September 9, 2009
Checking the Numbers
A Giant Run-Scoring Problem
In what may amount to a playoff matchup come October, the San Francisco Giants beat the Philadelphia Phillies last week by a score of 5-3. A good ballgame by the sound of it, right? Wrong, because that 5-3 score constituted the run-scoring of the entire three-game series, two of which the Giants lost. The Giants are no strangers to run prevention, with a starting staff that ranks amongst the best in baseball. While some of their pitchers' peripherals portend less success moving forward, that does not mean we can simply write off data to date as fraudulent or nonexistent. This season, their starting rotation has for the most part been able to make do with two or three runs of support in a game, a range that has unfortunately become the norm for an anemic offense largely comprised of over-the-hill veterans and young players without much upside. Outside of Pablo Sandoval, the lineup appears to be allergic to league-average production, scoring an awful aggregate 3.95 runs per game. Yet somehow and some way, they are no further than two games back in the National League's Wild Card standings, and have a realistic shot of qualifying for post-season play. With this in mind, where does this Giants team rank relative to other no-hit/all-pitch teams? And, more to the point: how have teams in similar composition generally fared, especially relative to their potential playoff prospects?
The investigative process began by pooling together team data from 1954-2008, determining the record for each club, calculating the RS/G for each team in every season, and comparing that figure to their respective league's averages. From there, we subtract the league average from the individual team RS/G to find the RS/G Delta, because the ultimate goal does not involve discovering comparable teams based on a static number like 3.95 RS/G or a range along the lines of 3.90-4.00 RS/G; rather, the goal involves a comparison of team-wide offensive production relative to a league-average offense.
The 2009 Giants, for instance, are averaging 3.95 RS/G in a circuit averaging 4.44 RS/G, a -0.49 delta. The same process was then repeated for pitchers, but in order to make the comparisons more accurate I chose to compile the data solely for pitchers with 15 or more starts in a season; the Giants bullpen may have talent, but nobody really has any misconceptions that the bulk of this team's success comes from anywhere but its starting rotation. As of Monday evening, the Giants' starting staff had produced a solid 3.51 RA/9 in a league populated by qualifying starters averaging a 4.34 RA/9. The resulting delta of 0.83 runs per nine innings ranks as approximately the 30th best across the 1,330 teams in the sample. Overall, 295 of the 1,330 teams boasted an RA/9 among their starting pitchers lower than the league average while also fielding a below-average offense. Of those 295 teams, 43 made the playoffs in one way or another, and of those, nine went onto win the World Series. Most recently, the 2005 White Sox reached that pinnacle of success, as did the 1997 Marlins, the 1996 Yankees, and the 1995 Braves.
Of course, the aforementioned filter was quite broad, ignoring the extent to which the offenses or pitching staffs strayed from the respective averages. The 1996 Yanks and 1997 Marlins, for instance, were ever so slightly below average on offense, making them poor comparables for a Giants team that is supremely better than average in its starting rotation, but hampered by an offense that is a half-run per game off the pace of the league.
Since 1954, only two teams have ever finished the season with an RS/G Delta of -0.40 or fewer runs that also employed a starting staff 0.80 runs per nine innings better than the league: the 2003 Dodgers (85-77), and the 1996 Marlins (80-82), neither of whom made the playoffs. The Giants, however, have an advantage in that their RA/9 Delta would top the list of all teams with an RS/G delta of -0.40 or fewer runs. The table below outlines teams with the same constraints, ordered by their RA/9 deltas:
RS/G RA/9 Year Team Delta Delta W-L 2003 Dodgers -1.07 0.83 85-77 1979 Astros -0.63 0.78 89-73 1987 Royals -0.49 0.77 83-79 2008 Athletics -0.77 0.76 75-86 1996 Royals -0.76 0.75 76-86 1997 Blue Jays -0.89 0.74 82-80 1964 Angels -0.72 0.69 77-85 1983 Rangers -0.57 0.63 73-89 1987 Dodgers -0.59 0.60 77-83 1989 Dodgers -0.49 0.57 81-81
None of these ten teams made the playoffs even though a few finished with winning percentages north of the .500 mark. How about a slight variation on that table, where we instead rank the worst offenses amongst teams with an RA/9 delta of 0.45 or better? That gives us this ranking:
RS/G RA/9 Year Team Delta Delta W-L 2003 Dodgers -1.07 0.83 85-77 1997 Blue Jays -0.89 0.74 76-86 1977 Mets -0.78 0.54 64-98 2008 Athletics -0.77 0.76 75-86 1996 Royals -0.76 0.75 75-86 1964 Angels -0.72 0.69 82-80 1979 Astros -0.63 0.78 89-73 1999 Padres -0.62 0.54 74-88 1987 Dodgers -0.59 0.60 73-89 1983 Rangers -0.57 0.63 77-85
RS/G RA/9 Year Team Delta Delta 1973 Mets -0.38 0.73 1966 Dodgers -0.36 0.99 1981 Astros -0.35 0.89 1996 Dodgers -0.34 0.59 1985 Royals -0.32 0.71
Just five playoff teams over the last 55 years have fallen below the league average in offensive run production by 0.30 or more runs per game. Each of these teams boasted superb starting pitching that surpassed the league average, much like the Lincecum-led legion. Unfortunately, none of the aforementioned teams disgraced the batter's box as badly as Bochy's bunch. Teams can clearly find their way into playoff baseball with poor offenses and tremendous rotations, but no team has done so with an awful offense even remotely comparable to the one fielded by the 2009 Giants since the Dodgers made the playoffs in the 1996 campaign, and the difference between -0.34 and -0.49 runs per game could range anywhere from 24 to 30 runs or so, a gap of two or three wins.
Should the Giants actually win the wild-card race, they may be a very dangerous team in a short series, but history does not favor their odds given the level of putridity routinely on display in their starting lineup. That's not to say that there isn't precedent, but it's a longshot, and if the Giants make the playoffs while sustaining their current diffident pace on offense, we will be able to brag about witnessing the worst offense of a playoff team in the Wild Card Era, and perhaps even the worst offense fielded by any playoff team in the Retrosheet era. It isn't exactly an accomplishment to proudly proclaim, but it highlights how dynamite their starting rotation has been this season.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .