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January 26, 2007

Prospectus Matchups

Mommy, It's a Stray Datum! Can We Keep It?

by Jim Baker

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Every once in a while, someone at BP will have a stat question, get the information and then realize the results don't quite fit whatever they're working on. What, then, is to be done with these orphan lists? Rescue them and let the people see them, of course. In today's column, we see just such a list: the Expansion Era teams that were shut out in the highest percentage of their games.

Since 1959, 91 teams have been shut out in at least 10 percent of their games. Today, we're going to focus on the five most easily white-washed among them and reminisce fondly about those lineups that offered so little challenge to opposing pitchers.

1981 Toronto Blue Jays: shut out 20 times in 106 games (18.9%)
Yes, we're including strike-year teams in this concordance because, frankly, they always get left out and, hell, they showed up for work two-thirds of the time and that's got to be worth some recognition.

You know how even the worst teams have one day where it all comes together for them and they get a bunch of hits and beat somebody's brains out? That never happened for the '81 Jays. They didn't reach double figures in a single game all year. For Alfredo Griffin connoisseurs, 1981 was a vintage year. In his 14 seasons with more than 100 plate appearances, this was his lowest EqA, a sterling achievement in a career that produced a .227 mark. Incredibly, Griffin's .190 was not the lowest EqA on the team that year. That belonged to the much-maligned Danny Ainge at .187. Ainge was especially brutal in the shutouts, going .080/.098/.100 in 51 plate appearances in the 16 of them in which he appeared. Although they were the worst, in the context of this team Griffin and Ainge were in the majority, as only five '81 Jays had positive VORPs: John Mayberry (18.1), Otto Velez (9.3), Ted Cox (3.4 in just 55 PA), Buck Martinez (2.0) and Damaso Garcia (1.4).

When it came to blankings as support mechanisms, the Jays were pretty egalitarian. Dave Stieb was on the losing end of four of them, including the two 1-0 games. Jim Clancy lost three, as did Juan Berenguer. Luis Leal got stuck with four of them. The guy I really feel for, though, is Jackson Todd. He started just 13 games and the Jays gave him nothing four times. While the other four got more chances to further their careers, that was the end of Todd's big league experience.

1972 Texas Rangers: shut out 27 times in 154 games (17.5%)
This is the team that turned Ted Williams into a foul-mouthed, irascible, embittered man. What's that you say? He was already like that before he became a manager? Well this team made it worse, then. The Rangers set the tone for the season by losing their inaugural game to the Angels 1-0 and getting shut out by the White Sox 14-0 two games later. They had only one player in double figures in VORP, Toby Harrah at 16.7. These Rangers, unlike the '81 Jays, could cut loose once in a while. They scored 16 runs against the Twins on May 27 and got into double figures four other times. Still, though, they are in the tiny minority of teams since the Deadball Era that failed to score three runs per game, coming in at 2.99. They actually weren't the lowest scoring team that year, however, as the Angels managed just 2.93 per game. That outburst against the Twins kept Texas from being worst.

1967 New York Mets: shut out 26 times in 162 games (16.0%)
Excuse me while I wipe a tear from my eye. This was the first team I ever rooted for and, given their presence on this list, is it any wonder that I waded chin-deep into the offensive explosion of the late '90s? The deprivations of youth often lead to latter-day gluttony. The first live major league pitch I ever saw thrown was by Bill Denehy. He walked the first batter, got an out and then gave up a home run to Billy Williams, pretty much dooming a team for which two runs was a great mountain often left unclimbed. These were the Mets' run totals in Denehy's eight starts in 1967: 0,1,0,0,6,0,0,1. That's what we call Binary Support. Not surprisingly, given the era, their ballpark, and the quality of their hitters, many Mets teams of this time period appear on the 10-percent shut out list. The '69 club isn't there, of course, but the 1963-68 teams are. Conspicuous by its absence is the infamous 1962 Mets team. They were only shut out six times.

1981 Chicago Cubs: shut out 17 times in 106 games (16.0%)
Bill Buckner (30.3 VORP, eighth in the league) had a very good year in '81 and Leon Durham and Steve Henderson were passable. After that, though, the Cubs weren't trotting a lot out there. You can also make the case that any team that gave Ivan DeJesus 11.5% of its plate appearances and batted him leadoff was begging to get goose-egged. (He batted first or second in 88 of their games.) You could make the case that a 1981 team didn't have time for correction and that, given a full-length season, the percentage of shutouts would have dropped. A.) There's no guarantee of that. B.) It's much more fun this way.

1968 Pittsburgh Pirates: shut out 21 times in 141 games (14.9%)
It should come as no great shock that a team from 1968 is represented here. That it turns out to be the Pittsburgh Pirates should raise an eyebrow or two. The Pirates finished fifth in the league in scoring (3.58 runs per game) and finished just two games below .500. What is more, they outscored their opponents by almost 50 runs, although a significant chunk of that gap came in a 19-1 thrashing of the Reds on August 21. A week after that they were shut out three times in a row by Bob Gibson, Milt Pappas, and Ray Washburn. That was the second time that season they were blanked three times consecutively.

Still, it doesn't seem possible that a team with Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell could get whitewashed so often, 1968 or not. Those two missed a combined 64 games that year but did appear in 14 of the shutouts together, usually back-to-back in the lineup. In only three of those games did the both have hits. In their mutually-supporting shutout appearances, Clemente went 9-for-42 and Stargell, who didn't have a particularly good year, was 6-for-52.

The next five:
1978 Atlanta Braves: shut out 24 times in 162 games (14.8%)
1968 Chicago White Sox: shut out 23 times in 162 games (14.2%)
1976 San Diego Padres: shut out 23 times in 162 games (14.2%)
1969 San Diego Padres: shut out 23 times in 162 games (14.2%)
1968 Los Angeles Dodgers: shut out 22 times in 159 games (13.8%)

Three of the next five are among the lowest scoring teams of modern times, as the '68 White Sox (2.86), '69 Padres (2.89), and '68 Dodgers (2.90) all failed to crack three runs per game. Teams of recent times are under-represented on the 10-percent shut out list. Only eight clubs since 1991 have had this experience and only four since things started to take off offensively. They are:

2005 Houston Astros: shut out in 17 of 163 games (10.4%)
2003 Detroit Tigers: shut out in 17 of 162 games (10.5%)
1998 Tampa Bay Devil Rays: shut out in 17 of 162 games (10.5%)
1995 St. Louis Cardinals: shut out in 19 of 143 games (13.3%)

Getting blanked this often in our most-recent era is the equivalent to being at the greatest party in the world and spending the whole shindig crying quietly in a closet. The '95 Cardinals were last in the league in scoring but had the best outfield in the league that year in the persons of Ray Lankford, Bernard Gilkey, and Brian Jordan. One would assume the presence of those three in a lineup would help avoid complete offensive breakdowns. The Devil Rays didn't know any better, giving over a third of the team's plate appearances to players like Kevin Stocker, Mike Kelly, Paul Sorrento, and Rich Butler, all of whom were well under replacement level. Getting shut out a lot was the least of the '03 Tigers' worries.

The '05 Astros are one of the better teams in the 10-percent club (the league champion '66 Dodgers are members as well). Famously, nine of their 17 blankings came with Roger Clemens on the mound. This pretty much cost him the Cy Young Award, as he was easily the best pitcher in the National League that year. So, as we have seen in the cases of Jackson Todd, Bill Denehy, and Clemens, these are not victimless crimes.

Thanks to Christina Kahrl for initiating the list and William Burke for compiling it.

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