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February 21, 2012

Western Front

Runs? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Runs!

by Geoff Young

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Not long ago, while discussing the anemic offense of last year's Mariners, we noted that 10 MLB teams scored fewer than four runs per game in 2011. Only two of those teams finished with a winning record. The San Francisco Giants represented the most extreme case; they won 86 games despite having the National League's worst offense.

That got me to thinking: How often has the team with the NL's worst offense finished with a winning record? The answer may come as a surprise.

Because the Giants accomplished the feat in a 16-team league, I decided to focus on the league's current configuration, which began in 1998 with the introduction of the Arizona Diamondbacks. To the table of offensive futility, sorted in descending order of how much better the team's record was than its offense relative to league:

Year

Team

R/G

WPct

Diff

Tm

NL

Index

Tm

NL

Index

2003

Dodgers

3.5

4.6

768

.525

.504

1041

272

2011

Giants

3.5

4.1

852

.531

.498

1066

213

2001

Mets

4.0

4.7

843

.506

.498

1017

174

2005

Nationals

3.9

4.4

887

.500

.496

1009

122

2009

Padres

3.9

4.4

888

.463

.495

935

46

2007

Nationals

4.2

4.7

883

.451

.496

909

26

2006

Pirates

4.3

4.8

895

.414

.489

845

-50

1998

Expos

4.0

4.6

865

.401

.499

804

-61

2000

Phillies

4.4

5.0

873

.401

.496

810

-64

1999

Marlins

4.3

5.0

852

.395

.504

784

-68

2008

Padres

3.9

4.5

867

.389

.491

792

-75

2010

Pirates

3.6

4.3

838

.352

.497

708

-130

2002

Brewers

3.9

4.4

870

.346

.501

690

-180

2004

D'backs

3.8

4.6

818

.315

.500

630

-188

Avg

3.9

4.6

857

.428

.497

860

3

Index is the difference between team and league performance, where 1000 is average, e.g., ((Tm R/G)/(NL R/G)*1000). Higher numbers favor the team, lower numbers favor the league. Note that although runs scored are calculated in full, they are shown to only one decimal, so there will be rounding errors.

Diff is the difference between the two indexes. The higher the number, the greater a team's winning percentage relative to league as compared with its runs per game relative to league.

A few items to note:

  • NL offensive levels have been in steady decline over the past several years and reached a post-expansion low last season. In fact, run scoring hadn't been this low since 1992, before the previous round of expansion.
  • Most of the teams on this list were terrible. Despite the presence of three teams with winning records and another that broke even, collectively they played like the 2010 Nationals (69-93). Five teams (1999 Marlins, 2000 Phillies, 2002 Brewers, 2004 D'backs, 2010 Pirates) owned at least a share of the league's worst record.
  • The 2011 Giants own the best winning percentage by any NL team that finished last in runs scored since the league went to 16 teams.
  • No NL team has had a worse offense, relative to league, in that span than the 2003 Dodgers.

* * *

Let's take a closer look at these teams, in chronological order.

2001 Mets
This team's offense is best described as “Mike Piazza and a whole lotta nothing.” Among players with at least 300 plate appearances, Desi Relaford (claimed off waivers from a Padres team that had lost 86 games in 2000) and Joe McEwing were the Mets' next-best weapons:

Name

PA

TAv

Mike Piazza

573

.324

Desi Relaford

340

.294

Joe McEwing

319

.280

Robin Ventura

549

.274

Todd Zeile

612

.260

Benny Agbayani

339

.258

Tsuyoshi Shinjo

438

.258

Edgardo Alfonzo

519

.256

Jay Payton

386

.226

Rey Ordonez

505

.224

This team finished 15th in batting average, 12th in on-base percentage, and last in slugging percentage. The Mets placed in the bottom half of nearly every major offensive category except walks (seventh) and hit by pitches (sixth). They ranked 13th in stolen bases with 66 (and should have attempted fewer, as they had a pitiful 57.9 percent success rate).

The pitching staff was unexceptional. Thirty-five-year-old Al Leiter and 33-year-old Kevin Appier paced the rotation, with 36-year-old Rick Reed contributing 20 solid starts. There were no standout performances in the bullpen, either. Armando Benitez served as closer, although he didn't have a particularly good year.

