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February 21, 2012
Runs? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Runs!
Not long ago, while discussing the anemic offense of last year's Mariners, we noted that 10 MLB teams scored fewer than four runs per game in 2011. Only two of those teams finished with a winning record. The San Francisco Giants represented the most extreme case; they won 86 games despite having the National League's worst offense.
That got me to thinking: How often has the team with the NL's worst offense finished with a winning record? The answer may come as a surprise.
Because the Giants accomplished the feat in a 16-team league, I decided to focus on the league's current configuration, which began in 1998 with the introduction of the Arizona Diamondbacks. To the table of offensive futility, sorted in descending order of how much better the team's record was than its offense relative to league:
Index is the difference between team and league performance, where 1000 is average, e.g., ((Tm R/G)/(NL R/G)*1000). Higher numbers favor the team, lower numbers favor the league. Note that although runs scored are calculated in full, they are shown to only one decimal, so there will be rounding errors.
Diff is the difference between the two indexes. The higher the number, the greater a team's winning percentage relative to league as compared with its runs per game relative to league.
A few items to note:
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Let's take a closer look at these teams, in chronological order.
This team finished 15th in batting average, 12th in on-base percentage, and last in slugging percentage. The Mets placed in the bottom half of nearly every major offensive category except walks (seventh) and hit by pitches (sixth). They ranked 13th in stolen bases with 66 (and should have attempted fewer, as they had a pitiful 57.9 percent success rate).
The pitching staff was unexceptional. Thirty-five-year-old Al Leiter and 33-year-old Kevin Appier paced the rotation, with 36-year-old Rick Reed contributing 20 solid starts. There were no standout performances in the bullpen, either. Armando Benitez served as closer, although he didn't have a particularly good year.
The 2001 Mets shouldn't have won 82 games. In fact, they were outscored, 713-642, and won nine more than Pythagoras says they should have. (One narrative might cite this as evidence of manager Bobby Valentine's genius. That narrative would need to look at the 2002 Mets, which underperformed by four games despite the continued presence of Valentine.)
How did the Mets address their offensive woes? The short answer is they didn't. Sure, the 2002 team scored 48 more runs than the 2001 team and moved all the way up to 13th in that category, but this is hardly cause for celebration.
Still, they tried, pretty much gutting their entire offense:
Lots of activity, not much progress. The Mets dropped to last place in the NL East at 75-86, 6 ½ games worse than the previous year.
Think of this team as the 2001 Mets without Piazza. The Dodgers didn't even have a hitter as good as the Mets' version of Relaford.
What they did have was an abundance of pitching. Kevin Brown and Hideo Nomo fronted the rotation, with Wilson Alvarez contributing when healthy. And the bullpen was spectacular, headed by Cy Young Award winner Eric Gagne, with excellent support from Guillermo Mota and Paul Quantrill. As a unit, Dodgers relievers posted a 2.46 ERA in 472 2/3 innings, holding opponents to a .207/.278/.304 line (think Ed Brinkman with less batting average).
What did the Dodgers do in the offseason? Well, a few things:
The pitching suffered in 2004 (how could it not, after that performance?), as the team allowed 128 more runs than in 2003. On the bright side, the offense added 187 runs (1.15 R/G).
Green did his usual thing, while Cora and Izturis improved from awful to semi-palatable. Werth and Bradley represented a huge upgrade over Burnitz and Roberts. Veterans Saenz, Jose Hernandez, and Steve Finley produced off the bench. And, of course, Beltre had a season for the ages.
The net result was that the Dodgers won eight more games and took the NL West at 93-69.
Johnson stayed healthy, and the good version of Guillen showed up (which almost made up for the awful version of Guzman). On the pitching side, the Nationals got decent production out of a rotation headed by Livan Hernandez, Esteban Loaiza, and John Patterson. Their starters combined for a 4.03 ERA, slightly better than NL average of 4.23 for starters.
Nationals relievers, on the other hand, were terrific in 2005. Their 3.55 ERA placed them third in the league. Closer Chad Cordero and set-up man Hector Carrasco led the charge, with journeymen Gary Majewski, Luis Ayala, Joey Eischen, and Mike Stanton contributing as well.
