September 16, 2003
Why Great Offenses Often Don't Win
An Anecdotal Journey through the Valley of Despair
Elsewhere on this Web site, Joe Sheehan has often promoted TINSTAAPP, or "There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect." To this we must add a second acronym, TINSWTBAPS--There Is No Sure Way To Build A Pitching Staff.
Even just decent pitching staffs require an element of luck to come together. The 1984 Tigers required Willie Hernandez to pitch approximately twice as well as he had in any other season to make up for almost every other pitcher on the staff being just average. The 1933 Yankees had two Hall of Fame pitchers, Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing, at the peak of their careers, plus a couple of other very good starters in Johnny Allen and Danny MacFayden. They were terrible. When Joe Torre put Mariano Rivera in the bullpen in 1996, he had no idea that the skinny righty would be one of the most valuable pitchers in the American League that season. You cannot plan these things.
TINSWTBAPS cannot be proved objectively, and if true it provides a depressing example for those that build baseball teams, in the same way that complex models of government show that power resides in a sort of Jungian group mind rather than in a single individual such as a president. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests its verity. Casey Stengel once told Sparky Anderson: "Young man, if you've got two relief pitchers one of them will go bad next year. Get another one." Anderson didn't know why the statement is true, and chances are Stengel didn't either. Regardless, each winter the Ed Wades and Steve Phillips of the world sign themselves a quiver-full of Mike Stantons and Mike Timlins and often wind up with nothing but high payrolls and mediocre pitching staffs.
Pitchers are like Forrest Gump's box of chocolate. We can call this the Esteban Loaiza Phenomenon, or--here's another acronym for you--ELP. Parenthetically, I'm really hoping that some of these acronyms catch on, because if they do. those of us in the know can talk to each other in sabermetric jive.
"Hey, dawg. Whassup?"
Quick translation: LOOGY refers to Lefty One-Out Guy (various writers have popularized the term, including ESPN.com's John Sickels). SPURT = Steve Phillips Unexamined Reliever Trap. DOP-DOS = Drool Over Production-Don't Overrate Saves. A ROJAS is a Reliever Of Just Average Stuff. PARPOO = Pampered Ace Reliever, Pitches Only One. A CRP (pronounced "creep") is either Commodity Relief Product or Commonly Released Pitcher. A HOG is a Holds-Only Guy. What a great way to pick up girls!
By comparison, it is far easier to build great offenses than great staffs, which is why in baseball, as in life, bludgeoning your opponent is no guarantee of success. This year, the Boston Red Sox find themselves just a game and a half up in the American League Wild Card chase. Sporting the best offense in the majors, they run the risk of becoming the 27th member of the 900-plus runs club to fail to see October action. At this writing, anything from a Nomar Garciaparra hamstring injury to a butterfly sneezing in Beijing could cost the team its post-season slot.
Since the first lively ball was introduced in 1920, 58 clubs have scored 900 or more runs in a full season. Of those:
32 reached the post-season
26 failed to reach the post-season
Some of the 36 teams that either failed to reach the post-season or bowed out in the opening round of the playoffs ran strong races but simply fell prey to bad luck. In most other cases, cherchez le pitching. Consider the 1929 Detroit Tigers, an aggregation that scored a league-leading 926 runs, 25 more than the pennant-winning Philadelphia Athletics (104-46). The year of the Stock Market crash was an offensive year, with the American League posting a .756 OPS. The Tigers came in at .813 in a neutral park. The A's (hitter's park) and the Yankees (pitcher's park, 88-56 record in second place) were at .815. Based on their hitting, the Tigers should have been able to stick with the front runners.
It didn't happen. The Kitties won only 70 games en route to a sixth-place finish. Defense was likely a problem, as the club lacked a regular shortstop and employed two natural designated hitters, Harry Heilmann and Dale Alexander, in the field. First baseman Alexander was particularly noted for his strong bat (.343-25-137 triple crown stats that year) and defensive range not unlike that of a bas relief.
