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May 9, 2008
In these early-season times, let us venture beyond the frontier of normalcy to a place I like to call the Outlier Outpost. From the slits cut in the walls of the outpost, we can see the strange and abnormal numbers that don't conform to what everyone else is doing or to what we've come to expect. Let's take a look at what's out there (please note that all stats are through Wednesday).
Derek Jeter: So far in 2008, Jeter has been a human outlier--at least in the context of his own career. For instance, he has zero home runs and zero steals; he's had at least 12 of each over the past three seasons. While it is not out of the ordinary for a 15/15 man to go to the one-fifth marker without dong one or the other, to not have partaken either seems a bit out there. What is more, Jeter is putting the ball in play like never before. He's only walked four times in 128 plate appearances and struck out 10 times. Jeter is usually good for three figures on the whiffs (he's also had 99 three times and his career low of 88 came the year that a wayward catcher landed on his shin guards first). Meanwhile, his teammate Jason Giambi is cranking one of the most productive sub-.200 batting averages you'd ever want to see.
Padres staying put: The San Diego Padres aren't going anywhere. I don't mean that figuratively, either. What I mean is that when they get to first base, they are staying put. In fact, if they keep staying put the way they have been so far in 2008, they could well end up with the fewest steal attempts of the 21st Century. Through Wednesday, they had tried 10 steals. As is often the case in the Crime Pays Era (average steal success rates are in the three-quarter range), they've been successful all but twice.
Not surprisingly, starting in 2001 the bottom 10 are mostly American League teams. Also not surprisingly, eight of those teams are entries from Boston, Toronto, and Oakland. The exceptions are the 2006 Rangers and the 2004 Giants. The lowest of all are the 2005 A's with 53 attempts. (This is a little higher than the rate the Padres are currently trying to steal.) Looking at just National League teams, these are the five lowest:
66: 2004 Giants
Is it a question of a paucity of baserunners? Not really. San Diego (9.6) is just about at the median (9.7) in terms of runners on first per game. So, is this a case of players just not doing something in the early going, or is it more indicative of the kind of talent that is on hand? Let's look at the recent theft rates of the Padres' players:
Looking at this group and being fairly liberal on guesses about how many times they'll try to steal, I would say that 45 to 50 tries sounds reasonable. Even if we figure 20 for Iguchi and six for Edmonds, it doesn't seem likely that the rest will get more than 20.
Dying at Home: When many contemplate death, they wish for it to come at home in bed at night, so that they may lose themselves forever in the realm of sleep. What's good for the departing is not necessarily good for a baseball team, however. The Kansas City Royals are off to a decent enough start. In a division where nobody has grabbed the standard yet, they actually appear relevant at a quick glance. Just imagine how surprising they would be if they could just score runs at home. Their nine-run outburst on Wednesday night saved them from being at the very top of this list. Instead they dropped eight spots by the fourth inning:
The Worst Runs-per-Game Records at Home since 1970
Now, as we all know, 1968 is justly known as the Year of the Pitcher, but 1972 was no day at the fair for fans of run scoring, either. Three more '72 teams are not too far removed from this list. So, this is the sort of company that this year's Royals and Padres are keeping--pitchers' park teams from the most run-deprived seasons of the last couple of generations. San Diego can certainly blame this on its ballpark up to a point, but that point would probably be having the worst figure in 2008. To land on this list of run deprivation specialists? That's ignominy of the tallest order.
Letting Them Hit It: Remember how in Little League when the pitcher on your team couldn't find the plate, you'd yell something like "let 'em hit it!" as part of your chatter routine because you were sick of standing out in the field while a parade of opponents walked around the bases and you thought your team--no matter how inept--would at least have a shot of ending the inning if they were just given the chance to make a defensive play? That's not exactly what's going on in Minnesota, but the Twins pitchers are most definitely letting their opponents put the ball in play. They've struck out 177 batters, last in the majors, but, at the same time, have only walked 78, or about half as many as the Texas Rangers. If this were to keep up, their combined walks and strikeouts would total just under 1,300.
The average figure in the bigs last year was about 1,600. The only team in recent memory who had a lower total than 1,300 was the 2002 Detroit Tigers, who registered only 794 strikeouts. The only other teams that got close were the '05 Twins (1,313), the '06 Indians (1,377) and the '03 Twins (1,399). The '05 Twins had the advantage of having Carlos Silva on hand offering up just nine walks in 188 1/3 innings, while striking out just 71. If it weren't for Francisco Liriano's unfortunate return (13 walks in 10 1/3 innings), the Twins initial performance would be even more dramatic.
Thanks to Bil Burke for contributing research to this column.