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July 2, 2003

Lies, Damned Lies

A Whole Different Ballgame

by Nate Silver

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One of my favorite bits from The Catcher in the Rye is when Holden contemplates his fondness for the Natural History Museum. The museum, you see, doesn't change very much--but your impression of it does as you age, as your values change, and as your aesthetic sentiments mature. Thus, a static, even antiquated exhibit can provide a dynamic background for self-reflection. Revisiting a place after a long time away can remind you just how different you've become, in a way that that's impossible to gleam from the day-to-day banalities of existence.

Later this month, I'll be visting Los Angeles for the first time in nearly 10 years. I don't mean to compare Los Angeles to a museum--it only takes two hours to make it from one end to the other of The Louvre--but in its style, its attitude, its idiosyncratic excess, the city has always had the same sort of mesmerizing effect on me. When I vacationed there as a little kid, Los Angeles seemed positively utopian to me; there was Disneyland, Dodger Stadium, lots of really good miniature golf courses, and, of course, my grandparents. By the time I had "matured" into mid-adolescence and visited again, my impression of Los Angeles had done an about face: I was aware, suddenly, of the traffic, the smog, the racial problems, the consumerism--all of the things an angsty, smart-alecky 15-year-old is going to get unduly upset about. Now that I'm a smart-alecky (if somewhat more even-tempered) 20something, I'll be curious to see how Los Angeles changed, but I'll be more curious to see how my impression of it has changed.

Less you mistake this for an AP English essay, I'll also be curious to see what sort of marketing campaign the Dodgers have going on. There are only so many themes that a team can plausibly employ: These Kids Can Play, Everybody Loves Raymond, At Least We're Not the Brewers, etc. Given the limited range of choices, a team often defaults to something along the lines of It's A Whole Different Ballgame, which usually, of course, means absolutely nothing. But in the Dodgers' case, it's apropos.

Through Sunday night's game in Anaheim, the Dodgers had scored an average of 3.46 runs per game, the lowest total in the league. Thing is, they're allowing even fewer runs--only 3.03 per game. It's an odd formula, as if concocted from the lovechild of Whitey Herzog and Hal Lanier, but for the most part, it's been working.

Has the Dodgers performance thus far been historically significant? You bet your Lasorda. Since the end of the deadball era, no team has turned in a performance so out of line with the rest of the league. In the table below, I've listed those teams since 1920 whose runs scored plus runs allowed represented the lowest percentage of league average:

                      Per Game Averages                       
Year  Lg  Team  RS    RA    Total  League    % of Lg W-L
1927  NL  BRO   3.51  4.02  7.53    9.16    82.2%   65-88
1966  NL  LAN   3.74  3.02  6.77    8.19    82.6%   95-67
1937  NL  BSN   3.81  3.66  7.47    9.02    82.8%   79-73
1964  AL  LAA   3.36  3.40  6.76    8.12    83.3%   82-80
1944  NL  CIN   3.70  3.46  7.16    8.50    84.3%   89-65
1981  NL  HOU   3.58  3.01  6.59    7.82    84.3%   61-49
1997  AL  TOR   4.04  4.28  8.32    9.86    84.4%   76-86
1998  AL  TBA   3.83  4.64  8.46   10.02    84.4%   63-99

It's surprising to me that we don't see results more extreme than these. Every team's individual run scoring environment has been at least 82% of the league average. Certainly, there have been plenty of sides whose strength was in their pitching and defense, but for the most part, baseball is a pretty stable game, and ballclubs just aren't all that out of whack with one another. Until now...

                      Per Game Averages                       
Year  Lg  Team   RS   RA    Total  League  % of Lg W-L
2003  NL  LAN   3.46  3.03  6.49   9.18   70.7%   45-33

Dodgers games this year have involved nearly 30% less run scoring than the league average, or around six-and-a-half runs per game, a figure not seen since the Don Drysdale era. Nobody else has even come close. I don't know what the right analogy is here: Bjorn Borg trying to compete with a wooden racket--and succeeding? The Bob Cousy Celtics taking it to today's NBA with two-handed jumpers and short-shorts? In any event, there's no a priori reason that the strategy--if we can call it that--can't succeed. The teams in the table above run the gambit from Pennant Winners (the 1966 Dodgers squad) to Devil Rays; the important thing, of course, isn't how many runs you score, but that you allow fewer than you put on the board.

Before we go any further, it's worth running the same numbers on a park-adjusted basis. Nothing fancy here--I'm adjusting each team's performance upward or downward based on the Total Baseball run scoring factors.

