September 4, 2009
You Could Look It Up
No Juice at Bailout Field
Between injuries and general impotence, the Mets have just one player in double-figure home runs, the superannuated Gary Sheffield with 10. It's like they're doing an imitation of the 1980s Cardinals without the stolen bases. Sheffield is on the shelf with lower back pain and isn't likely to play much the rest of the year, so it's very possible he will stick at 10. Any number of Mets may pass him in the season's final month, but right now the Mets' list of who's hit how many home runs is reminiscent of that of the 1986 Cards, an anorexic outfit that batted .236/.309/.327 and had just one hitter in double figures for homers, Andy Van Slyke. They did offset their lack of power to some degree by stealing 262 bases. The Mets have 106 swiped bags to lead the National League. Times, as Cole Porter wrote, have changed.
The Mets currently have 77 home runs. They're homering at about the same rate the Giants did last year, and that team finished with 94, the lowest total since the labor wars, and the first below-100 homer finish in a full season since 1993, when the then-virgin Marlins also hit 94. That Fishy squad had four players in double-figure home runs; last year's Jints had five. With Carlos Beltran and his eight home runs due back from the DL, the Mets should get up to two in short order, and you never know-Daniel Murphy could pop two more before the end of the season instead of perfecting his Johnny Sturm imitation.
Some would argue that it's not just the injuries and the mediocre roster to blame, but Citi Field. There is some truth in that, and yet the Mets have hit for a bit more power at home, with a home run every 50 at-bats versus one every 68 at-bats on the road. To their credit, the Mets aren't going to change the fences. According to Adam Rubin's article in the New York Daily News, manager Jerry Manuel said, "We're going to try to build a team with speed and defense and pitching… I think that fits that style."
This is a swell thought. Defense and pitching are never a bad thing, as the Rays reminded a few observers last year. Heck, those Rays had speed too, leading the American League in steals (and caught stealing as well), but their 180 home runs (or about 70 more than the Mets will hit this year, even after accounting for the designated hitter) surely had much to do with their success. Still, building to the park is a logical thing to do, and it will be novel if the Mets try, given that the kind of team envisioned has become extinct in the wild. There is superficial evidence that the approach does work. If you dial up the top 20 teams of the last 40-plus years in our team baserunning report, some very good teams appear:
SB # Year Team Opps EqSBR Postseason? 1 2007 Phillies 162 14.9 Lost LDS 2 1980 Royals 236 14.0 Lost WS 3 1962 Dodgers 260 12.9 Won 102 games; lost playoff 4 2008 Phillies 164 10.6 Won WS 5 1985 Cardinals 431 9.1 Lost WS 6 1993 Expos 293 9.0 No 7 2007 Mets 249 7.8 No 8 1988 Cardinals 311 7.2 No 9 1992 Phillies 169 6.3 No 10 1975 Reds 227 6.3 Won WS 11 1986 Reds 243 6.0 No 12 1985 Cubs 235 5.9 No 13 2009 Rangers 147 5.4 Not yet 14 1992 Expos 280 5.4 No 15 2005 Mets 199 5.2 No 16 2006 Padres 167 4.9 Lost LDS 17 1987 Mets 219 4.8 No 18 1976 Reds 277 4.7 Won WS 19 2006 Orioles 157 4.7 No 20 2004 Mets 134 4.5 No
This list gives the game away as to how well the Mets will succeed with this tactic, but let's play around with the concept of a speed-based offense in the 2000s before we skip to the end. First, note that having a team that generates stolen-base runs is not the same as having a prolific base-stealing team. Many of the latter teams paid such a high price in getting caught stealing that they became their own worst enemies. Joe Torre's 1991 Cardinals were second in the NL in stolen bases with 202, but they also led the league in times caught stealing with 110. Resultantly, they ranked last in the league in equivalent stolen-base runs (-24). Torre is a slow learner; the next year he again gave the team the green light and suffered even greater negative consequences, with the team dropping its success rate by a percentage point and losing two more runs (-26). The worst EqSBR team in our database is the 1978 A's, which dropped 30 runs on 144 steals in 261 attempts.
