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The View from Section 203 – Building an Offense

January 30, 2011

by R.A. Wagman

As an avid watcher the of Toronto Blue Jays, for much of the latter Cito era I was faced with a hometown twenty-five that often excelled in certain areas of the offensive game seemingly at the complete expense of other areas of offense. Now, if I was forced to choose between a team that had only power, or only speed, or only patience (these would be your professional hitters), without looking at the numbers I’d take the sluggers. But, it seems to me that an offense that completely lacks in any given dimension, even if they are amazing in another, can negate their strengths, as their opponents would be able to easily focus on specific areas of weakness to exploit in any given game.

In that light, I decided to look at the bottom teams in Home Runs (HR), Walks (BB) and Stolen Bases (SB) – power, patience and speed – and compare that facet of the game to their overall record. I tracked both leagues separately to reflect the competition of each team, going back to 1995, the first season after the big player’s strike.

AL SLG AL SB AL OBP NL SLG NL SB NL OBP
1995 KC (70-74) NYY (79-65)* Det (60-84) StL (62-81) NYM (69-75) StL (62-81)
1996 KC (75-86) Cal (70-91) Det (53-109) LAD (90-72)* Atl (96-66)* LAD (90-72)*
1997 Tor (76-86) Bal (98-64)* Tor (76-86) Phi (68-94) Mon (78-84) Mon (78-84)
1998 TB (63-99) Bos (92-70)* TB (63-99) Fla (54-108) NYM (88-74) Mon (65-97)
1999 Min (63-97) Bos (94-68)* Ana (70-92) SD (74-88) ChiC (67-95) Mon (68-94)
2000 TB (69-92) Oak (91-70)* TB (69-92) Phi (65-97) Mon (67-95) Mil (73-89)
2001 Bal (63-98) Bos (82-79) KC (65-97) NYM (82-80) SF (90-72) Pit (62-100)
2002 Det (55-106) Oak (103-59)* Det (55-106) Pit (72-89) ChiC (67-95) Pit (72-89)
2003 Det (43-119) Tor (86-76) Det (43-119) LAD (85-77) SF (100-61)* LAD (85-77)
2004 Sea (63-99) Oak (91-71) TB (70-91) Mil (67-94) SF (91-71) Ari (51-111)
2005 Min (83-79) Oak (88-74) Sea (69-93) Was (81-81) Was (81-81) SF (75-87)
2006 KC (62-100) Bos (86-76) TB (61-101) Pit (67-95) Atl (79-83) ChiC (66-96)
2007 KC (69-93) Oak (76-86) ChiW (72-90) SF (71-91) SD (89-74) Ari (90-72)*
2008 Oak (75-86) Det (74-88) Oak (75-86) Was (59-102) SD (63-99) SD (63-99)
2009 Oak (75-87) Det (86-77) Sea (85-77) SD (75-87) ChiC (83-78) SF (88-74)
2010 Sea (61-101) Tor (85-77) Sea (61-101) Hou (76-86) ChiC (75-87)/ SF (92-70)* Hou (76-86)
Totals 1065-1502 (.415) 1381-1191 (.537) 1047-1523 (.407) 1148-1422 (.447) 1375-1360 (.503) 1164-1408 (.453)
Notes 0 playoff appearances, 1 winning record 6 playoff appearances, 12 winning records 0 playoff appearances, 1 winning record 1 playoff appearance, 3 winning records 3 playoff appearances, 8 winning records 2 playoff appearances, 4 winning records

(* denotes a team that made the playoffs)

As one could have expected (and I did – HA!), teams that finished dead last in their league in slugging did not do so well, with only one playoff appearance in either league since the strike, that being the Dodgers of 1996 – more about them later. Only 4 (including those Dodgers) of the 32 seasons isolated across both leagues even finished with winning records. Slugging is pretty easy to summarize – if the team does not have some juice in its lineup, they stand to become easy prey for opposition pitchers. Some of the bottom-rung teams had a slugger or two in their lineup, but their teammates were uniform in their lack of punch.

