What’s the Blueprint? - pt. 1

added 6/2/2005 by Scott Barzilla

Columnist Note: Since we had so much success with this earlier I thought I’d give the series another try. In this edition we will look at successful offenses in history and the balance they have.

Being in a slump is truly a lonely place to be. You have every well-meaning fan, player, and coach giving this piece of advice or that tip to help you get out of your slump. Usually, the best thing a hitter or pitcher can do is watch tape of himself when they were going good. The problem the Astros have is that the entire organization is in a slump (albeit a very brief one as far as franchises go). Unfortunately, they cannot go back to a blueprint they used to win the World Series title. So, we must look at other blueprints.

When I went back to select teams to study I didn’t want to study Cinderella’s that won one year and were mediocre the next. I also wanted to pick teams that were famous for having great offenses. So, what I did first was find teams that won three pennants or more in a five year period. This has happened 23 times since the NL and AL joined together in 1901. From there I picked out eight teams that were known for having great offenses (some also had great pitching staffs) and picked their best season within the stretch (in terms of record). I’m sure you’ve heard of most of these teams.

                    Year        Record        Outcome
Yankees        1927          110-44            WS
Athletics        1931        107-45            WS
Yankees        1939        106-45            WS
Dodgers        1953        105-49         Pennant
Yankees        1961        109-53            WS
Orioles            1969        109-53         Pennant
Reds            1975        108-54            WS
Yankees        1998        114-48            WS

This is a great collection of teams and most of them have stellar offensive reputations that go beyond simply being a great team. The 1927 Yankees, 1931 Athletics, 1953 Dodgers, 1961 Yankees, and 1975 Reds in particular have been lauded as perhaps the five greatest offenses ever assembled. Of course, people will question that notion and I might too with further study, but these eight teams are a good start.

At the end, we’ll take a look at the one or two best lineups more closely to demonstrate what we are looking at. To whet your appetite, I can tell you it will be the Bronx Bombers and the Boys of Summer. When you see the next chart you will see I pegged them. Essentially, we will be looking at how closely each teams’ middles (C, 2B, SS, CF) matched their corners (1B, 3B, LF, RF). A 100 score is a perfect match while anything below that shows the corners to be slightly better and anything above it shows the middles to be somewhat better.

               PA Ratio         OBP Ratio       SLG Ratio       OPS Ratio 
27 Yankees        94              88             73             79        
31 Athletics                89            102             89             95
39 Yankees              106              94           104           100
53 Dodgers              126              99             97             98    
61 Yankees              107            106           101           104
69 Orioles                84            102             82             90
75 Reds                98              99             95             97
98 Yankees                99            106           103           103

Composite              100            100             93             96

The implication is clear. Good offensive teams have balance throughout their order. Of course, most of these teams had at least two Hall of Famers in their lineup, but there is something to be learned here. Balance can be achieved without having anyone that goes to Cooperstown. The key is in recognizing that two guys with an 800 OPS can be worth more collectively than one guy with a 900 OPS and another with a 700.

1939 Yankees

               PA         AB         H         BB        HBP       TB       HOF
C Bill Dickey          561         480          145        77     4    246      Yes
2B Joe Gordon      644         567          161        75     2    287     Possible
SS Frank Crosetti      744         656          153        65           13    218       No
CF Joe DiMaggio      518         462          176        52     4    310      Yes
Total            2467       2165          635      269           23       1061       2.5
OBP: .376
SLG: .490
OPS: .866  

Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein called this team the greatest dynasty in baseball history and it isn’t difficult to see why when you look past the records. If there were any justice, Joe Gordon would be in the Hall of Fame and Tony Lazzeri wouldn’t be. Yet, you could look at the 1935-1938 Yankee lineups and substitute Lazzeri’s name for Gordon with similar results.

Even though Crosetti wasn’t an all-star performer he performed well enough to keep this unit afloat. His combined walks and HBP were nearly as much as Dickey and Gordon’s and he collected more than 200 total bases. The 1939 Yankees were one of three teams on this list to have all of their middles collect more than 200 total bases (the 1953 Dodgers and 1961 Yankees were the other two). In fact, the 1939 Yankees were the team that came the closest to having all eight regulars collect 200 total bases or more. Charlie Keller came up just short with 198 that season. It isn’t a coincidence that we will look at one of those two teams next.

                    PA         AB         H         BB        HBP       TB      HOF    
1B Babe Dahlgren           590        531        125      57        2        200          No
3B Red Rolfe               734        648        213      85        1        321          No    
LF George Selkirk           529        418        128    103        8        216          No    
RF Charlie Keller           479        398        133      81        0        198          No
Total                 2332      1995        599    326      11        935            0

I have to admit that I get misty eyed when I look at a lineup like this. It is absolutely flawless in its construction when you throw economics into the equation. Dahlgren could charitably be called below par as a first baseman, but his OPS is decent when you remove the first base tag. If anyone claimed that any of these guys should be Hall of Famers they would be hounded from the room with half-eaten boxes of vegetable fried rice, but Rolfe, Selkirk, and Keller were very good ball players. Some thought Keller was better than DiMaggio at the time, but his career didn’t last that long.

The flawlessness doesn’t come from the fact that all of these players made the all-star team. The flawlessness comes from the design. If you want to be weak anywhere you want to be weak on the corners. Why? Everything is relative as Albert Einstein always said. A ‘weak’ first baseman, left fielder, or right fielder would be a solid catcher or shortstop. This is a crucial lesson when you start applying a finite amount of money. Too many teams (including the Astros) throw a majority of their money (Berkman, Bagwell) at players on the corners. This leaves the middle of the diamond to furnish itself with the crumbs of the payroll. This is exactly opposite from what you want to do. The 1939 Yankees lineup is a really good blueprint to follow.

