Nothing a baseball team does, from lead-gloved defense to late-inning bullpen disasters, makes a team look more incompetent in the eyes of its fans than a consistent inability to score runs. The emotional toll of watching the home nine put up zeros inning after inning dulls dedication as even post-season heartbreak cannot. This year, fans of the Mariners and the Astros have suffered silently while their teams limped out of the box to an early turn at the bottom of the standings. How desperate is the futility, and what can be done about it?

Houston, Seattle, and the Batting Free-Fall

The Astros are the worst offense in baseball by such a wide margin that even the whiplash of a dead-cat bounce is bound to come to their aid sooner or later. But so far, poor Whiskers seems to have found nothing but bottomless abyss. The Astros are not only dead last in runs per game (2.74 [sic]), they also rank last in home runs (13), doubles (43), and walks (55, trailing the next team by 40). The Astros have scored zero or one run 12 times already this season. As a team, they were hitting .225/.269/.314 after Sunday’s games. For comparison’s sake, that’s worse than the aggregate batting line of all pitchers for the Padres (.246/.338/.333). The highest OPS among Astros' starters is Michael Bourn’s .733; no other regular cracks .700, and only two—Lance Berkman and Jeff Keppinger—are above .600. Put very simply, the Astros have not been any good at all on offense.

The Mariners, too, have struggled to hit the ball. Their 3.29 runs per game are certainly better than the Astros’ tally, and they have already reached 100 runs scored this year. Astros fans might say the extra advantage is attributable to the fact that Seattle gets to play with a designated hitter. A nice thought, I suppose, but Mariners DHs have hit just .185/.248/.210, which is actually worse than Astros pitchers, who have at least managed a .216/.245/.235 line. The DH platoon of Mike Sweeney (.469) and Ken Griffey, Jr. (.499) doesn’t have a .500 OPS between them. As a team, the Mariners are last in the AL in homers (12), last in hits (234), and tied for third-to-last in doubles (49).  Their eight-run outburst on Sunday against the Angels was the second-most runs they’ve scored all season, and just the seventh time they’ve scored more than four runs.

Surely Somebody Here Stayed at a Holiday Inn Express Last Night

What can be done for these struggling teams? It’s a trickier question to answer than you might think, and not only because acquiring upgrades is easier said than done. First, you have to understand which poor performances are part of reasonable expectations and which are mostly the result of initial bad luck. After all, overreaction to an early small sample might actually make the problem worse, even as the team appears to be scoring more runs.

To demonstrate why, let’s look at Astros left fielder Carlos Lee. He has struggled mightily this season, and is so far hitting just .207/.246/.302, a line which is not in fact any bigger by virtue of it being in Texas. This is his age-34 season. Many, noting the lack of Lee home run balls in the Crawford Boxes, are arguing that Lee has fallen off a cliff, never to regain his form. In the last five seasons, his TAv numbers have been .298, .296, .300, .316, and .292. Looking just at those last two years, it is possible to see a cliff. But taking into account his established production level (approximately .300 TAv), what data exactly suggests it’s all over for El Caballo?

On the one hand, we’ve got 30 absolutely miserable games in 2010 and the actuarial data about beefy corner outfielders in their mid-30s. On the other, we’ve got a combined .878 OPS from 2007-09 with the Astros. Richard Justice of the Houston Chronicle has already openly complained about Lee’s statement that he may retire at the end of 2012, when his contract expires, and has called for him to retire now. But assuming Lee doesn’t retire (leaving over $50 million on the table in the process), what is there for the Astros to do but wait for Lee to rebound? The signs of life have begun to manifest, with a .265/.306/.471 line and two home runs in May.

The other alternative, I suppose, is to remove Lee’s .548 OPS from the lineup temporarily and replace him with another left fielder (Jason Michaels?). But the benefits of such a move would be specious: if Michaels came in and hit better (as almost anyone would), it would look like a brilliant little way to shake up the lineup, and manager Brad Mills could take credit. But the absence of action—leaving Lee in the lineup—would probably have a more salutary effect on the Astros' run scoring, but wouldn’t be seen as a discrete decision by the Houston brain trust.

Other aspects of the Astros struggles are related alternatively to their approach (hitting more ground balls, for example) or to poor luck so far. Hunter Pence (.231/.252/.343) has to be expected to improve, for example. Pedro Feliz has a career isolated power much higher than his current .088 mark, and a righty hitting in Houston ought not to take too long to find his power stroke again.

None of this is to say the Astros lineup doesn’t have deep, profound problems. They have something called “Tommy Manzella” playing shortstop, which looks progressive and youth-movementy until you realize that Manzella is 27 and had a career .694 OPS in the minors. I’m as big a Keppinger apologist as you’re going to find, but even I think he’s miscast as an everyday player. His flexibility more than his reliability makes him valuable, and it’s not like injuries to Kazuo Matsui were unforeseeable. 

More Like Designated…

As with the Astros, no one expected the Mariners to score many runs this season. They scored just 640 in 2009 (last in the AL) and had a team OBP of .314 (also last). That means each spot on the roster has to be viewed in the light of day, according the most weight to pre-season expectations. Not that much has changed since then. What we know now that we didn’t then is basically limited to the fact that Milton Bradley likely won’t be available to help the team much this year. Now, that’s no small problem, particularly if you (like PECOTA did) expected Bradley to post a TAv of .290 and provide 30 marginal runs of offense above replacement.

In addition to the “actual news” category, there is a lot of what is probably noise. No, Chone Figgins will not end the season with a .242 TAv and a .229 batting average. No, Casey Kotchman won’t hit .194 all summer long. But still more of the Mariners offensive problems were clear as day. Sweeney and Griffey do not constitute a good DH platoon, even if they are bound to improve from here. Other than right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, there isn’t an impact hitter at any of the positions that teams traditionally rely on to produce runs: first base (Kotchman), third base (Jose Lopez), and left field (Michael Saunders or Ryan Langerhans) can charitably be called question marks. What it boils down to is this relatively simple question: where did you expect the runs would come from?

When looking at the roster that has so far struggled to score runs, you have to separate the performances that are real and the performances that you expect to improve. The danger from making the wrong choices can be deadly. If you take out the guy who was unlucky, you run the risk of keeping him out too long when the replacement gets even average luck. And if you don’t replace the guy who could not have been relied on to produce runs in the first place, there really isn’t any way to improve.

Question of the Day

What choices would you make to improve these two teams’ offenses? Would you sign free agents? Would you trade stars like Berkman for prospects, as some have suggested? Would you fire the hitting coach, as the Mariners have already done?