July 23, 2010
We Can Hit but We Just Can't Score
Every now and then, when my friends and I are watching a game, we’ll pass the time during commercials by quizzing each other regarding current league leaders in several categories. It proves to be fun and informative not only because certain unexpected players show up at the top of the lists—looking at you Livan—but also because it helps everyone stay in the loop. A couple of weeks ago, one of the categories, batting average at the team level, really piqued my interest. I immediately guessed the Texas Rangers, but was surprised to find out they ranked second in the sport. I racked my brain for the next few minutes before giving up, just as my compadres had, only to find out that the Kansas City Royals topped the list. Seriously? The Royals? The 2010 Kansas City Royals?
In such disbelief I grabbed my friend's fancy Internet phone and double-checked the list to make sure he wasn’t actually sorting in ascending fashion. Lo and behold, he was right, as the Royals had produced the highest team batting average, a claim they still stake today, as their .281 mark topped the sport going into Thursday's games. In typical “that-can’t-be-right” fashion, I implored the same friend to check the rankings for runs scored at the team level, because I knew that a team playing as poorly as the Royals had to have some sort of caveat tied to that high batting rate. A few clicks later we learned that the Royals were in the bottom third of the sport in runs scored, another claim they can still stake today. They can hit, they just can’t score, and the title of this article should make sense now.
It is common knowledge in these parts that batting average is not all that it is cracked up to be, but it also isn’t a meaningless number, and when such a huge disconnect exists between league-wide ranks in a statistic measuring the hitting prowess of a team and one accounting for how often they make scoreboard operators work, hypothetical red flags are raised. I went home that night wondering how a team could reach base via the hit as frequently as the Royals but perform so abysmally with regards to producing runs, as well as whether or not a team has ever been as imbalanced.
To answer, I turned to the good ol' database and computed the MLB-wide ranks in both batting average and runs scored for every team in each year from 1975-2009, a nice rounded span of 35 years. My first thought was to simply determine the differential in the ranks—as in, the Royals are first and 23rd in RS, so their differential is -22—but such an exercise would prove futile given that the number of teams in the sport rose from 24 to 30 over the 35 years. Obviously, with 30 teams in the sport there is more “cushion for the pushin’” in terms of the increased availability of a differential. To circumvent this issue, I decided to use percentiles as opposed to the raw differentials. For example, the Royals lead baseball with a .281 batting average, placing them in the 100th percentile; they lead, so nobody else is higher. Their runs scored tally of 408 ranks 23rd, placing them in the 26.7th percentile. Applying this to every team in the span, I could take the differential in the percentiles and sort to find the largest disconnects.
The largest differential over the last 35 seasons belongs to the 2009 New York Mets, who ranked fifth in baseball with a .270 batting average, but just 25th with 671 runs scored. Their differential of -66.7, which is the 20th percentile in runs less the 86.7th percentile in batting average, did not even have legitimate competition for the throne, as the second-largest differential was compiled by the 1994 San Diego Padres; those Friars were ninth in BA and 28th in RS, finishing the strike-shortened year at a -56.7 difference. The table below shows the 10 largest differentials:
The next logical question is how the Royals stack up compared to this group, which is not going to be answered definitively given that they are still in the midst of a season. As in, we can compare their current mark to where these other teams finished, but it in no way tells us about the Royals’ pace. Their differential is currently -73.3, which, if the season ended today, would be the largest in recent history. Whether or not they finish the year at that mark is yet to be seen, but now we know the comparative basis as well as how difficult it would be to continue along this path. Something is bound to happen, be it a decline in base hits or an improvement in converting those hits into runs, but what makes this exercise all the more interesting is that the Royals actually lead the game in the BA category.
They are not fifth or sixth and then dead last in runs, but rather in first place in BA and 23rd in runs scored. Combing through the data to find teams that led the league in batting average, here are the 10 largest differentials for BA leaders:
As you can see, teams that lead the sport in batting average tend to prove quite efficient in the runs scored department, and while other metrics may correlate with runs scored at a higher clip, the r between BA percentile and RS percentile is a hefty 0.76; as one goes, so too does the other, for the most part. This makes the Royals' current predicament all the more bizarre. They aren’t currently employing a murderer’s row of hitters, but are not completely devoid of talent.
Billy Butler is a very solid hitter; David DeJesus, though playing out of his mind right now, is still a good hitter at his 2006-09 levels; and then players like Yuniesky Betancourt, Scott Podsednik, Jose Guillen, and the recently-traded Alberto Callaspo might not be fantastic hitters, overall, but can certainly muster BAs north of .275. With Callaspo gone and potentially DeJesus next in line to go, it isn’t likely that the Royals will sustain a .280+ mark for the rest of the year, but here’s to hoping they can defy the odds and finish the season with the largest BA-RS percentile differential, so next time you’re out with friends to watch a game, you’ll have a nice trivia weapon in your arsenal.