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June 2, 2004

Breaking Balls

The Modestly Productive Column

by Derek Zumsteg

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While watching baseball this Memorial Day, I started to think about how different each team's offense is. Watching the Mariners lose this season has been tougher because they're so goddamned boring. There's no variety of in the outcomes: Pretty much, they're going to slap a single, or they'll make an out.

So I ran the stats and...yeah, the Mariners are one of the most boring teams in baseball. When a Mariner batter comes up to the plate, there's a 17% chance he'll hit a single. Of all their hits, 72%--seventy-two-freaking-percent--are singles. Only the Padres matched that. The second most frequent event in a Mariners event is the exciting strikeout (ooh, Boone really took a cut at that one).

Which is the most boring team to watch, though?


               Leading      Most
               Event        Frequent
Team           Percentage   Event
------------------------------------
Cincinnati     20%          K
Milwaukee      20%          K
NY Mets        19%          K
Atlanta        19%          K
Colorado       19%          K
Boston         18%          K
Baltimore      18%          1B
Detroit        17%          K/1B
St. Louis      17%          K
Los Angeles    17%          1B
Pittsburgh     17%          K
Oakland        17%          K
Anaheim        17%          1B
Toronto        17%          K
San Diego      17%          1B
Philadelphia   17%          K
Seattle        17%          1B
Chicago Cubs   17%          K
Florida        16%          K
Texas          16%          K/1B
Cleveland      16%          K/1B
Houston        16%          K/1B
Chicago Sox    16%          1B
Kansas City    16%          K/1B
Minnesota      16%          1B
NY Yankees     16%          K
Tampa Bay      15%          K/1B
Arizona        15%          K
Montreal       14%          K/1B
San Francisco  14%          K/1B

Lots of ties on that list. What if we look at the two most frequent things a team does?

               Top Two
Team           Event Percentage
-------------------------------
Detroit        35%
Milwaukee      34%
Pittsburgh     34%
Cincinnati     34%
Boston         33%
Toronto        33%
Oakland        33%
Los Angeles    33%
Colorado       33%
NY Mets        33%
Atlanta        33%
Houston        32%
Seattle        32%
St. Louis      32%
Texas          32%
Cleveland      32%
Kansas City    32%
Florida        32%
Chicago Cubs   32%
Anaheim        32%
Chicago Sox    31%
Philadelphia   31%
Minnesota      31%
Baltimore      30%
San Diego      30%
Tampa Bay      30%
NY Yankees     29%
Montreal       29%
Arizona        28%
San Francisco  28%

That jumbles things up a little, but there's not much useful information to be gleaned there. The most crowd-pleasing teams so far in 2004 are the White Sox and Rockies, who hit home runs in 4% of their plate appearances. Fans love home runs, right?

And fans love seeing the ball put into play, even if it results in an out. We're told it's how you make things happen by nearly every color commentator.

Montreal leads the league in these modestly exciting outs: plate appearances that did not result in a hit, a walk, a strikeout, hit batter, or any kind of sacrifice. Montreal batters have grounded or flied out in 55% of their plate appearance. Meanwhile, over in Cincinnati, only 44% of their outs are modestly exciting. Modestly exciting out. That's kind of catchy. I wonder if it correlates to run scoring.

Holy mackerel, would you look at that? Modestly exciting outs do correlate to run scoring. This is going to shake baseball to its core: Teams that make modestly exciting outs in a higher percentage of their plate appearances score fewer runs. It's scientifically provable. Just look at these lists:


Top 5 Teams in Modestly Exciting Outs
-------------------------------------
Montreal
Tampa Bay
Arizona
Minnesota
San Diego


Bottom 5 Teams in Modestly Exciting Outs
----------------------------------------
Milwaukee
Detroit
Colorado
Boston
Cincinnati

Oh, I know what you're going to say: "Derek, does the world really need another junk stat that's just a barely modified proxy for on-base percentage? If a team doesn't make outs, they'll score more runs. That's just common sense."

My response: I can't hear you, and you should type up a nice email I can use in a future column.

What about looking at Modestly Exciting Outs as a ratio to other outs? (Did you notice I'm capitalizing it already? In fact, I'm so worried that Elias is going to steal my idea that I've already copyrighted it in book form, like those helpful guys who name stars after people.)

I looked at each team's ratio of Modestly Exciting Outs (MEO) to other outs. What I found is that teams with the lowest ratios of other outs to Modestly Exciting Outs score--barely--more runs than their Modestly Exciting Out-producing opponents. It's a weak correlation, sure, just .377, and I already see that it's deeply flawed in a couple of ways. But if the big stat companies can promote stuff even less applicable than that, then so can I.

Joking aside, this is actually interesting. Ground-fly outs/strikeouts has a strong correlation to run scoring: the more strikeouts as a percentage of a team's total out share--I mean, uh, Out Share, a new innovative statistic, oh, I give up--the more runs that team scores. Now, correlation is not causation, as we'll tell anyone who listens to us (or even anyone who doesn't listen to us). Shannon Stewart joining your team before a nice run doesn't make Shannon Stewart the cause of that run.

For instance, power hitters generally strike out a lot, walk more than average, and score more runs. All three of those things, no matter how you measure them, will have a high correlation with run scoring. All this really shows is that if putting the ball in play was so important, teams that made most of their outs that way would score just as many runs as the teams that swung hard and often.

The most obvious objection here is that if putting the ball in play often is successful, generating lots of hits, then the infrequent strikeout would generate a disproportionate number of outs.

Let's check that out, and look at balls put into play by contact (MEO+H) versus strikeouts. Again, the correlation is negative and weak. Teams that put the ball in play more as a percent of at-bats, whether it results in hits or outs, are somewhat more likely to score fewer runs than patient, whiffing teams.

It's weird that poking into how boring my hometown team is can lead to something useful, but that's what's really cool about these kind of investigations. Now if I could only find some way to keep my blood pressure low while I'm watching the Mariners rap out those singles, I'd be in business.

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