                 Adjusted Per Game Averages
Year  Lg  Team  RS     RA     Total  League    % of Lg W-L
1998  AL  TBA   3.68   4.42   8.10   10.02    80.8%   63-99
1927  NL  BRO   3.51   3.98   7.49    9.16    81.8%   65-88
1942  AL  DET   3.50   3.48   6.98    8.53    81.8%   73-81
1936  AL  BOS   4.72   4.65   9.37   11.34    82.6%   74-80
1997  AL  TOR   4.00   4.24   8.24    9.86    83.5%   76-86
1926  AL  PHA   4.26   3.65   7.91    9.47    83.6%   83-67
1933  AL  CLE   4.12   4.26   8.38   10.00    83.8%   75-76
1993  AL  BOS   3.92   3.99   7.91    9.41    84.0%   80-82
1967  NL  CIN   3.36   3.13   6.49    7.68    84.5%   87-75
1992  AL  BOS   3.46   3.86   7.32    8.64    84.6%   73-89
2001  AL  ANA   3.99   4.25   8.24    9.72    84.7%   75-87
                                                                
2003  NL  LAN   3.80   3.29   7.09    9.18    77.2%   45-33

Even after adjusting for the run depressing effects of Chavez Ravine--and given that the Dodgers have every right to take advantage of their park, I'm not sure that we should--the Dodgers are an outlier and then some. There are a couple of comparably extreme performances on the other side of the spectrum--in 1930 and 1931, Yankees games involved about 24% more run scoring than their park-adjusted league average--but no team has been this titled toward pitching and defense in modern history.

The more controversial point, of course, is whether this outcome has resulted from some sort of deliberate strategy on the Dodgers' part. When Dan Evans joined on as GM, he mused about an approach that put pitching and defense first, priorities that he thought made sense given the characteristics of Dodger Stadium and the successful precedents established by winning Dodger teams of the past.

The Dodgers, indeed, have put their money where Evans' mouth is, investing 56% of their payroll in pitching, one of the highest figures in the league. The Dodgers have also invested heavily in position defense. and Cesar Izturis, to be kind about it, certainly aren't in the lineup for their bats. Dave Roberts has hit better than anyone expected him to, but he's also an above-average defender in center. And while the Dodgers might kill to have Gary Sheffield back at this point, Brian Jordan and Odalis Perez provided an upgrade to their run prevention. For better or for worse, the approach is accomplishing what it was intended to--the Dodgers' Defensive Efficiency Rating is the best in the league, a big part of their league-leading ERA.

What's especially interesting is that a defense-first approach runs at least somewhat counter to sabermetric conventional wisdom. Although Billy Beane has tweaked the A's roster to the point that run prevention is their strength--that's what happens when you suffer through a full season with an outfield of Jason Giambi, Matt Stairs, and Damon Mashore--it's generally accepted that the greater predictability of offensive performance renders it a superior investment of scarce resources. A look at the 'most overpaid' list from any given season will almost certainly contain more pitchers than position players.

That said, I think there are a couple team-building lessons that can be learned here:

  • Balance is overrated. So long as you score more runs than you allow, it doesn't particularly matter how you get there.

  • Don't screw around with poor defenders at premium defensive positions. Certainly, everyone will take an A-Rod or a Jeff Kent if they can get him. But the number of such players is limited, and it may well make more sense to play someone like Izturis than, say, Julio Lugo or Terrence Long, who doesn't do anything particularly well. Investing in middle infield defense especially makes sense if you have a groundball-heavy pitching staff, which the Dodgers do.

  • Don't fight your ballpark. If you're fortunate enough to play in a great pitchers' park, take advantage of it.

A fourth point here--something that you heard brought up in discussions of the Angels last year--might be that the Dodgers are gaining a comparative advantage by focusing on areas that other clubs have de-emphasized. I'm not ready to give Evans credit on that front. It's not as though a modern approach to player valuation has reached a critical mass yet, and with the possible exceptions of Roberts and Paul Lo Duca, Eric Gagne deserves serious consideration as a Cy Young candidate. The Dodgers have been involved in a disproportionate number of tight games, and while, sure, you'd like to see Trace use him in non-save situations more frequently, his high-leverage innings have been invaluable.

It's not like the Dodger approach hasn't been tried before--the tactic of prioritizing pitching and defense is about as old as the Egyptian Collection in Holden's allegorical museum. But it's been a long time since we've seen something like this; the last time that a team played a full season at around six-and-a-half runs per contest was 1972. Perhaps, for that reason, I'm being overly sentimental here, giving undue credit to a strategy that is fortunate to have succeeded. But in a time at which teams are often accused of being duplicative, producing less variety in style of performance from game to game than we've seen in eras past, it's refreshing to see a different approach succeed.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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