The Whitey Herzog Cardinals, of which the aforementioned 1986 team was an example, played in three World Series in the 1980s (ironically, twice at the expense of the Mets) with an approach that emphasized speedy switch-hitters and defense. Even in 1987, a rabbit-ball year, they won 95 games with an offensive approach that boiled down to Jack Clark's 35 home runs and seven guys who could beat out a grounder to short. They also played strong defenses that featured Ozzie Smith, possibly the greatest shortstop glove in history. "Whiteyball" was a recognized style and had its imitators, but all the flash obscured the point: all three Cardinals pennant-winners led the league in on-base percentage. Even with their general lack of power, the Cards would have scored a reasonable number of runs without the frenetic basestealing, and to some degree achieved what they did in spite of it. A look at EqSBR for those three teams tells the truth: the 1982 team, with 200 stolen and 91 caught, -11; the 1985 team, with 316 steals and 96 caught, +9; the 1987 team, with 248 steals and 72 caught, +0.3. Like the contemporaneous band Flock of Seagulls, the Cardinals ran so far, but with the exception of picking up an extra win in the close 1985 divisional race, they didn't achieve as much as first appeared.
Consider it another way: the average NL division winner or wild-card team of the last five years scored 783 runs. The question is, if you have a 780-run offense in your division, and your team has the power potential of a Deadball Era team and league-average pitching, how many runs would you have to add through the stolen base to even things up? Actually, "Deadball Era" is an unrealistic standard, even though the Mets are doing a reasonable imitation of that kind of team. Despite the conditions created by the ballpark, this seems more like a not-to-be-repeated creation of the many injuries they've had, leading to more playing time for the likes of Dan Murphy, Alex Cora, Fernando Martinez, and the like. Even the Giants are showing more punch than that. For a more realistic accounting, we should ask the question of an offense something like last year's Pirates, a team that scored 735 runs, or about an average total, hitting 153 home runs (about seven percent below average), and stole only 57 bases.
Using the Pythagorean theorem, we can see that this offense, had it been accompanied by league-average pitching rather than the miserable, worst-in-league confabulation they did have, would have gone 79-83. Getting to 90 wins would have required an avalanche of runs, 105 more. All else being equal, how many bases would the Pirates have had to steal, and at what success rate, to make up the shortfall? As the team baserunning report suggests, we're asking the impossible. Consider the number two team on the list above, the 1980 Royals, a club which stole 185 bases-a level of basestealing all but extinct in the 21st century. Only 16 teams have made as many as 200 stolen-base attempts in the 2000s, and only one team, the 2007 Mets, has stolen more than 177 bases. The '80 Royals stole bases and stole them well, achieving an 81 percent success rate; Willie Wilson was caught just 10 times in 89 attempts. Their basestealing excellence benefited them by 14 runs, or not quite 1.5 wins.
The key conclusion here is that stolen bases were sauce for a good offense, but not the entrée itself. The Royals' offense posted a .280 EqA because they led the AL in batting average, were third in on-base percentage, and fourth in slugging. They ranked just ninth in the league in home runs, but they hit a bunch of doubles and led the league in triples. The same kind of observation can be made of several other teams on the list above, including the Big Red Machine and last year's champion Phillies: they were good offenses to begin with. The baserunning game was not asked to do the heavy lifting, nor could it have.
Let's return to our example of last year's Pirates. Looking at broadly similar offenses that stole more bases does not reveal an advantage, and in fact the teams sometimes do worse. That is because the Pirates stole only 57 bases, but also lost only 19 runners to failed attempts. Teams that attempt more steals also lose more baserunners, and even at a 75 or 80 percent success rate, those lost runners do real damage. You don't need to be a stathead to see that a runner on first has a better chance of scoring, be it with no outs, one out, or two outs, than does a runner who just got sent back to the dugout after failing to steal second. This season, a team with a runner on first and no outs will score .88 runs. A team with one out and no one on will score .28 runs. There is really something to the idea that it's better to be a live coward standing at first base than a dead hero picking himself out of the dirt at second.
Thus, if we give last year's Pirates 300 stolen-base attempts (something which hasn't happened since the 1996 Royals, but we're on Fantasy Island here) while stealing at a 75 percent success rate and plug the numbers into Bill James' basic runs created/stolen base version, the change results in an improvement of less than 10 runs. Again, the reason for the meager results is easy to see: you've swapped nearly three games' worth of outs for an additional 1.4 bases per game.
The Mets may choose to build a speed-and-defense team along the lines of the old Cardinals, and they will reap some benefits. You can never suffer for having good defense and strong pitching, but the value of the speed, at least on offense (as opposed to defense), will be largely illusory. Even if the Mets could staff an '80s Cardinals-type team-and those kinds of players don't seem to be coming into the game anymore-the impact on offense will be small unless they are hitters of sufficient quality to do the things that good hitters do, like get on base at a very high rate. If they do these things, then the stolen bases will be irrelevant, and the wheel goes 'round.
The incipient futility of the whole thing puts me in mind of another Cole Porter song, "Well, Did You Evah," though this verse is little sung: "Have you heard that Professor Munch/ ate his wife and divorced his lunch?" The Mets may be headed down the same road.