June 21, 2005
Can Of Corn
Running to Stand Still
If you wanted to marshal a case that the maligned and embattled Jason Giambi is having a better season than fan and media kvetching would lead you to believe, you'd likely point to his strong .384 OBP. While he's batting only .238 on the season, he's still flashing his customary and excellent plate discipline (29 unintentional walks in 198 plate appearances) so the high OBP isn't all that surprising. In fact, Giambi, if he had a qualifying number of plate appearances for the season, would rank 12th in the AL in OBP. So not bad, right? Giambi's still conferring meaningful value to his team because he's getting on base at such a strong clip. Most assuredly, he's not providing return on the dollar, and his power numbers are patently inadequate for a first baseman/DH, but he's still somewhat useful. Right?
I'm not so sure. It may be surprising that Giambi, despite toting around a lofty OBP, playing for the third-best offense in baseball and being slated for more than 450 plate appearances, is on pace to score only 47 runs on the season. The weaknesses of counting stats like runs scored are legion and well known in these quarters, but they do have meaning at the margins. This is one of those margins. While Giambi's ineptitude when it comes to touching home plate isn't historically unprecedented, it's still pretty grim. Let's look at some numbers.
Confining the sample to players logging at least 450 plate appearances for the season in question and playing for an offense that ranked no worse than fifth in the majors in runs scored, here are lowest individual run totals under those conditions:
Player Team PA OBP Runs Rico Petrocelli '75 Red Sox 451 .310 31 Del Rice '53 Cardinals 473 .323 32 Mickey Doolan '13 Phillies 549 .262 32 Tom Jones '10 Tigers 477 .325 32 Earl Battey '64 Twins 465 .348 33 Hal Lanier '70 Giants 461 .265 33 Ben Molina '02 Angels 453 .274 34 Lena Blackburne '18 Reds 461 .271 34 Al Bridwell '13 Cubs 480 .358 35 Tommy Helms '68 Reds 524 .305 35As mentioned, Giambi is on pace for 47 runs scored this season, which means he isn't in imminent danger of making the above list. However, his OBP of .384 is a full 26 points higher than the top OBP on the list. So why is he having such trouble scoring runs despite otherwise accommodating factors? Part of it is that for much of the season he's batted in front of the feckless duo of Bernie Williams and Tony Womack (and the fact that the Yankees have hit a mere .234/.294/.355 with Giambi on base), but part of it is also Giambi's lamentable base-running skills. In the few Yankee games I've seen this season, watching Giambi on the base paths called to mind Dom DeLuise in a wading pool of pancake syrup. In this case, the numerical evidence backs up the anecdotal.
In terms of Speed Scores, the Bill James concoction designed to provide a thumbnail glance at a player's fleetness of foot, Giambi fares poorly even by first base/DH standards. Consider the following:
Player/Position Speed Score AL 1B 4.44 AL DH 4.20 Giambi 2.54Giambi's Speed Score is only 57.2% of that of the average AL first baseman and only 60.5% of that of the average DH. (And keep in mind that first basemen and designated hitters are, presumably, the slowest players on the diamond.) Watch the Yankees play even a few times this season, and you'll notice that Giambi has much difficulty in going from first to third on a single, scoring from first on a double or reaching home from second on a shallow outfield hit. It's enough to make Yankee partisans long to drag the fleeting Herb Washington prototype howling from the vaults. Furthermore, when Giambi does indulge in his lone "core competency" these days--getting on base--he's on first the overwhelming majority of the time.
Excluding his five home runs this season, Giambi has been on base 71 times, and on 66 of those occasions (93.0% of the time) he's begun at first base. When Giambi's on first, it'll more often than not take two or three hits to score him, and it certainly affords the defense rather leisurely pivots on groundball double plays (and considering Giambi's posting his highest groundball/fly-ball ratio since his rookie season, it's something of a miracle he's hit into only three DPs this year). In other words, in many ways Giambi in 2005 is an object lesson in the limits of OBP. Getting on base is an indisputably good thing, but if you lack the wheels to provide your team with even mediocre base running, the genuine value of that OBP is lessened significantly.
It's perhaps tempting to look beyond Giambi's conspicuous struggles and conclude he's not all that bad because he's avoiding outs in almost 40% of his plate appearances. While avoiding outs is an admirable skill, the prevailing objective is to score runs. He's not doing that, and I suspect his appalling lack of speed has much to do with it.
James Click contributed research to this article.