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May 7, 2008

You Could Look It Up

Strange Relations

by Steven Goldman

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Today, I'd like to present to you something of a work in progress. Just as we use PECOTA to gain insight into the future performance of today's players by comparing them to players of the past, I thought it might be instructive, or at the very least entertaining, to try the same thing on a team level, and look at broad similarities between offensive output and pitching results of teams of the last fifty years.

In this first stage, the plan was to look at the offenses of the 16 teams that had reached the 30-game mark as of last Friday, May 2, normalize the stats, and then compare across the years. I was guided in this by BP stats wizards Clay Davenport and William Burke. Here is how Clay described the process by which we compared teams:

My basic idea was to:

a) translate the stats of all teams from 1957-2008
b) define five axes of performance
1- Hits per contact, ignore strikeouts (H/(AB-SO))
2 - Power, as total bases per hit (TB/H)
3- Walk rate (BB/PA)
4- Strikeout rate (K/PA)
5- Speed (2*SB+CS)/(1B+BB)
c) determine the average value and standard deviation on each axis
d) rate the team by a normalized difference (Power-AvgPower)/(SDPower)
e) square and then sum each of the five components
f) smallest difference is the closest match

Thirteen of the sixteen teams had their closest match score, based on the sum of the differentials, less than 1.0. The Giants' closest match had a 1.41 score, the A's closest match had a 1.53, and the Cardinals' closest match was at 2.43, making them the most unique offense to date this year. Actually, the closest matches for the A's and Cardinals were each other; I ignored those and went to the next-best scores.

One key factor that Clay leaves out: we were comparing teams at the same point in the season, the 30-game mark. Here are the top six matches produced by the latest Davenport Method:

Toronto Blue Jays: 1991 Seattle Mariners (83-79/5th/12 GB) .21
The first winning team in Seattle history, the 1991 Mariners had a substandard offense with some intriguing parts that presaged better years in the future. Edgar Martinez, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Jay Buhner hit quite well, and could be counted upon to do so again. Tino Martinez played briefly and hit quite poorly, but he would soon replace first baseman Pete O'Brien, one of several veterans on the club who didn't hit. Other youngsters playing and struggling were Omar Vizquel, who had a future, and Pee-Wee Briley, who did not. The other chief aged culprits for inoffensiveness beyond O'Brien were catcher Dave Valle, second baseman Harold Reynolds, and designated hitter Alvin Davis. Both teams had strong pitching staffs, the Mariners sporting a slightly younger group headed by Randy Johnson, then in only his third full season. The Mariners would ride the core of this team (plus Alex Rodriguez) to multiple post-season appearances under Lou Piniella. The Jays, who don't have anything like that kind of group to build around, don't have the same potential for growth.

Cincinnati Reds: 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks (51-111/5th/42 GB) .21
This Bob Brenly production probably deserves a space on the short list of worst teams of all time. Thirteen years later, Randy Johnson appears again, but he and Brandon Webb were the only bright spots of substance on the pitching staff, not enough to overcome a team EqA of .236. Luis Gonzalez was the best hitter on the team by a good margin, but he batted only .259/.373/.493, almost all of it at home; he hit only .219/.349/.411 outside of Phoenix. The team as a whole batted .240/.298/.363 when traveling, and finished 15th in the league in walks drawn. The Reds aren't quite that bad, but we're looking at the Diamondbacks at their nadir. Will the Reds hit their own low point this season? It largely depends on whether Adam Dunn gets traded, and if that leads to more playing time for the likes of Corey Patterson instead of Jay Bruce. Even as presently constituted, they're a small decline in walks and a park illusion or two away from a total offensive breakdown.

