dempsey’s nephew. Which, first, was absolutely awesome to hear every ten seconds in both of his stints with the Orioles. And second, offers somewhat of an excuse for any mind-boggling thing he might say that goes against how baseball, you know, actually works.

    • bluwood says:

      Rob Smith, no, no, NO!!! Home runs NEVER kill rallies. Even in your own statement above you contradict yourself. It’s true (from what smarter men than I have stated) that you should never be trying to hit a home run; but if you hit a home run, THAT IS NEVER A BAD THING. It doesn’t matter if you’re down by three and it’s a solo home run. Your team is ONE RUN CLOSER and thus need fewer to catch up (why are there so few people who get this???) and therefore INCREASING YOUR ODDS OF WINNING. Oy ve….

    • Rob Smith says:

      bluwood: read my entire post please…. especially the last sentence. Geez. Is the whole world ADD these days?

  3. Jeff W. says:

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  4. Jan says:

    I think I know what is meant by the “rally killing” effect of HRs. When a team mixes in a walk or two, a double, a couple of singles, etc., i.e. a “rally,” the opposing pitcher is (1) pitching from the stretch and (2) looking over his shoulder at the bullpen and the dugout. Once someone clears the bases with a HR, the pitcher goes back to his windup and if the manager hasn’t already replaced him, he’s at least a batter or two away from being replaced.

    In order to get another rally going, the team at bat has to draw another walk or two, get a double and a couple of singles, etc. to get the rally going again.

    Then again, I could be completely wrong about this.

    • schuyler101 says:

      Yeah that’s exactly what they mean when they say HRs have a “rally killing” effect. It’s just that it’s a pretty dumb way to think. A home run always increases win probability more than a single, except in end of the game situations where either a homer or a single would win the game.

    • Martin F. says:

      Wether or not it increases the probability has nothing to do with if it kills rallies or not. Home runs often do kill rallies, because they are often the culmination of a rally, at which point a new pitcher is brought in and quells the rally. How often do you see a rally start after a home run? Rarely. One could even say that there is a mental and emotional aspect to a home run being the apex of what the team can do during a rally, and after it occurs the next few batters feel at a loss to what they can do to top it. At no point does anybody say a home run is bad, but that based on observation and anecdotal accounts, it seems to have the effect of ending rallies/occurring at the end of rallies.

    • Chip J. says:

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    • Chip J. says:

      Except that Thursday night, after Brett’s hiring, the Royals staged a winning ninth-inning rally that STARTED with a Frenchy home run. That game-tying home run appeared to inspire the rest of the lineup to score two more runs without aid of a home run. So the home run, if it could be said to have any effect beyond tying the game, sparked a rally. I’ve long heard the “home runs kill rallies” line in one form or another, but that doesn’t make it any more logical or accurate than any other traditional nonsense in baseball. And I suspect it got its origins in the mists of time from someone trying to pass along the same lesson Joe thinks Brett was offering: Stop trying to hit home runs!

    • Aaron Reese says:

      I don’t like thinking of that as “rally killing.” It’s more like a “rally victory,” a nice little punctuation mark on the end of a rally.

  5. Kansas City says:

    Brett ought to adopt Joe’s explanation and put it behind him. But I have heard the dumb statement before. The rationale was something like it gives the pticher a fresh start or is relieved, like when a home run brings the hitting team within 3 runs or 2 runs, then the pitcher bears down or is relieved. Still dumb.

  6. Rob Smith says:

    I think what Brett meant was that when you’re down three runs in the eighth, with nobody on…. a solo homerun doesn’t mean much of anything. In fact, a pitcher who gives up solo HRs while leading by three runs is likely to be praised for throwing strikes and making a player beat you. Three runs down in the eighth, the goal is to get on base anyway you can. Hit, walk, etc. Get something started. Build momentum so somebody can hit a base clearing double. That should be the mindset. Sure, a solo HR isn’t going to hurt you, but that should not be the goal or the mindset in that situation.

    • Ian R. says:

      A solo HR, by definition, comes with nobody on base. How can that possibly be construed as killing a rally?

    • Rob Smith says:

      Ian, read my post again. Nowhere in there did I say that a HR kills a rally. I said, in the situation Brett cited (3 run deficit, eighth inning, none on) a solo HR is not much help (pitchers in this situation will have the mindset of allowing a solo HR over allowing a walk), so the mindset should be to get on base. Brett was stating that players were trying to hit 3 run HR with nobody on base, down 3, in the 8th. It’s a mindset issue. Sure, take the HR if it comes, but that shouldn’t be the goal in that situation.

    • Ian R. says:

      You’re right, I read your post a little hastily. Down multiple runs, you’re right, the goal should be to get on base however you can.

      I’d argue that a home run is still more helpful in that situation than, say, a walk or a single, though. For one, in the eighth inning, you don’t HAVE to make up the whole deficit in one shot, although obviously that’s preferable. Cutting the deficit to one or two is still pretty valuable. Also, there’s no way someone who hits a home run can later be erased on a double play – he’s already scored. Even someone who hits a double or triple could be doubled off on a line drive.

