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May 26, 2009

You Could Look It Up

Bad Offense Recital

by Steven Goldman

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A kind of special, depressing thing happened to the Giants on Memorial Day: they scored eight runs. The villain of the piece was Travis Ishikawa, who went 4-for-4 with a home run, which was not only his first shot of the season, but the first by a Giants' first baseman this season. He scored three times and drove in three runs. The eight runs were not a season high for the Giants, but the tally was unusual for this edition of the team. Collectively hitting just .250/.309/.360, the club was averaging 3.8 runs per game, the second-worst rate in the National League to the San Diego Padres. The Padres, though, have a far more difficult home park to deal with, so the Giants rate behind them after the adjustments.

The Giants' eight-run outburst is depressing because if the offense just keeps on doing what it has been best at so far (making outs), it could be, if not historic, pretty darned special. Through Sunday, the Giants had a team Equivalent Average (EqA) of .236. Adjusted for all time, it was .240. Any team can be merely good or merely mediocre in some department of the game, but it takes a special combination of luck and planning, or its absence, to be extreme, be it an extreme loser like the 1935 Braves or an extreme winner like the 1998 Yankees. In this case, the Giants, last in the NL in both on-base and slugging percentage, are an extremely poor, well-nigh historically poor, offensive club.

The list of the worst-hitting teams of all time changes depending on one's guiding statistic, so rather than be systematic in this instance it's preferable to ballpark things and supply a few key examples. In terms of the sustained non-hitting, the Pittsburgh Pirates of the early 1950s were probably the worst unit of the postwar years, with EqAs in the .230s each year from 1952 through 1955. Not coincidentally, they lost over 100 games in the first three seasons before enjoying some good luck and losing only 94 games in 1955. (Their Pythagorean record called for 99 losses, so another 100 losses in a 154-game season was a realistic possibility.) This was the period in which Branch Rickey spent years arguing to Pirates ownership that the team could be reinvigorated if it just swapped Ralph Kiner while the getting was good. He won the argument a year too late, and Kiner's value had slipped just enough in the interim that when he was finally moved in 1953, Rickey didn't get much value for him.

In these years, the Pirates tended to top out at two above-average offensive players a year; even the current Giants can claim a bit more balance than that. On the other hand, Pittsburgh's best offensive players, first Kiner and then the original Frank Thomas (who batted .277/.335/.480 with 161 home runs in a half-dozen seasons as a Pirate regular) were both more potent hitters than anything the Giants can currently muster. Notable negative batting performances: in 1952, 20-year-old first baseman Tony Bartirome hit .220/.273/.265 in 124 games, a figure not even Tony Muser could love, while 19-year-old outfielder Bobby Del Greco, a player Rickey was convinced was a budding star, hit .217/.301/.279 in 99 games. In 1954, shortstop Gair Allie ("Gair" really was his given name) hit .199/.294/.268 in 121 games-the team was patching for Dick Groat, who was in the Army.

Honorable mention for the period goes to the 1951 Cincinnati Reds, a team which possessed several players who would one day hit-Ted Kluszewski, Joe Adcock, Wally Post, even shortstop Roy McMillan-though none of them were ready yet and the club bombed, posting a .229 EqA. The top offensive player was outfielder Johnny Wyrostek, who hit .311/.376/.391 with two home runs in 142 games.

Closer to our own time, the worst offensive team of the years 1970 to the present might have been the 1971 Cleveland Indians, a 60-102 team that hit .238/.300/.342 in a league that batted .247/.317/.364. The Indians had a fistful of players who weren't automatic outs, but none were at their best in '71. Ray Fosse was the catcher and was roughly a league-average hitter. Chris Chambliss, the 22-year-old rookie first baseman, held his own. Graig Nettles was the club's best offensive player, batting .261/.350/.435 with 28 home runs. The Indians also had Vada Pinson, whose time had passed, though he was just 32; Hawk Harrelson, ditto (though only 29); and John Lowenstein, whose time had not yet come. The team's mix at shortstop that year, primarily Jack Heidemann and Fred Stanley, batted .221/.301/.268. As things stand now, the current Giants are a deeper ballclub. Clay Davenport's translated statistics state that if they played in the same time and place, the 1971 Indians would hit .237/.296/.356, the Giants .256/.310/.380. Intriguingly, both Nettles and Pablo Sandoval have the same EqA, .277.

A more apt fit, and one contemporaneous with the current Giants, is the 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks, or what history might term "Bob Brenly's Last Stand." This 111-loss club had translated rates of .244/.302/.375 and a team EqA of .237. This was a special club given both its ballpark and the offensive era in which it played. Diamondbacks catchers, principally Juan Brito and Robby Hammock, with a healthy sampling of Chris Snyder and Brett Mayne, hit .226/.286/.365. Third basemen batted .257/.314/.380; Chad Tracy did most of the work and was passable (.283/.339/.402), but the team also gave 175 plate appearances at the position to various fill-ins who struggled to hit .200. Shortstop was mainly Alex Cintron's show, and he lived down to the team's level by chipping in at a .259/.300/.365 clip, although Jerry Gil did a lot of damage in a little playing time, hitting .165/.172/.212 in 87 PAs. Denny Bautista was the everyday right fielder and batted .286/.332/.401. Like the 2009 Giants, the 2004 Diamondbacks had three regulars who were, at least to some degree, decent offensive contributors: Shea Hillenbrand, Luis Gonzalez (the team's best hitter at .250/.373/.493), and Steve Finley.

Unlike all of these teams, the Giants have superior pitching, which serves to keep them interesting and on the fringes of the races for a playoff spot despite their weak hitting. Even so, they're unlikely to unseat the Dodgers for the division lead, so they are urged to focus on more achievable and truly historic goals, like making more outs. Trading a veteran outfielder like Aaron Rowand or Randy Winn and replacing him with another Emmanuel Burriss would help in this matter a great deal. After all, we haven't had a team EqA below .230 since the 1981 Blue Jays, a team with an infield that hit .226/.283/.317, and that's including the best hitter on the team, John Mayberry). The Giants can get there by defying the mushy homogenization of league offenses. Besides, it's only fair that the team of Barry Bonds be the one to re-enact the Deadball Era.

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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