The team “addressed” its offensive woes by signing Damian Jackson, Marlon Anderson, Robert Fick, Wiki Gonzalez, Daryle Ward (okay, that one worked), Royce Clayton, George Lombard, Matt LeCroy, and Bernie Castro; trading Castilla to the Padres for right-hander Brian Lawrence; and trading Wilkerson (along with Armando Galarraga and Terrmel Sledge) to Texas for Alfonso Soriano in his walk year; and selling Carroll to the Rockies.
Johnson remained healthy and was even better in 2006. He, along with newcomers Clayton, Soriano, and rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, helped the club score 107 more runs in 2006. Unfortunately, thanks to an NL-worst 5.03 ERA, the Nationals finished with 10 fewer wins.
Sandoval wasn't as good as 2001 Piazza or as healthy (!) as 2005 Johnson, but when he was in the lineup, he contributed in a way that no other Giants hitter could. And although there were no Izturis- or Guzman-sized drags on the offense, it is worth noting that Tejada hit as poorly for the Giants in 2011 as Ordonez did for the Mets in 2001.
Beyond Rowand, Tejada, and Huff crashing to earth (Brian Sabean's guiding philosophy seems to be “Old Guys Rule”), losing Buster Posey to injury didn't help matters. The Giants got almost nothing out of Eli Whiteside, Chris Stewart, and Hector Sanchez. Their catchers hit .224/.298/.330, worse than anyone in the National League save the hapless (but not Happless) Astros.
Although the staff wasn't as good as that of the 2003 Dodgers (if the latter were Gibson or Seaver, the 2011 Giants were Jack McDowell or Dwight Gooden), a rotation fronted by Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and Madison Bumgarner makes up for a lot. Add in one of baseball's biggest surprises in Ryan Vogelsong and a solid bullpen led by Santiago Casilla and righty-killer Sergio Romo, and you can win without offense.
We don't know how this will play out, but the Giants responded to their miserable offensive showing in 2011 by letting Carlos Beltran, Mark DeRosa, Cody Ross, Jeff Keppinger leave via free agency; watching Pat Burrell and Orlando Cabrera retire; trading Jonathan Sanchez and Ryan Verdugo to the Royals for Melky Cabrera; trading Ramon Ramirez and Andres Torres to the Mets for Angel Pagan; and signing Joaquin Arias and Ryan Theriot as free agents.
In a nutshell, Cabrera and Pagan have replaced Beltran, Ross, and Burrell. So, yeah, that should work. (If not, Giants fans can console themselves with Chuck Prophet's “Willie Mays Is Up At Bat.”)
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Three of the four teams we've examined had one big bopper who carried the offense: Piazza, 2001 Mets; Johnson, 2005 Nationals; and Sandoval, 2011 Giants. The one that didn't was the 2003 Dodgers, which set the standard for offensive futility in the 16-team NL era, but which also featured a staff that collectively pitched like a couple of Hall of Famers.
The Dodgers also made the most strides in improving themselves the following season. Newcomers Saenz, Werth, and Bradley played key roles on the 2004 squad, although the biggest push came from Beltre in his free-agent year.
The other teams shuffled pieces around after the season, but most of the moves didn't help. The Mets brought on Alomar and Burnitz, great producers at one point but well past their primes. The Nationals snagged Soriano for one year and promoted Zimmerman from the minors, but their pitching suffered.
The Giants have made fewer moves. Will Cabrera and Pagan be like Werth and Bradley, or will they be more like Alomar and Burnitz? Does Sandoval have a Beltre 2004 season in him (no fat jokes, please)? While it will be difficult for the Giants to improve on their 86 wins from 2011 with that offense, as the Dodgers have shown us, it is not impossible. Either way, if history provides any indication, the gap between San Francisco's ability to score runs and win games should be narrower in 2012:
Given the nature of freakish performances, this should come as no surprise. Still, it is good to look at these things to confirm what we already suspect.