The second complication was TINSWTBAPS. Prior to the season, the Tigers had acquired righty George Uhle from the Cleveland Indians. A three-time 20-game winner on the Cuyahoga, Uhle was just decent for the Tigers in 1929. As for the incumbents, Vic Sorrell was dominant from 1930-1934, but a whipping boy in 1929. Twenty-six-year-old Ownie Carroll, 16-12 with a 3.27 ERA in 1928, had already had the last good year of his career.
Some other great offenses that didn't make it to the big dance, and why they fell short:
The 1922 St. Louis Browns
The '22 Browns had every reason to win the American League pennant. They outscored the pennant-winning Yankees 867-758 and also led the league in ERA, just shading the Yankees 3.38 to 3.39 despite pitching in a more difficult park for pitchers. The Browns had a tremendous offensive unit, featuring George Sisler, who pounded out 246 hits to earn a .420 batting average, and one of the greatest outfield units of all time, Ken Williams, and Jack Tobin. Jacobsen and Tobin were just good average hitters, but Williams was spectacular in 1922, posting the first 30-30 season (.332-39-155, 37 stolen bases).
The pitching staff featured Urban Shocker, a dominant righty who might have gone to the Hall of Fame had a heart condition not done him in at 35. Ironically, Shocker had been dealt to the Browns by Yankees manager Miller Huggins because Huggins had been told that Shocker was a troublemaker. Actually, pretty much everyone Huggins kept was a troublemaker, while Shocker was just a guy with a bad ticker. In 1924, Huggins would send three pitchers to the Brownies to undo the trade. Shocker was 24-17 in 1922.
St. Louis' loss of the pennant came down to a poor record in head-to-head competition against the guys they had to beat. The Browns and the Yankees paced each other throughout the summer. At the end of July, the Yankees trailed the Browns by a game and a half, but the disparity was artificial. Babe Ruth and Bob Meusel had missed the first month of the season due to a suspension for rogue barnstorming imposed by Judge Landis. Ruth, who seemed to be out of his mind that year, later faced further suspension for umpire abuse and for going into the stands after a heckler. As such, the Yankees didn't really get rolling until late in the season. When the Yankees visited St. Louis in mid-September, they took two out of three games in a series featuring fan violence and a kind of meltdown by St. Louis manager Lee Fohl in which he started running pitchers in and out of the games like Tony La Russa on amphetamines, all in a pointless quest to shut down the Yankees. The Browns' record of 8-14 versus New York fated them to finish one game behind the leader in the final standings.
The 1933 New York Yankees
The Yankees scored 927 runs to the pennant-winning Washington Senators' 850. The disparity is a tough thing to judge because the Senators' home field, Griffith Stadium, was so effective at killing home runs that their power numbers looked like something out of the dead ball era (60 cumulative home runs), even though we know that hitters like Joe Cronin and Goose Goslin actually had more over-the-fence power than that.
There is no disputing what the Yankees had. Ruth, slowing but still a devastating force, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Bill Dickey, Ben Chapman--the whole Yankees schmeer. As mentioned above, the problem was the pitching staff. Manager Joe McCarthy was not a believer in having a set pitching rotation. If a pitcher found a ball under his cap when he came into the locker room to get dressed, that meant he was pitching. This put tremendous pressure on McCarthy and his nightly bottle of White Horse to pick the correct match-up each day. In '33, the White Horse spoke falsely more often than not; despite the presence of a handful of good pitchers, the Yankees came up a little short that year.
The 1950 Boston Red Sox and Brooklyn Dodgers
The '50 Sox were the last team to bat .300 and the last team to score 1,000 runs for nearly half a century. The shortstop drove in 144 runs, the left fielder was the greatest hitter of all-time, and the utility infielder won the batting title. Still, somehow everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. Manager Joe McCarthy and the White Horse were talking to each other even more than they used to, and though their intentions were very clear to each other, they could no longer articulate them to anyone else. Ted Williams was lost for six weeks after fracturing an elbow in the All-Star Game. McCarthy's replacement, affable Steve O'Neill, plugged the aforementioned utility player, Billy Goodman, into Williams' slot and he did very well, but of course he wasn't Williams. The pitching was a little bit short, and as is traditional with the Red Sox, everyone knew it but no one could fix it. Finally, defense was a problem. Shortstop Junior Stephens (.295-30-144) was Cal Ripken with the bat, erratic with the glove.