The 2001 Mets shouldn't have won 82 games. In fact, they were outscored, 713-642, and won nine more than Pythagoras says they should have. (One narrative might cite this as evidence of manager Bobby Valentine's genius. That narrative would need to look at the 2002 Mets, which underperformed by four games despite the continued presence of Valentine.)

How did the Mets address their offensive woes? The short answer is they didn't. Sure, the 2002 team scored 48 more runs than the 2001 team and moved all the way up to 13th in that category, but this is hardly cause for celebration.

Still, they tried, pretty much gutting their entire offense:

  • Traded Matt Lawton and others for 34-year-old Roberto Alomar, who promptly lost nearly 250 points of OPS
  • Traded Appier to Anaheim for 34-year-old Mo Vaughn, who had an okay season before seeing his career end prematurely due to injury
  • Traded Zeile, Agbayani, and others for 33-year-old Jeromy Burnitz, who fell off the same cliff that claimed Alomar's production
  • Traded Ventura for David Justice, whom they shipped a week later to Oakland for 36-year-old LOOGY Mark Guthrie
  • Traded Relaford and Shinjo to the Giants for Shawn Estes

Lots of activity, not much progress. The Mets dropped to last place in the NL East at 75-86, 6 ½ games worse than the previous year.

2003 Dodgers
This team scored fewer runs relative to league (768 Index) than any other NL team has since the 1998 expansion. Its offense is best described as desperately in need of Desi Relaford. Here are the Dodgers' key performers from 2003 (not for the faint of heart):

Name

PA

TAv

Shawn Green

691

.284

Fred McGriff

329

.265

Jolbert Cabrera

380

.260

Dave Roberts

440

.251

Adrian Beltre

608

.250

Paul Lo Duca

630

.249

Alex Cora

514

.220

Cesar Izturis

593

.210

Think of this team as the 2001 Mets without Piazza. The Dodgers didn't even have a hitter as good as the Mets' version of Relaford.

What they did have was an abundance of pitching. Kevin Brown and Hideo Nomo fronted the rotation, with Wilson Alvarez contributing when healthy. And the bullpen was spectacular, headed by Cy Young Award winner Eric Gagne, with excellent support from Guillermo Mota and Paul Quantrill. As a unit, Dodgers relievers posted a 2.46 ERA in 472 2/3 innings, holding opponents to a .207/.278/.304 line (think Ed Brinkman with less batting average).

The Dodgers ranked at or near the top in most pitching categories. Their team ERA+ was 128, which is the career mark of guys like Bob Gibson, Curt Schilling, Tom Seaver, and Jered Weaver.

What did the Dodgers do in the offseason? Well, a few things:

The pitching suffered in 2004 (how could it not, after that performance?), as the team allowed 128 more runs than in 2003. On the bright side, the offense added 187 runs (1.15 R/G).

Green did his usual thing, while Cora and Izturis improved from awful to semi-palatable. Werth and Bradley represented a huge upgrade over Burnitz and Roberts. Veterans Saenz, Jose Hernandez, and Steve Finley produced off the bench. And, of course, Beltre had a season for the ages.

The net result was that the Dodgers won eight more games and took the NL West at 93-69.

2005 Nationals
These guys broke even, but what the heck. You know the drill:

Name

PA

TAv

Nick Johnson

547

.306

Ryan Church

301

.292

Jose Guillen

611

.290

Brad Wilkerson

661

.268

Brian Schneider

408

.256

Jose Vidro

347

.256

Vinny Castilla

549

.252

Jamey Carroll

358

.236

Cristian Guzman

492

.205

Johnson stayed healthy, and the good version of Guillen showed up (which almost made up for the awful version of Guzman). On the pitching side, the Nationals got decent production out of a rotation headed by Livan Hernandez, Esteban Loaiza, and John Patterson. Their starters combined for a 4.03 ERA, slightly better than NL average of 4.23 for starters.

Nationals relievers, on the other hand, were terrific in 2005. Their 3.55 ERA placed them third in the league. Closer Chad Cordero and set-up man Hector Carrasco led the charge, with journeymen Gary Majewski, Luis Ayala, Joey Eischen, and Mike Stanton contributing as well.

The team “addressed” its offensive woes by signing Damian Jackson, Marlon Anderson, Robert Fick, Wiki Gonzalez, Daryle Ward (okay, that one worked), Royce Clayton, George Lombard, Matt LeCroy, and Bernie Castro; trading Castilla to the Padres for right-hander Brian Lawrence; and trading Wilkerson (along with Armando Galarraga and Terrmel Sledge) to Texas for Alfonso Soriano in his walk year; and selling Carroll to the Rockies.