Moving on to OBP, we see only a slight difference of opportunity cost by fielding a lineup that finishes dead last in the league in this much-heralded statistic. Over the 32 teams that finished last in their league in OBP, only 5 had winning records, and only 2 of those made the playoffs. One of those playoff teams was the truly remarkable 1996 Dodgers (still more about them below). The other was the no-less-interesting Diamondbacks of 2007 (more on them later, as well). Like with slugging trailers, the inability to get on base was much more damning in the AL (home of the DH) than the NL. In each case, there was only one trailer in the AL with a winning record, and no playoff teams. In both stats, the NL trailer was generally not quite as brutal. Check out the combined winning percentages of OBP and SLG trailers between the league. Finishing dead last in OBP in the AL averaged out to a winning percentage of .415 (approximately 67-95). The NL OBP trailer averaged a relatively more robust .447 (72-90). The AL trailer in slugging had an average winning percentage of .407 (66-96) and their NL counterparts averaged a .453 winning mark (73-89). Then again, we all knew (I don’t expect that many people who will read this didn’t know) that you need to get on base to score and that you need to score to win.

I did not expect the results I saw in the stolen base category. This was measured in a cruder fashion, as I looked at raw steals totals instead of steal attempts or another rate stat. But I never claimed to be a scientist. Having watched the Toronto Blue Jays fail many times over the past few seasons when it seemed as if a little bit more aggression on the base paths would have given them a better chance at winning, I had expected to find that lacking a running dimension would weaken a team’s chances. Instead, we can see that the stolen base trailers in both leagues had winning records in this offense-heavy period. Teams trailing the AL in steals had an average winning percentage of .537 (87-75) and their NL counterparts (bearing in mind last year’s tie for bottom, put up an aggregate .503 winning percentage (81-81). Of these 33 teams, an almost shocking 9 (nine) made the playoffs. That’s almost enough to make one think that tanking the running game will improve your chances at winning. After all, in a given year, 8 of 30 teams (26.7%) make the playoffs. 9 out of 33 (27.3%), is even better. Is that really possible?

Looking at these numbers a little more critically, 6 of the 9 winners were AL teams in the first 8 years after the labour stoppage. In fact, 8 of the 9 station-to-station playoff contestants came between 1995-2003. Only one, last year’s World Series’ Champion San Francisco Giants, managed to simultaneously finish on the bottom of their league in steals in a given year and also make the playoffs since 2003. There have been a number of articles published over the last few years or so referring to the so-called “Steroid Era,” which lasted from the mid-90’s until early in the millennium. So I looked at the combined MLB OPS marks for every year from 1995-2010. The results are as follows:

Year MLB OPS
1995 755
1996 767
1997 756
1998 755
1999 778
2000 782
2001 759
2002 748
2003 755
2004 763
2005 749
2006 768
2007 758
2008 749
2009 751
2010 728

Averaging OPS marks from 1995-2003, when it was more likely for a station-to-station team to make the playoffs, gives us a figure of 761.7. Focusing on the period between 2004-2010, that combined average OPS drops to 752.3. As the recent trend towards better defensive players heightened, we are seeing more athletic types playing more frequently. It is therefore reasonable to expect that the offensive side of the game will also have evolved. OPS, made up of a straight addition of SLG and OBP, has steadily dropped to a level not seen since before the labour stoppage (700 in 1992). And it probably isn’t a coincidence that, as the game stresses a new dimension, only one team that failed to implement that nuance to their game has managed to play deep into October (and early November).

To conclude this drawn-out thought process, as the power game dips, it is now again very important to establish some kind of running game. The season is a long one and on any given day, a team will be faced with difference circumstances and different obstacles. It is important to have the ability to respond to anything that comes up, lest you find that your bread and butter don’t always make toast.

Some additional observations from this study:

