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October 12, 2007
Letís Get Loaded and See What Happens
Who are your three best friends in the world? I'll tell you who they are-the three guys on your favorite team who find themselves on base simultaneously. When the bags are juiced and the camera pans around the infield showing the three baserunners and the announcer says their names, don't you say to yourself, "Man, I love those guys!"
Why shouldn't you? They've conspired to do a wonderful thing: give your team the potential to do untold damage to its opponent. Being a batter with the bases loaded is the baseball equivalent to being a fat man heading into an all-you-can-eat barbecue restaurant-well, at least in terms of potential. The analogy falls apart because, barring a fire or heart attack, the fat man will eat. The batter might not necessarily succeed, however.
In fact, more than half of the time, he will not succeed. For the years 2001-2007, these are the frequencies of scoring in any given plate appearances with the bases loaded:
Zero runs: 53.22% One run: 28.22% Two runs: 12.73% Three runs: 3.09% Four runs: 2.74%
These frequencies are fairly consistent, too. It's not like it was 63 percent last year and 47 percent the year before-year to year, the range is 51.9 percent to 55.1. The grand slam rate has repeatedly been 2.6 to 2.9 percent this century and the other three eventualities are also similarly steady.
Batters do tend to hit better overall with the pads frogged. On the whole, major leaguers had a batting average 24 points higher with the bases loaded as opposed to overall in 2007. I got to thinking about bases loaded situations last night because much was being made of how well Brad Hawpe, Garrett Atkins, and Troy Tulowitzki did in that situation for the Rockies during the 2007 season. All three posted OPS figures over 1100 with the bases full, which certainly seems impressive. Is this special, though? Let's put it this way-it might not be special, but it sure beats the alternative. A dozen men cracked a 1000 OPS in the loaded realm in 2007. Should we expect players to hit better with the bags tanked, then? Yes.
Still, though, this is a sample size issue to some extent. The major league leader in bases loaded plate appearances usually has around 32 (it's been 32 for the past three years straight, actually). Since the turn of the century, a dozen men have cracked 30 loaded PA. This leads to some serious fluctuations in numbers. For instance, here are the 10 best bases-loaded seasons since 2001:
Best loaded OPS since 2001
OPS Player Team 2126 Richie Sexson 2006 Mariners 1965 Sammy Sosa 2001 Cubs 1741 Jorge Posada 2002 Yankees 1712 Jeff Kent 2005 Dodgers 1688 Jeff Conine 2004 Mariners 1660 Phil Nevin 2001 Padres 1621 Ruben Sierra 2004 Yankees 1569 Mike Lieberthal 2003 Phillies 1551 Carlos Pena 2007 Devil Rays 1550 Magglio Ordonez 2002 White Sox
This is among players who were in the top 40 in loaded PA in each year. Sexson had 19 loaded PA and hit five grand slams. Now, here are the worst figures from the same seasons, with the same qualifying criterion:
Worst loaded OPS since 2001
OPS Player Team 168 Royce Clayton 2003 Brewers 182 Jose Cruz Jr. 2003 Giants 238 Mike Lieberthal 2002 Phillies 261 Shea Hillenbrand 2004 Diamondbacks 273 Jose Hernandez 2003 Cubs/Pirates/Rockies 292 Hideki Matsui 2007 Yankees 292 Miguel Tejada 2004 Orioles 302 Jorge Posada 2005 Yankees 319 David Bell 2003 Phillies 335 Chipper Jones 2004 Braves
Clayton had a single, a walk, and two sacrifice flies in 19 PA. Cruz had four walks, three sac flies, and no hits in 22 PA. Hideki Matsui had the worst loaded showing in 2007, with a line of .118/.174/.118 in 23 tries. He did have four sacrifice flies, but there's something maddening about a sacrifice fly with the bases loaded, isn't there? Don't get me wrong, it beats a strikeout, a pop out, a weak liner, or, heaven forbid, a double play, but what about those other two guys? Weren't they supposed to be scored, too? You hit a sac fly with a runner on third and nobody on first and second--that's really cool. It's like picking up a spare in bowling. But you hit one and leave two other guys waiting? I don't know, that seems like a cop-out to me.