      If you’re going to talk about mindset, I’d also argue that serving up a leadoff homer is likely to seriously rattle the pitcher, to a degree that a leadoff single or walk might not.

    • I don’t have any stats to quote or any illuminating anecdotes to offer. I will say, however, that as I watch my crappy Houston Astros this year, and watch their crappy closer Jose Veras, I would much rather see him give up a solo shot to the first batter than a walk. Given a 2-run lead or a home game, anyway.

      With the solo home run, it’s like OK, it was not good, but rally over. With the walk, it’s like, oh s***, rally begun.

      I don’t really feel this way about our (also crappy) starters, and I feel it less in the 7th or the 8th with our (yes, crappy) middle relievers. But I do think there is a tide in baseball games that the participants therein can feel. Sometimes the solo homer is something that you withstand, while the walk (or egads, back-to-back walks) are ominous, ominous things that foretell doom.

      Especially if you’re a crappy pitcher.

  7. Jason says:

    I’m sorry, but raspberry sauce DOES kill chocolate cake!

    • Dave says:

      Jason, I’m glad you said this. I’m now questioning everything Joe has ever written. Maybe homers really do kill rallies after all.

  8. Dinky says:

    Players can and do swing for the fences. They also can more rarely play for a single. I saw Kirk Gibson’s homer in the 1988 World Series, and he was not swinging to keep the rally going. But I also saw a rookie Mickey Hatcher, on a hit and run, just poke ball to where the second baseman used to be for a single, a ball that bounced softly on the infield grass and was never going to be more than a valuable single. And on occasion, with a shift on, I’ve seen extreme pull lefties (might have been Barry Bonds) push the ball to left field for a single or a double down two runs late, not hit hard but placed well. I believe in context that what Brett meant was that if you’re Kirk Gibson or Barry Bonds, and you’re the tying or go ahead run, then swing as you will. But if you’re Butler or Hosmer or one of the other young Royals still adapting to big league pitching, then just try to meet the ball firmly. When you can consistently put good wood on the ball, then is the time to start making the little adjustments to try for homers.

    • Can we stop lumping in Billy Butler with Hosmer and Moustakas as one of the young Royals? Billy Butler is 27. He is in his 6th full major league season and 7th season over all. In every season from 2009 through 2012 he played in at least 158 games and had over 670 plate appearances. In no sense is he still “adapting to big league pitching.”

      In none of those 4 consecutive seasons did he reach 30 HRs. Only twice did he reach 20 (21 in 2009, 29 last year). He’s at a prime power age now, and you might expect him to have 2 or 3 30-HR seasons between now and the time he’s 32 or so, but it shouldn’t be all that surprising if he never does.

  9. KHAZAD says:

    On the day the Royals hired Brett, I kept imagining the scene from Pulp Fiction where Samuel L. Jackson calls Ving Rhames for help, and Rhames tells him he is sending the Wolf.

    DMGM- Ving Rhames
    Ned- Samuel L. Jackson
    George- The Wolf

  10. Stan Musial had a quote that is appropriate for this subject. I can’t find it but it was something along the lines of he hit 40 one year without trying, and the next year he thought he would actually try because he thought if he tried he would hit 50…and through the first half he was hitting way below average and only had 8 or 9. He finally gave up trying and hit another 20 and learned his lesson.

    Be who you are — don’t worry about the outcome, worry about the process. Hell, don’t even do that. Just be.

  11. I heard the news conference live, and to be honest, I didn’t even know he said it, until people started repeating it. It was clear to me when he said it that he meant that trying to hit homeruns kills rallies. At least that’s what I heard.

  12. Mike Beyer says:

    BTW, yesterday the Tigers hit more home runs in one inning than the Royals have in games since May 15.

  13. Jake Bucsko says:

    I’m glad that Joe brought in the context to what George Brett was saying, because that really is just a ridiculously stupid thing to say. Had he said “Trying to hit home runs kills rallies”, that is a truth. But in any game situation, the very best thing a hitter can do is knock it out of the park (obviously).

  14. Phil says:

    Pat Tabler said exactly the same thing on a Jays broadcast earlier this season. “Say what?” I thought.

  15. Bill Wray says:

    Earl Weaver, a big believer in pitching and three-run homers, felt the same way about home runs killing rallies.

  16. NMark W says:

    I’d like to get Jack Morris’ thoughts on this. Since he is a pitcher that some say “pitched to the score” and seemingly cared very little about his ERA but greatly wanted to pitch a complete game and/or be the winning pitcher…. Here’s a question for Jack: With a four run lead in the 7th inning, one out and a man already on firstbase, would you have preferred for the batter to hit a single or a homer? Simple enough…?