  • My God – check out Mike Piazza with the Dodgers in 1996 (I told you I’d talk about them a bit more). They trailed the National League in OBP, sitting at .316. But Mike Piazza made it to first base safely (and often much further) 44.2 percent of the time. He also put up a slugging percentage of .563 compared to his team (including him) rate of .384. How did this team, trailing the league in both SLG and OBP make the playoffs? Somehow, 5 of 8 regulars had OPS+’s over 100 (league average). Part of this can be explained away due to the Dodgers’s 1996 one-year park factor for hitters of 92 (a fair bit below league average), so the raw OBP and SLG’s can be below league average while the ‘+’ numbers can look much better. They were also dragged down by a putrid bench, with only one player (Billy Ashley) with over 100 PA and an OPS+ over 100. But how did they make the playoffs? Pitching, people. Team ERA+ of 112 – I know, these measurements are fairly crude, but they are somewhat illustrative. Their top four starting pitchers had ERA+’s of at least 113, and their top five relievers had ERA+’s of at least 112.
  • Vlad Guerrero on the 1998 Expos – on a horrible team that finished 65-97, with the worst OBP in that year’s NL. The team OPS was .704, for an OPS+ of 86. The Impaler came fairly close to doubling that latter mark, with an OPS+ of 150. On the other hand, he did contribute to their low OBP, with an isolated OBP (OBP-BA) of .047. That was, in fact, worse than the team as a whole, which put up a cumulative isolated OBP of .061. I don’t know what that means, but he sure was fun to watch, wasn’t he?
  • The crime of batting average as a defining mark. Jim Tracy’s 2006 Pittsburgh Pirates played the full season with Jose Castillo at 2B. Looking just at the traditional fielding stats of range and fielding percentage, we see that Castillo had a range around league average (Castillo – 5.06/9innings. NL 2B – 5.05/9innings). His fielding percentage was a bit lower – .975 compared to the average at 2B of .982. He had also not shown much else in terms of his defensive prowess in his previous two years in the majors. Meanwhile, another Jose, the recently slugging-sensation, Bautista, took on a utility role for the Pirates, stepping up to the plate 97 less times that did Castillo. Bautista hit only a lowly .235. Never mind that he walked in nearly one out of every ten appearances. .235 is .235. And he struck out 110 times. And we all know what that means…
    On the other hand, Jose Castillo hit a much more robust .253(!). And Castillo only struck out 98 times in nearly 100 more plate appearances. Never mind that he only walked 32 times in those 562 plate appearances. Let’s also, for a moment, forget that Bautista was plunked a pretty remarkable 16 times – 3rd in the NL. (Castillo only took one for the team on 5 occasions). Finally, let’s forget that the 21.2 innings that Bautista played at 2B that year make up more than half of his career total at the keystone. Instead, let’s remember that Freddy Sanchez was playing (primarily) at 3B that year for the Bucs. In over 165 innings at 2B, the 2006 N.L. batting champ did not commit a single error. In more than double that exposure at 2B the previous year, he also did not look out of place. Why couldn’t Tracy have slid Sanchez over to 2B in 2006, so that Bautista could play at 3B (as they finally did the next year), if not keep Sanchez at 3B to allow Bautista to play 2B? Anything to keep Castillo from regularly playing with that .299 OBP of his. The only answer I can come up with is that managers just do not make those kinds of “risky” moves for players who are hitting in the .230’s. And so, this flawed assessment allowed Toronto later to acquire the under-appreciated Bautista in exchange for former prospect catcher, Robinzon Diaz, in August 2008.
  • And now for a chart looking at the career of the aforementioned Jose Bautista, which may prove that his incredible power of 2010 was real, previously lurking in the shadows of a flawed approach at the plate. In the world of three true outcomes (K, BB, HR), many often associate power and strikeouts to the all-or-nothing approach. Swing through the ball, or peel the leather right off. Let’s focus on just strikeouts and homers, looking at how Bautista fared in each since his first season with regular playing time, 2006.
Year AB HR K HR % K% HR%+K%
2006 400 16 110 4% 27.5% 31.5%
2007 532 15 101 2.8% 19% 21.8%
2008 370 15 91 4.1% 24.6% 28.6%
2009 336 13 85 3.9% 25.3% 29.2%
2010 569 54 116 9.5% 20.4% 29.9%
Totals 2207 113 503 5.1% 22.8% 27.9%

Yes – the homers of 2010 stick out, but in this chart, Bautista’s outlier year was not 2010, but 2007, when he took a more cautious approach to hitting and made ‘in-play’ contact 78.2% of the time, instead of his usual range down between 71.4-68.5%. Last year was as good as it was for Bautista not because he turned doubles into home runs (a common occurrence for young, developing sluggers), but rather, that he turned strikeouts into souvenirs. How often does that happen? I don’t know, but if there is the demand, I can do similar studies to others who have rapidly increased their home run totals year over year.

  • Arizona 2007 – very low patience throughout the lineup with only one regular (Orlando Hudson) with a walk rate over 10%. Nobody on the team without power, but only one player (Chris Young, of the .295 OBP) with more than 21 home runs. Only Brandon Webb was consistently reliable among the starting pitching, but they had an awesome bullpen quintet in closer Jose Valverde and merry men Tony Pena, Brandon Lyon, Juan Cruz and Doug Slaten that gave the D’Backs 321 innings of 2.92 ERA pitching. Remember, this was the team that made the playoffs while being outscored over 162 games.