One thing you'll notice is that Mike Lieberthal appears on both lists in back-to-back years. Jorge Posada, too, has gone to either extreme, having the third-best and eighth-worst marks in the span of four seasons. Shea Hillenbrand was over 1000 the year before he made the worst list, too. Another thing that must always be mentioned when parsing out a player's stat line is what they did overall. A player with a 900 OPS who manages 1100 when the bases are loaded hasn't really done anything too significant in the context of his own performance. We often hear about someone's wonderful record with runners in scoring position only to find it's right in line with what they're doing overall. The limited number of loaded opportunities is the breeding ground for huge swings in performance. While it's probably no surprise to find someone like Clayton with the worst mark of recent times, it should also be no surprise to find Chipper Jones on the same list, too. Just about anyone can have an OPS of 350 in any 18 given trips to the plate.
Getting back to Posada, he wasn't especially successful last year, either, posting a 536 while leading the majors in loaded opportunities. By and large, though, he's done a reputable job with the canvas jammed:
Year OPS 2007 1202 2006 536 (with the most bases-loaded PA in MLB) 2005 302 2004 1206 2003 1000 2002 1741 2001 1566
Again, these are very small sample sizes, ranging from the 17 to 32 PA. Posada's catching counterpart on the rival Red Sox has an interesting bases-loaded pedigree. Jason Varitek led the majors in loaded opportunities this year, and responded with a 601 OPS. This marks the fifth year in a row his OPS with the bases loaded was decidedly subpar:
Year OPS 2007 601 (most bases-loaded PA in MLB) 2006 675 2005 614 2004 554 2003 525 (second-most bases-loaded PA) 2002 950
It's interesting that a player so beloved for his gamer-ness has such a wretched record when the opportunity is best. I wouldn't make anything of it and would not hold it against him as a ballplayer, but it is curious because it's been so consistent for five seasons running. We can't leave the discussion of individual achievement in this discipline without taking a look at Alex Rodriguez's figures, if only for amusement purposes:
Year OPS OverallOPS 2007 1730 1067 2006 1289 915 2005 1321 1031 2004 438 887 2003 1643 996 2002 1203 1015 2001 636 1021
That's five over and two under. Know that Rodriguez has notably fewer loaded PA in this period than players like Posada and Varitek, so these sample sizes are even smaller still.
While on the subject of full bases, let's look at team success in that regard. Since 2001, the average team has had about 160 plate appearances with the sacks jacked. This is somewhat misleading, in that a team could have three such plate appearances in the same inning without scoring a single run. Keep that in mind when considering the teams with the most opportunities:
# Team(s) 245 2006 Yankees 241 2004 Giants 239 2005 and 2007 Red Sox 233 2005 Phillies
Naturally, we should also offer up the five clubs who have the fewest bases-loaded PA beginning in 2001:
# Team 81 2002 Tigers 96 2005 White Sox (you know, the champs) 97 2003 Tigers 99 2002 Orioles 100 2006 Devil Rays
The following teams had the best results with the bases loaded in terms of OPS. I've split the list by leagues since number eight hitters are sometimes walked to let pitchers bat with the bases loaded, so it's only fair for the National League to have its own accounting (15 of the top 20 are from the American League):American League
OPS Team 1122 2006 Indians 1073 2007 Tigers 1019 2006 White Sox 1014 2006 Rangers 1012 2004 White SoxNational League
And because failure can be amusing-especially in the extreme-these are the five worst teams since 2001:
OPS Team 475 2002 Tigers 496 2002 Marlins 506 2002 Phillies 511 2004 Devil Rays 531 2004 Dodgers
Not only did the '02 Tigers only load the bases about twice a week, they hardly did anything when they did manage the trick. The sum total of their bases-loaded offense amounts to 13 hits, three walks, nine sac flies, and a hit batsman. They did have a grand slam, however, something they have in common with 98 percent of the teams of the 21st Century to date. (Two of the five exceptions came this year, the 2007 editions of the Mets and the Royals.)
Had we extended the bottom-most list to 10, it would have included this year's LCS-bound Indians, who managed a ninth-worst team base-loaded OPS of 565. This is just about half of their fantastic 2006 mark (which was powered by no less than 14 grand slams), seen above as the best number of the century so far. What better illustration of the mercurial nature of this particular circumstance than that grand discrepancy?
Many thanks to William Burke for contributing data to this column.