  17. Chris Smith says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  18. Chris Smith says:

    Isn’t the probability of 3 .300 hitters in a row making hits (assuming no walks) actually 9/1000? I think hitting a home run at any given time is awesome, especially since most teams aren’t throwing 3 .300 hitters in a row out there. (I don’t think the Reds have 3 .300 hitters, and they’re GOOD!)

    Now, if the first guy hits and the second guy hits a home run, you’re probably going to see a new pitcher, but that’s already true in MLB. In the late innings, other than the 9th, you pretty well see a pitcher based upon the handedness of the batter. To me, if you’re a home run hitter, go for it, because the next guy is going to get a new pitcher anyway, or, at best, the same one who is still fresh and “of the correct handedness” for the situation.

    Too much thinking. If you’re going late into the 8th and down two runs, even if you have the top of the order coming up, you’re odds of winning are really slim. Don’t try some small-ball crap at the end of the game….just hit and hope.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Swing for the fences down three runs with nobody on? You think exactly like the Royal hitters…. and well, it’s worked out so well for them. Nobody said anything about small ball. Nobody bunts, hit & runs or steals bases down three runs. Nobody. Well, except maybe for Vince Coleman.

    • civil writes says:

      The odds of three consecutive hits from .300 hitters is .3^3 = .027. But if we define a rally to be the event that multiple batters reach base, then the odds are higher. If we say that each batter gets on base 30 percent of the time, and that none of them make outs on the basepaths, then the simple simulation I just wrote says that there will be at least two baserunners in the inning about 35 percent of the time. The odds of having at least three, calculated the same way, are around 18 percent.

  19. I’d rather have four bases in the hand plus any RBIs than a hypothetical continuing rally because the pitcher is still in the stretch, if that’s what they’re talking about.

  20. Wow, reading that quote, I can tell you that his answer was directed to one player on his team, a player who happens to play 3B and is about as low (or even lower) than George was when Charlie Lau turned him around.

  21. Jamie says:

    I was an assistant high school wrestling coach and I am now the head wrestling coach at the middle school in town. I’ve worked with some good wrestlers and I have seen them improve and learn. AND I have found it impossible to coach my own son. He listens to me when we work on cars or computers but when it comes to anything sports related I get the “I know dad” refrain. So I’ve always let other coaches instruct him and I try to stay on the fringes and be supportive. All of this to say I completely understand when Brett says you can’t coach your own kids. And even though I’m not a Royals fan I am a George Brett fan and I hope he is spectacular and stays there for years to come.

    I was very reluctant to start coaching myself and didn’t do it until I was 42 years old but it has been rewarding and frustrating and everything I expected it to be.

  22. Tim Lacy says:

    Side point: Mentioning Mike Sweeney begs a question—i.e. If Brett doesn’t work out, should the team go after Sweeney?

  23. Mark Daniel says:

    I think the message is clear. It’s not that HRs are bad, or that HR hitters should try to hit singles. It’s that as a hitter you should know your strengths and weaknesses, and play to the strengths. And, in any possible baseball situation, you should try to do the same thing. In a way, Brett is defining clutch. When Mr. November Derek Jeter is hailed as being clutch, he is really being hailed for simply doing what he is good at no matter what the situation.

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  25. bigsteveno says:

    A hit record really can kill a band’s career though.

  26. I have thought of home runs as rally killers for years. Yes, they are good, and no I would not say don’t hit them. The point is that it clears the bases, so the next batter is hitting with the bases empty, which is the opposite of what is happening during a rally. After the home run, it’s like starting a new rally. That doesn’t mean I don’t want my team to hit home runs. It’s more of a semantic argument. The late great Bill King agreed with this logic, too.

  27. IceCreamMan says:

    Agreed to an extent. Very few pitchers are unphased by base runners. For starter pitchers it means going to the stretch, and for all pitchers it means having to focus on something – for at least a small period of time – other than than the hitter. It creates added pressure to a situation. Base runners also at times change the depth and shift of the defense allowing for larger gaps to hit through, or shorter reaction times for fielders – That being said there is rarely anything fielder can do about a home run. Also, if a pitcher is on the rocks and protecting a lead, and gives up a bomb, he might get pulled faster than if he is slowly bleeding out on the mound to singles and walks and doubles. All of this is very much so driven by scenarios but it is still an interesting discussion. One that I believe has validity.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Interesting point. I coach youth baseball and I keep pitch counts to make sure I don’t tax young arms. One thing I’ve learned is that a pitch in a high stress situation, runners on, maybe a couple of runs on the board, maybe the middle of the lineup coming up…. means that every pitch is now more taxing than in a bases empty, coasting along situation pitch. Now MLB pitchers are paid to deal with the high stress innings & limit damage…. but there are a lot of borderline pitchers who don’t do this well. When a hit equals a run, some pitchers try to nibble, get behind in the count and get in big trouble. Your better pitchers don’t do this, but a lot do.

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  29. Aaron Ross says:

    Really side point – the Texas Ranger story is found in the second volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson.

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