I look forward to your comments. Baseball is nothing, if not a self-replenishing topic for discussion.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Daniel Bzdzikot permalink
    January 31, 2011 3:43 pm

    Why not look at the top teams in each category as well for comparison purposes to compare which batting statistic is in fact best in order to make the playoffs and achieve a winning record. As you say most teams that gave up steals still made the playoffs, how about those teams with the most steals, how did they fair?

    • January 31, 2011 3:51 pm

      Daniel, thanks for commenting. My goal here, which I hoped was clear in the introduction, was to look at teams who did not have robust offenses, in that they completely failed to account for a given facet of the offensive game. So I set out to see what are the likely outcomes for teams who are bottom of their league in a given category.
      I remember having read several other studies that show that OBP is the one stat to focus on to maximize chances of winning, but, again, I am looking at what happens if another facet is completely ignored. That said, it might also be interesting to study the records of the teams that lead their leagues in steals. Is it as useless as, say, batting average, where a team like last year’s Kansas City Royals can finish 2nd in the AL in BA, with an overall record of only 67-95?

  2. January 31, 2011 7:37 pm

    Hey Ryan. A nice excursion into baseball here, an enjoyable read.

    Two comments, off the top of my head. One is that I’d be careful calling 2003/2004 as the demarcation line for the Steroid Era/non-Steroid Era. If there actually is such a demarcation line, even roughly speaking, I would think it came significantly later, more around the time right after the Mitchell Report. The other is that you need to remember that speed is useful for defense as well. I know that’s in opposition to your original finding, but did anyone (except in fantasy leagues) think that stolen bases were as important as power and on-base skills? Okay, I’ll throw in a third. Coaching has a big impact on the running game. Just because a team does or doesn’t steal very often doesn’t reflect their skills as much as their tactics and coaching philosophy.

    • January 31, 2011 8:39 pm

      Timo – thanks for responding.
      You’re probably right about the “Steroid Era” comment. It was a bit of a throw-away. I am personally of the opinion that its prevalence in the game was dwindling even before the Mitchell Report came out. I don’t recall every shred of proof cited by the report, but my memory, in conjunction with a quick glance at the pdf, tells me that much of the evidence was from 5+ years before the report came out. In any case, I do believe that the impact of steroids on the game was overblown, and the heavy offense had multiple causes, including, but not limited to, smaller new parks, juiced balls and the new bats. My overarching concern here, is that we can maybe identify a point in which teams could safely ignore the running game completely, for the benefit of the three true outcomes. Before 2003, it was pretty safe to do, yet since then, the absence of a running game hurt more.
      You are also mostly correct in that I have focused on “speed” as a skill and not as a tactic, while I probably should have done the reverse. I was re-reading Moneyball the past week, and the whole, “one tool player” idea kind of stuck with me. You are absolutely right in that many teams have speedy (enough) players, but don’t utilize them on the basepaths nearly enough. I think the recent Blue Jays teams are a prime example of that concern.
      Now, I was not really trying to quantify the effect of steals on a team’s chances at winning, but trying to find a trend in how teams use the steal as a weapon and what kind of effect that has on their offense. There are definitely ways of expanding this study – for example, looking at every team’s ranking in the categories listed and finding the best combinations for success. As a way of getting started, I chose to look at a middle-range picture and see what can be extrapolated.

  3. February 1, 2011 3:19 am

    Just looking at this from a logical point of view – and I recall reading this in some Bill James essay – if you have a team with great power, but little on-base propensity, then that’s not going to be a very effective offense. There would be a defincient number of people on base to be driven in. However, if you a team with little power, but a line-up that is great at getting on base, that will work out just fine. The on-base guys will keep those innings alive. James was making the point that OBP compliments both Slugging and OBP. It makes both offenses better. However, Slugging compliments only OBP offenses. It does not add much to a line-up that is already oriented towards power.

    • February 1, 2011 4:05 am

      I can’t recall reading that study, but it makes sense, doesn’t it? Think of last year’s Jays. Great power, few baserunners. They led the AL in runs scored, but finished 12th in OBP. Finished 6th in runs scored – pretty much splitting the difference. They are definitely a team for which, with just a few extra walks, might have seriously increased their run total.

  4. February 1, 2011 10:19 pm

    Quite the debut! Enjoyed the post. Looking forward to what’s on-deck.

    • February 1, 2011 10:34 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, Navin. I aim to please! I have a plan in place for the season, but am fairly open as to how to proceed as we head into Spring Training.

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  1. The $64,000 Question, plus Inflation. Lots of Inflation « section203

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