Johnson remained healthy and was even better in 2006. He, along with newcomers Clayton, Soriano, and rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, helped the club score 107 more runs in 2006. Unfortunately, thanks to an NL-worst 5.03 ERA, the Nationals finished with 10 fewer wins.

2011 Giants
And finally, the heroes of our story:

Name

PA

TAv

Pablo Sandoval

466

.318

Nate Schierholtz

362

.276

Cody Ross

461

.266

Aubrey Huff

579

.257

Andres Torres

398

.242

Aaron Rowand

351

.234

Miguel Tejada

343

.223

Sandoval wasn't as good as 2001 Piazza or as healthy (!) as 2005 Johnson, but when he was in the lineup, he contributed in a way that no other Giants hitter could. And although there were no Izturis- or Guzman-sized drags on the offense, it is worth noting that Tejada hit as poorly for the Giants in 2011 as Ordonez did for the Mets in 2001.

Beyond Rowand, Tejada, and Huff crashing to earth (Brian Sabean's guiding philosophy seems to be “Old Guys Rule”), losing Buster Posey to injury didn't help matters. The Giants got almost nothing out of Eli Whiteside, Chris Stewart, and Hector Sanchez. Their catchers hit .224/.298/.330, worse than anyone in the National League save the hapless (but not Happless) Astros.

Although the staff wasn't as good as that of the 2003 Dodgers (if the latter were Gibson or Seaver, the 2011 Giants were Jack McDowell or Dwight Gooden), a rotation fronted by Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and Madison Bumgarner makes up for a lot. Add in one of baseball's biggest surprises in Ryan Vogelsong and a solid bullpen led by Santiago Casilla and righty-killer Sergio Romo, and you can win without offense.

We don't know how this will play out, but the Giants responded to their miserable offensive showing in 2011 by letting Carlos Beltran, Mark DeRosa, Cody Ross, Jeff Keppinger leave via free agency; watching Pat Burrell and Orlando Cabrera retire; trading Jonathan Sanchez and Ryan Verdugo to the Royals for Melky Cabrera; trading Ramon Ramirez and Andres Torres to the Mets for Angel Pagan; and signing Joaquin Arias and Ryan Theriot as free agents.

In a nutshell, Cabrera and Pagan have replaced Beltran, Ross, and Burrell. So, yeah, that should work. (If not, Giants fans can console themselves with Chuck Prophet's “Willie Mays Is Up At Bat.”)

* * *

Three of the four teams we've examined had one big bopper who carried the offense: Piazza, 2001 Mets; Johnson, 2005 Nationals; and Sandoval, 2011 Giants. The one that didn't was the 2003 Dodgers, which set the standard for offensive futility in the 16-team NL era, but which also featured a staff that collectively pitched like a couple of Hall of Famers.

The Dodgers also made the most strides in improving themselves the following season. Newcomers Saenz, Werth, and Bradley played key roles on the 2004 squad, although the biggest push came from Beltre in his free-agent year.

The other teams shuffled pieces around after the season, but most of the moves didn't help. The Mets brought on Alomar and Burnitz, great producers at one point but well past their primes. The Nationals snagged Soriano for one year and promoted Zimmerman from the minors, but their pitching suffered.

The Giants have made fewer moves. Will Cabrera and Pagan be like Werth and Bradley, or will they be more like Alomar and Burnitz? Does Sandoval have a Beltre 2004 season in him (no fat jokes, please)? While it will be difficult for the Giants to improve on their 86 wins from 2011 with that offense, as the Dodgers have shown us, it is not impossible. Either way, if history provides any indication, the gap between San Francisco's ability to score runs and win games should be narrower in 2012:

Team

Year 1

Year 2

R/G Index

WPct Index

Diff

R/G Index

WPct Index

Diff

Mets, 2001-2002

843

1017

174

963

930

-33

Dodgers, 2003-2004

768

1041

272

1012

1149

137

Nationals, 2005-2006

887

1009

122

967

896

-71

Giants, 2011-2012

852

1066

213

?

?

?

Given the nature of freakish performances, this should come as no surprise. Still, it is good to look at these things to confirm what we already suspect.

5 comments have been left for this article.

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