The pennant-winning Yankees had an offense that was nearly as good, especially considering park factors, a shortstop with great range who also had an MVP season with the bat in Phil Rizzuto, and one of the more solid pitching rotations of all-time in Vic Raschi, Eddie Lopat, and Allie Reynolds. Whitey Ford, just 21, made 20 appearances and chipped in a 9-1 record. The Red Sox were mountain high, but the Yankees were river deep.
The Dodgers of 1950 were another team like the Browns, a woulda coulda shoulda club. The Bums had Don Newcombe, Preacher Roe, and pray for Armageddon. Still, with a league-leading offense featuring all the usual Boys of Summer suspects, the Dodgers bashed their way into contention. Trailing the Phillies by nine games in mid-September, the Dodgers closed to within one game on the last day of the season. That day, Robin Roberts of the Phils would match up against Newcombe. The Dodgers had to win to force a three-game playoff. The game went to extra innings after a famously bad baserunning blunder by Cal Abrams resulted in the Dodgers' go-ahead run being thrown out at the plate. Dick Sisler put the pennant away for the Phillies in the 10th. Thus was the race lost by one run, though overall Brooklyn outscored Philadelphia 847-722.
Teams in Brief: the 1978-1980 Milwaukee Brewers, 1985 New York Yankees, and 1996 Seattle Mariners
Powered by homegrown stars like Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, and Gorman Thomas, then augmented by Harry Dalton's infusion of free agent Larry Hisle and Tigers tradee Ben Oglivie, the Brewers were the offensive terror of the American League in the late 1970s, yet failed to win anything. Their problem was what it always has been, TINSWTBAPS. The career leader for wins with the Brewers, 1969 to present, is Jim Slaton with 117. Perhaps more so than any other team, the Brewers have failed to develop and retain pitching.
The 1985 Yankees were in the midst of a streak wherein free agent signings cost the team its first-round draft pick in nine of 10 years. It's tough to sign polished college pitchers when they are off the board by the time you draft. As such, the Yankees were dependent on imports like Phil Niekro (at the high end) and Rich Bordi (not the high end). Rickey Henderson, Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield, and Willie Randolph made for an OBP-packed lineup, but Niekro, Ron Guidry, and closer Dave Righetti were not equal to foiling the assassins that made up the rest of the staff. Add in some of the usual Billy Martin/George Steinbrenner weirdness and the Yankees came up two games short.
The 1996 Mariners scored 993 runs. Four players drove in and scored more than 100 runs. Randy Johnson got hurt and Jamie Moyer was not acquired until the end of the season, so the best starter was Sterling Hitchcock. That was all she wrote. The M's finished 4.5 games behind a just-decent Rangers club.
Hitters are generally a consistent lot. Allowing for age and park factors, a hitter can be counted on to perform within a specific range, the odd Pat Burrell cratering aside. As such, if you make it a point to acquire Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Tony Lazzeri, you have a good choice of fielding the 1927 Yankees. Conversely, you could pick up Urban Shocker, Herb Pennock, and Waite Hoyt and your pitching staff still might be no better than that of last year's Royals.
Pitchers are capricious things, as this year's Red Sox found out. Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe seemed like a solid top of the rotation. One out of two ain't bad, but it's not what they expected. Many of the pitchers acquired for the bullpen didn't perform, so the club went out and acquired more of them. Good pitchers all, bad Red Sox this year.
Meanwhile, with the exception of Jeremy Giambi, every hitter the Sox have touched has turned to gold. The Sox have good management with good intentions, yet their hurlers thwart them. If come the fall Boston is on the outside of the playoffs looking in, the villain will be TINSWTBAPS. When it comes to pitching, we are fortune's fools.
Steven Goldman is a frequent contributor to BP as well as the author of the Pinstriped Bible for Yesnetwork.com. His history of Casey Stengel's early years will be published by Brassey's in 2004. Though Mr. Goldman cannot cook and is hopeless at tennis, your questions, comments, and recipes for cocktails Joe McCarthy should have been drinking are welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org.