April 16, 2012
Prospectus Hit and Run
Land of 1,000 Runs
During the first series of the season, the Tigers rolled up 26 runs while sweeping a three-game series from the Red Sox, after which Boston Globe columnist Nick Cafardo dropped an item in his Sunday notes column about the high-powered offense driven by Miguel Cabrera and newcomer Prince Fielder. "Some baseball people believe the Tigers could score close to 1,000 runs with these two hitting back to back," wrote Cafardo, never elaborating as to who those baseball people might be.
A quick stroll through recent Google News items shows a few other passing mentions of Detroit's potential thousand-run offense, but more as a pie-in-the-sky possibility than as a serious prognostication:
Ah yes, 2008. The Tigers were coming off an 88-win season in which they had cranked out 887 runs (5.48 per game), good for second in the AL thanks to monster seasons from Magglio Ordonez, Curtis Granderson, Carlos Guillen, Placido Polanco, and a still-dangerous-at-38-years-old Gary Sheffield. The prospect of their scoring 1,000 runs appears to have first been raised on a Tigers message board in December 2007, less than two weeks after the trade that brought Cabrera to town, and to have entered mainstream consideration via ESPN's Buster Olney in early January, long before pitchers and catchers reported. The meme gained momentum as the season neared, but the team flopped right out of the gate, as Morosi noted, with their 0-7 start evolving into other such sterling won-loss records as 2-10, 16-26, and 24-36. Those Tigers averaged 5.07 runs per game through the end of April, but they couldn't keep up that pace, and in the end they came closer to allowing 1,000 runs (857) than to scoring them (821).
Scoring 1,000 runs is a monumental achievement for an offense, and an exceedingly rare one. Only seven teams have reached quadruple digits since 1900, but just two since the high-scoring 1930s, and just one since the expansion of the schedule from 154 to 162 games:
In the high-scoring 1990s and 2000s, a handful of teams gave 1,000 runs a run for the money. The 1996 Mariners, who featured Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez, and Jay Buhner, just missed at 993 runs, and might have gotten there had a September 7 rainout against the Indians been made up. That game was rescheduled for September 30, the day after the regular season ended, but since the M's fell three wins shy of the wild card-winning Orioles, it was unnecessary. Rounding out a baker's dozen of the recent teams that came closest: 2000 White Sox (978), 2000 Rockies (968), 2007 Yankees (968), 2003 Red Sox (961), 1996 Rockies (961), 1996 Indians (952), 2000 Indians (950), 1996 Orioles (949), 2004 Red Sox (949), 2000 A's (947), 1999 Rangers (945) and 1998 Rangers (940)—virtually all teams who played in offensive havens at a time when scoring levels were at their highest since the 1930s.
Our depth chart-based PECOTA projections forecast the Tigers to score 784 runs, the league's fourth-highest total behind the Yankees (846), Rangers (836), and Red Sox (834). That's a far cry from 1,000, because no forecasting system with a basis in reality is going to come anywhere near that number. But what would it take for that to happen? As it turns out, we can get a rough idea thanks to our PECOTA percentile projections.
In our depth charts we have 13 Tiger hitters forecast for playing time—an underestimate, given that injuries, trades, and other transactions will occur, but a workable one:
The team plate appearance and run totals are plausible full-season values; due to rounding, the runs don't add up to 784, but it's close enough to work with. To add another 216 marginal runs, we might expect that the Tigers shown above would need to get to 448.3 VORP (232.3 + 1000 − 784).
To do that, in theory we'd start by delving into the 90th percentile projections while holding the team's number of outs constant, so as not to give out more playing time than could plausibly exist—"plausibly" being a relative term in this alternate universe where Fielder rides a unicorn to work and Delmon Young has discovered how to control the strike zone. In actuality, when I tried this, thick black smoke started pouring out of my computer, as my first crack left the team with the sum of 925 runs scored (75 off the estimate) but 436.8 VORP (12.5 off the estimate). When I buzzed Colin Wyers down in the engine room, all I could here was a staticky, "She's breakin' up, Captain!"
The problem with what I tried is that the runs and RBI totals from the upper percentiles basically assume one player is going bananas on a team whose offense is otherwise functioning within a normal range; if everybody in the lineup is getting on base, everybody will be scoring and driving in runs at a higher frequency in addition to increasing their number of opportunities. Colin suggested that a safer solution would be to run the team offensive totals (hits, walks, total bases, steals, etc.) through a run estimator such as BaseRuns. When I did that (using the second formula here), I got a whopping 1,059 runs, so I dialed back to 80th and 70th percentile projections among the players with less playing time until I more closely approximated 1,000 runs. Voilà:
According to BaseRuns, that team should score 1,001 runs. Using the "Stolen Base" or "Technical" versions of Runs Created yields 1,016 or 1,024 runs, respectively. Marvel at the levels of individual accomplishment this would take: Cabrera would essentially have to match his career-best season according to True Average (he's been at .351 and .354 over the past two seasons) with about eight percent more playing time than he's ever had in a season. Fielder would have to exceed his best True Average by 14 points, though his durability makes his playing time estimate more plausible. Jackson would have to exceed his 2010 rookie season True Average by 10 points in about 10 percent more plate appearances. Avila would have to get about 12 percent more PA, which would mean DHing on days he's not catching. Peralta would have to put up his best TAv since 2005, Boesch would need a career high by 14 points, Young would need a career high by just three points (his 2010 was pretty good), and Raburn would need to extend his 2009 performance across twice as many plate appearances.
And so on. Basically everybody would need to come up with a career year all at once, leading to a squad that hits a collective .297/.366/.477 with 217 homers. The last team to hit at least .297 was the 1938 Red Sox (.299). The last team to post at least a .366 OBP was the 1999 Indians (.373). The last team to slug at least .477 was the 2009 Yankees (.478) who play in a bandbox compared to cavernous Comerica Park.
This is all virtually implausible, of course. The team would have a slightly better shot at 1,000 runs if Victor Martinez were good for 600 plate appearances at his 90th percentile .313 TAv, taking away DH playing time from Young, Cabrera, Raburn, and Fielder, and catching time from Laird and Avila. Even then, the gains are small once you start taking away plate appearances from the other big guns.
The Tigers are the class of the AL Central; our odds give them better than a 70 percent chance of reaching the postseason, but they aren't going to get into 1,000 runs. Nor is any other team in 2012, particularly one playing in a pitcher’s park at a time when offensive levels are falling after cresting; they've fallen every year since 2006, when they were at 4.86 per team per game. In the absence of a lineup that is nearly without weakness from top to bottom playing in an extremely favorable environment for scoring, it's time to retire this meme.