Philadelphia Phillies: 1973 Boston Red Sox (89-73/2nd/8 GB) .22
Right now, the Phillies' offense can be boiled down to Chase Utley, Pat Burrell, Jayson Werth, and a lot of reasons to head to the concession stand. The '73 Sox were a more broad-based offense, though they did have their sinkholes, with second baseman Doug Griffin (a career .245/.299/.299, .222 EqA hitter) and shortstop Luis Aparicio (.271/.324/.309 in the final season of his career) holding down the Eric Bruntlett/Pedro Feliz spots in the lineup. The rest of the group was solid, with the team getting big seasons from first baseman Carl Yastrzemski and center fielder Reggie Smith, as well as solid work from catcher Carlton Fisk, left fielder Tommy Harper (in the last year of a late-career four-season surge that saw the speedster peak in his age-29-32 seasons) and DH Orlando Cepeda. If the offense fell short, it was in the outfield corners, where youngsters Dwight Evans and Ben Oglivie weren't quite ready to contribute, allowing the inoffensive Rick Miller to work his way into a full-time role, a bad thing unless Miller hit .290, and he didn't. Another rookie who might have helped but didn't was first baseman Cecil Cooper. In a September experiment that Red Sox Nation would probably prefer to forget, the Sox attempted to get Cooper into the lineup and simultaneously replace fading third baseman Rico Petrocelli by moving Yaz to third. Cooper hit .238/.284/.347, while Yaz made 12 errors in 33 games. The 1973 Red Sox offense was ultimately unspectacular, probably also the Phils' destiny even when Ryan Howard resuscitates his bat and Jimmy Rollins returns from the DL. There's simply too much Feliz and Ruiz for the team to reprise last year's scoring machine.

Boston Red Sox: 2004 Detroit Tigers (72-90/4th/20 GB) .29
It was evil pitching that brought down the 2004 Tigers, not hitting, as they received several strong seasons from among their hitters, and two spectacular ones-the last good year of Ivan Rodriguez's career to date (.334/.383/.510) and Carlos Guillen's breakout Arky Vaughan-like year (.318/.379/.542). They also loved to strike out, didn't dig walking, and had Eric Munson, post-peak Bobby Higginson, and Alex Sanchez as lineup regulars (though Sanchez was the best Alex Sanchez he could be at .322/.335/.386). The Red Sox are a David Ortiz surge from blowing this comparison away-and in his last ten games, Ortiz is hitting .317 with five home runs in 41 at bats.

Washington Nationals: 1959 Baltimore Orioles (74-80/6th/20 GB) .33
The Orioles scored 3.6 runs a game in a league that averaged almost 4.4; the Nats are scoring 3.9 a game in a league that averages 4.6. I think we get this comp. There are other similarities, of course: both teams had glove-first third basemen who struggled with the bat (in the Orioles' case, a 22-year-old Brooks Robinson), and one player who had a season that was ugly on the surface but sabermetrically sound beneath-the Nats' Nick Johnson and Orioles catcher Gus Triandos. Triandos was a super-slow runner, and had a season in which he either homered or had to be carried around the bases: .216/.330/.430, with only 85 hits, 25 of which were home runs and seven were doubles. He also hit the last triple of his career (which would extend until 1965)-it was hit to deep right-center at against the A's in Kansas City. The defenders were the great Bill Tuttle and Zeke Bella; I figure at least one of them must have fallen down.

Seattle Mariners: 1990 Seattle Mariners (77-85/5th/26 GB) .34
This is the same group, with many of the same weaknesses, as the 1991 team above. It was simply a year further away from coming together. Jay Buhner was injured for two-thirds of the season, leaving the M's little choice but to give too much trigger time to the likes of Henry Cotto and Jeffrey Leonard, whose 14-year career petered to its end with a .251/.305/.356 showing. The erstwhile "Hackman's" -1.5 VORP wasn't nearly as deadly to the team as Pete O'Brien's -10.4, eighth-worst in baseball that season. Here's a lesson for all managers and general managers: if you go through a whole season with your first baseman hitting .224/.308/.314, you're not really trying. O'Brien did sit for an injury, but wasn't benched until mid-September, at which point the club gave young Tino Martinez a try. O'Brien was a solid defensive first baseman who had hit .280/.355/.447 for the Rangers from 1984-1988; decent rates, above-average as far as the average player went, but not anything special given a league in which the other first basemen included Don Mattingly, Eddie Murray, Darrell Evans, Kent Hrbek, and Alvin Davis. O'Brien had even slid off to .260/.356/.372 the year before he was signed by the Mariners, and at 32 he wasn't young, so they shouldn't have been thinking they were getting Lou Gehrig. Unfortunately, they would give O'Brien another thousand at-bats before they got the point. At least the leadership of the current version of the Mariners is taking more aggressive action to shake up their lineup before they sink beneath their lack of offense. Whether they made the right cuts, or even enough cuts, in axing Brad Wilkerson and reducing Jose Vidro's role when there are so many more weak bats to kill seems less important in this context than their willingness to try.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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