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August 22, 2007

Prospectus Today

Real-Deal Paragons

by Joe Sheehan

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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

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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