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May 10, 2012

Overthinking It

Finding the Perfect Imbalance

by Ben Lindbergh

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The 2012 Texas Rangers are the archetype of a winning team. They’ve scored the most runs in the American League, even away from their hitter-friendly home park. They’ve allowed the fewest runs in the American League, even in their hitter-friendly home park. No one can score against them, and no one can keep them from scoring. Whether they’re in the field or at the plate, they look like a first-place team.

Even among the league’s leading clubs, though, the well-rounded Rangers—and the Cardinals, who boast an even better run differential—are the exception. Most first-place teams are flawed.

Take the two teams tied atop the National League East, the Nationals and the Braves. On Wednesday night, the Nationals scored two runs in a loss to the Pirates. The Nationals haven’t done a lot of losing this season, but they haven’t done much scoring, either: in a third of their games, they’ve scored two or fewer runs, and half of their games—tied for the highest percentage in the majors—have been decided by a margin of one run. Pitching has made Washington’s success possible. The Nats are tied with the Petco-repressed Padres for the second-fewest runs scored in the National League, but they’ve also allowed the league’s lowest run total.

Atlanta’s season has been the opposite story. The Braves have piled up runs, including seven in their Wednesday win over the Rockies. Only the Cardinals have scored more often among NL teams. However, the Braves have struggled to keep opposing teams off the scoreboard, allowing more runs than all but four other NL teams (two of whom, the Rockies and Diamondbacks, play in hitter’s havens).

So far, the uneven attacks of the Nationals and Braves have served the two teams well. The same can’t be said for the Red Sox, who have scored more runs than any AL team except the Rangers but allowed the most runs in the league. Which is more typical of a lopsided team, the last-place Red Sox or the first-place Nats? If you can’t be the best at both run scoring and run prevention, like the Rangers are, is it better to be balanced and average at both or one of the best at one and one of the worst at the other? And can Washington keep winning with baseball’s lowest-scoring lineup?

To answer those questions, I examined the run-scoring and run-preventing performance of every NL team since the most recent round of expansion in 1998. Because raw run totals can be skewed by the park a team plays in, I used park-adjusted True Average (TAv) to assess each club’s actual strength. An elite offensive team will have a high TAv, and a team with elite pitching and defense will limit its opponents to a low TAv. By ranking each team’s TAv and opponent TAv within its league and comparing the difference between ranks—including only NL teams to keep the number of teams in the league consistent—we can determine which teams were balanced and which were far better on one side of the ball.

Over the last 14 seasons, there was a -.004 correlation—in other words, no correlation at all—between team winning percentage and team lopsidedness (as measured by the difference between league rank in run scoring and league rank in run prevention).  The most unbalanced team to appear in the playoffs was the 2005 Astros, who finished 11th in TAv and first in TAv against. Several teams with identical ranks in both categories made it into October.

On the whole, though, balanced teams were not more likely to succeed than unbalanced ones. That result might seem surprising—being balanced sounds better—but it probably shouldn’t: a run scored is roughly as valuable as a run prevented. What matters isn’t how many runs you score, but how many more runs you score than the opponents you’re playing.  Whether you allow a lot of runs but score even more or score few runs but allow even fewer doesn’t matter much as long as your run differential is in the black at the end of the season.

To some extent, that’s good news for the Nationals, who sport a +11 run differential despite their inability to score. No team has made the playoffs since 1998 with a TAv as low as the Nats’ current .247 mark. However, the Nats aren’t necessarily doomed to drop out of the race just because their hitters can’t keep pace with their pitchers: not only does the extra wild card make it easier to reach October now than it was from 1998-2011, none of the teams that failed to make the playoffs with lineups worse than Washington’s had pitching as good as theirs. The problem is that the Nats’ pitchers probably can’t keep pace with their pitchers, either. If they were to sustain their current 2.69 ERA over a full season, it would be the lowest any team has recorded since 1968. Offense is down across the league, but it’s not down by that much. As talented as they are, the Nats’ pitchers aren’t this good.

To stay in contention, the Nats will have to improve at the plate to counter the inevitable regression from their arms. Bryce Harper has helped so far, but like first overall picks Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez before him, he has a lot of learning left to do at age 19. The return of Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche to the lineup on Tuesday plugged two gaping holes, but with Jayson Werth and Michael Morse out indefinitely, more remain. Left field, temporarily occupied by a rotating cast of characters featuring Roger Bernadina and Xavier Nady, will be a particular problem until the big bats get back.

If the Nats were to improve significantly on offense or continue to get otherworldly pitching, they could avoid a rest-of-season swoon. Unfortunately for their long-suffering fans, the odds that they’ll do either or both of those things are low enough that our Playoff Odds give them only a 12 percent chance to qualify for postseason play. If they don’t make the playoffs, some obituaries for their season will pin the blame on their lopsided roster. In that event, though, it will be just as accurate to say that they weren’t lopsided enough.

Colin Wyers provided research assistance for this article.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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