August 22, 2007
I want to take a look at an old friend today. You may recall that in 2005 and 2006, I spent a lot of time talking about a statistic that, to me, put the lie to the narrative about the best AL teams in those seasons. The "smallball" White Sox of '05 were actually among the teams most reliant on the longball, with 42.4 percent of their runs scored on homers. That mark was fourth in MLB, and third in the AL. They hit homers, they pitched well, and they played defense, and the one-run strategies that they utilized didn't have much at all to do with their championship.
Last year, some of the same nonsense was brought out to establish the Tigers' bona fides as an old-fashioned baseball team, especially with the White Sox becoming even more obviously reliant on the long ball. The Tigers, however, were a carbon copy of the 2005 champs at the plate, a low-OBP, high-slugging team that relied on a short-sequence offense to score. They were also among the MLB leaders in the percentage of their runs scored on homers.
The two teams' good pitching and defense were the keys to their success, to be sure, and that's what many people in the mainstream media lighted upon in anointing their particular brand of baseball superior. The offenses, however, were as power-centric as any we've seen in the past few seasons. I'm not a big fan of attaching moral qualities to the ways in which teams win baseball games, and I'm even less attracted to the notion of making up things in the process of doing so.
In 2007, we're not reading these stories. There's no team that's said to be running and bunting and smallballing its way to the top, and we've been spared the invented storylines about how one team's success is a throwback to an earlier era.
Even as it's actually happening.
The Los Angeles Angels hold a two-game lead in the AL West, losing no ground while facing the Yankees to start off this week by first rallying for a 7-6 extra-inning comeback win on Monday, then pounding the Bombers last night. They are less reliant on the home run for their runs than any team in baseball, and it's not terribly close. Through Monday's games, Angels have scored a mere 22.8 percent of their runs on homers, and the overall figures of 88 homers and 143 runs on homers are both 28th in MLB. The Angels are what the media thought the 2005 White Sox were: a paean to the value of winning without going deep.
They're not a bad offensive team, either. In fact, the Angels in 2007 have a better EqA than either of the two teams listed above, and despite lacking much in the way of home run power, they have a slightly-above-average offense-a .261 EqA that ranks seventh in the AL and 14th in MLB. The Angels hit for a high batting average (.282), a key trait whenever they have a successful season which also enables them to have an above-average OBP (.341), the most important element in any offense. They hit doubles (260, fourth in the AL) and they steal bases (114, first in the AL, at a 72.6 percent clip, a positive rate). Dan Fox's research shows that they also pick up some runs on the bases in ways besides stealing them.
Why isn't this a bigger story? Well, I think it's in part because the Angels have been playing this style, more or less, since Mike Scioscia arrived. This year's team is an extreme application of the principle, but the Angels haven't been that reliant on the long ball in the 2000s. Rather than turning a bad team into a good one and making a story out of it, the Angels are simply doing what they've done for most of the decade, and there's not much of a fresh storyline there.
It is notable, however. It's very hard, in today's game, to have a good offense with so little home run power. The Angels have the closest thing going, and despite a game Mariners team just two behind them, are probably going to enter the postseason as the #2 team in the AL. I'll stand by the idea that the offense only works when the team bats .280, but sometimes you're going to hit .280, and they don't make you give back the playoff shares just because your plan actually worked.
Here's the full list of teams, in order of their percentage of runs scored on homers. Thanks to Bil Burke for putting this together:
Year Team R HR R on HR Pct 2007 MIL 597 177 277 .464 2007 CIN 591 163 255 .431 2007 CHA 531 137 217 .409 2007 FLO 604 153 235 .389 2007 OAK 562 133 218 .388 2007 HOU 557 127 213 .382 2007 CLE 613 138 233 .380 2007 TEX 584 131 218 .373 2007 ARI 539 131 198 .367 2007 PHI 670 155 243 .363 2007 SDN 534 118 188 .352 2007 NYA 741 156 260 .351 2007 TBA 558 134 195 .349 2007 ATL 626 135 218 .348 2007 NYN 593 133 205 .346 2007 TOR 566 124 190 .336 2007 DET 692 141 229 .331 2007 SEA 613 118 198 .323 2007 SFN 539 102 173 .321 2007 SLN 543 111 174 .320 2007 COL 629 119 200 .318 2007 BOS 643 120 196 .305 2007 WAS 486 85 146 .300 2007 BAL 565 95 168 .297 2007 PIT 553 111 161 .291 2007 MIN 552 93 159 .288 2007 CHN 575 102 164 .285 2007 LAN 547 90 140 .256 2007 KCA 566 83 133 .235 2007 ANA 626 88 143 .228