September 16, 2010
Half a Team, Half a Team, Half a Team Onward
When I was younger, I used to play a board game called “Circus Maximus” which simulated chariot racing. At the start of the game you would have four points to assign to four categories: team speed, team endurance, chariot size, and driver skill, all of which would help your chariot in different ways at different times of the race. Any combination could win, depending on how the race unfolded, but the game required you to choose up front the factors at which your team would excel. The challenge was to follow your strengths and avoid race situations that exposed your weaknesses.
I’m reminded of this each time I consider the challenge facing a major-league general manager when constructing a baseball team. Given a certain set of restraints—payroll size, talent already on hand, seasonal goals—each GM spends the winter acquiring players to fill out his roster. While some players may be gifted in multiple aspects of the game, most are likely to help out most in one way (e.g., getting on base, hitting for power, flashing the leather), and the GM needs to determine which aspect of the game should be beefed up given the team’s limited resources. The analogy breaks down somewhat when you consider baseball’s revenue structure—some teams have 20 points to allocate while others have four—but that’s a topic for another day. The point is that, while most teams would love to be strong in all areas of the game, many franchises wind up (either by accident or design) better at certain facets than others.
During this season’s overhyped, under-analyzed “Year of the Pitcher” it’s been the teams that have focused more on improving their run prevention (i.e., pitching and defense) that have made the most news. The surprising Padres have ridden outstanding pitching into the forefront of the playoff chase, just ahead of the similarly constructed Giants, while the punchless Mariners have been held up as an exemplar of the dangers inherent in focusing on only half of your team. Are these teams truly as unbalanced as conventional wisdom seems to believe? Below you’ll find a listing of each team during the 2010 season and their overall team batting and pitching VORP (through Sunday’s games, extrapolated to a full 162-game season).
On the left we see those teams which tilt the most toward the pitching-and-defense end of the spectrum, as measured by the difference between their batting and pitching VORP, while on the right we have those whose batters are providing more value than their pitchers. As you can see, the Padres and Giants are near the top, but it isn’t because they’ve been unable to score runs. While their offenses aren’t world beaters (both are in the lower half of NL squads in runs scored, and in team VORP), when park factors are considered any Bard can see they art more lovely and more temperate than baseball’s true hitting dregs. It’s their league-best pitching that causes such great disparity for both these teams.
The same can’t be said for the Mariners, whose projected -52.6 seasonal VORP would be the worst of any team since the Tigers coughed up a -57.6 VORP furball on their fans’ carpets back in 2003, and the 12th-worst since 1954. Seattle’s focus on run prevention was a success story in 2009, when the club improved by 21 games despite scoring the fewest runs in the American League, and GM Jack Zduriencik was lauded as a savvy practitioner of the undervalued-asset approach to roster construction. This year, however, Seattle’s defense and pitching are mid-pack, while the offense has spun its wheels even deeper into last year’s muddy ditch. There’s been some amount of bloggy bluster indicting those who run the #6org for completely ignoring the team’s offense, but it’s untrue to say that the Seattle brain trust didn’t make an effort last winter to try to find a way to score more runs. The continued slow-mo implosion of Milton Bradley and the sudden decrepitude of Chone Figgins are easy to spot in hindsight, but they were gambles that might have paid off—and since both those wheels came up double zero, the Mariners even more pronounced lack of offense has made them a team out of balance, a condition the Hopi Indians may have called Kotchmaanisqatsi.
There is another team, however, with even less balance between its offensive and defensive components: the Milwaukee Brewers. Last year, the Crew fell out of playoff contention when their robust offense could no longer overcome a Bulwer-Lytton-level bad pitching staff. Over the offseason, GM Doug Melvin tried to address the issue by trading shortstop J.J. Hardy for Carlos Gomez, letting incumbent center fielder Mike Cameron walk, and using the money saved to sign free-agent starter Randy Wolf. Melvin’s plan, as described here, seemed to be to improve by trading some offense for pitching and defense. As things turned out, the offense did take a small step backward (from third to fifth in NL runs scored), but the pitching also regressed, leaving the Brewers’ often bat-heavy roster even more lopsided than usual. In fact, Milwaukee’s squad is on pace to be the third-most offense-dominant team of the Retrosheet Era:
The 2008 Rangers pitching staff featured 70 starts from pitchers who ended the season with a negative VORP, which combined with a league-best offense makes them the most unbalanced team of the last half-century. Interestingly, the Reds have posted five of the top 10 hitter-heavy teams since 1954, including the 1976 world champs. The Bicentennial Edition of the Big Red Machine ranks highly not due to bad pitching but because their offensive VORP that year was the highest in our 56-year sample, edging the 2009 Yankees.
Given how bad the Brewers pitching staff was in 2009 as well, where do they rank historically over a two-season period?
Over a two-year span, only the 1968-69 Reds have had more disparity between their offensive and defensive contributions than the current Brewers squad. Those late-'60s Reds teams featured some of the same offensive talent (Bench, Perez, Rose) as their '70s dynasty and posted winning records, but couldn’t quite overcome their pitching morass. The Brewers’ recent dips into the free agent pitching pool haven’t helped them much—if they aren’t able to develop some homegrown starters, and soon, they may yet reach the top of this list.
Here’s how this year’s Mariners squad ranks historically:
Seattle just reaches the top 10, nowhere near the level of the 2003 Dodgers. Jim Tracy’s squad that year featured not only Eric Gagne in his Season Of The Ridiculous, but outstanding contributions from starters Kevin Brown and Hideo Nomo, and 100+ stellar relief innings from Guillermo Mota—all of which combined for the fourth-highest team pitching VORP in our sample, behind the 1999 Red Sox, the 1998 Yankees, and the 1995 Indians. None of this was enough to overcome the Dodgers’ .238 TAv that year, when only one starter, Shawn Green, was an above-average hitter.
It’s easy to see that a team can be successful when out of balance, so long as the disparity comes from great achievement on one side of the equation rather than terrible production on the other. This season’s most out of balance teams will need to address their shortcomings rather than enhance their strengths if they want to avoid the fate of the Light Brigade.