1953 Dodgers

                   PA         AB         H         BB         HBP         TB        HOF
C Roy Campanella           580        519       162     67          4           317         Yes    2B Jim Gilliam           708        605       168       100          3           234          No
SS Pee Wee Reese           610        524       142         82          4           220         Yes
CF Duke Snider           675        590       198     82          3           370         Yes
Total                 2573      2238       660       331        14         1141    3
OBP: .391
SLG: .510
OPS: .901

Most people look back on the 1953 Dodgers with a lot of fondness. Yet, they did not win the World Series. The Yankees were a great team that year, but it was the Dodgers pitching that probably let them down. Arguably, you cannot find a better collection of players in the middle of the diamond in big league history. Jim Gilliam is the guy that throws this group over the top. His numbers are right there with the rest of the group. As a whole, the offense may not be quite as good as the Murderer’s Row Yankees or the Big Red Machine, but in terms of balance you don’t get any better than this.

                 PA         AB         H         BB         HBP         TB         HOF
1B Gil Hodges        598           520       157        75       3        286          Maybe    
3B Billy Cox            364           327         95        37       0        145            No
LF Carl Furillo        520           479       165        34       7        278            No
RF Jackie Robinson        562           484       159        74       4        243           Yes
Total              2044         1810       576      220     14        952           1.5
OBP: .396
SLG: .526
OPS: .922

In many ways, the Dodgers are a more satisfying dynasty because they were built by someone willing to think ahead and take chances. The Yankees have more money than their entire division combined and they always have. The Dodgers aggressively scouted the Negro Leagues and took full advantage (where they Yankees were almost the last team on board). In addition to Robinson and Campanella, the team also had Gilliam and Don Newcombe (along with others).

You have to respect an executive that is willing to take chances. The same holds true for the Mariners of today (who have used more Japanese players than any other organization) along with those few willing to spend a lot of time and money in South America. Like the Yankees, the list of names here will not impress you as much as the first one, but the production is still the same because it is easier to find corner players. Some believe that Billy Cox was the best defensive third baseman of all-time and Jackie Robinson was great wherever he played. So, on top of the balanced offense you had several very good or great defensive players as well. If they had one more dominant pitcher (or a little more luck) they would have been the World Champions.

Back to Reality

As the Monkeys once said, “that was then, this is now.” I don’t even want to touch this season with a ten foot pole for a couple of reasons. First, it is way to depressing to show more than half the lineup below a .700 OPS. Those numbers would certainly skew anything we might learn. Secondly, analyzing in the middle of the season is a moving target. I write the article one day, it gets posted the next day, and maybe you’ve come in a couple of days later to check it out. By then Lance Berkman may have hit three home runs (we can all hope) between the time I posted the numbers and the time you’re reading it. Even 50 games into a season, pinning too much on the numbers is foolish.

Most of us are concerned with what the team was thinking this off-season so we’ll take a look at last year’s numbers. Besides, that team went 92-70 so they should come in the neighborhood of those teams above right? Maybe not, but good offenses (as the Astros had last season) should have the same properties as great offenses (just to a lesser degree). When I post the numbers, make sure you pay attention to all of the numbers because they are all important in this case.

                 PA         AB         H         BB         HBP        TB
C Brad Ausmus        438           403       100        33       2       131    
2B Jeff Kent            595           540       156        49       6       287
SS Adam Everett        410           384       105        17       9       148
CF Carlos Beltran        393           333         86        55       5       186
Total              1836         1660       447      154     22       752
OBP: .339
SLG: .452
OPS: .791

The thing is that these numbers look pretty good at first glance. Wouldn’t you take a 791 OPS from anyone at this stage in the season? I know I would. At this point, I must point out the low number of plate appearances. I included percentages on plate appearances in addition to the other numbers on the all-time great teams because this is what you see sometimes in the middle of the diamond. Durability is extremely important there because if you think the talent pool is thin for everyday middle infielders and catchers you should see the pool for backups. Let’s take a look at those numbers again including the three players with more than 100 plate appearances at those spots (Raul Chavez, Jose Vizcaino, Orlando Palmeiro)

              PA         AB         H        BB       HBP        TB
Regulars        1836      1660         447         154            22         752    
Bench              704        653         162           48              3         221
Total            2540      2313         609         202            25         973
OBP: .329
SLG: .421
OPS: .750

That puts a damper on things doesn’t it? Anyone want to guess why Jimy Williams is such a bad manager? Well, he clearly falls in love with his bench (maybe it’s because he was a scrub when he was a player). Phil Garner put the kibosh on that and our offensive production improved. What a coincidence. We haven’t looked at the corners yet but I want you to notice the before and after when we include the bench.

                 PA         AB         H         BB         HBP         TB
1B Jeff Bagwell        676           572       152        96       8        266            
3B Morgan Ensberg        447           411       113        36       0        166
LF Craig Biggio        688           633       178        40     15        297
RF Lance Berkman        681           544       172      127     10        308
Total              2492         2160       615      299     33      1037
OBP: .380
SLG: .480
OPS: .860    

The difference between the middles and corners is not that great until we include the bench numbers. The Astros have a PA percentage ranking of 74, which is ten points lower than the worst team on the chart above. Now, we will add the numbers from the three players (Richard Hidalgo, Mike Lamb, and Jason Lane) that had more than 100 plate appearances at the corners. Now, I realize this is problematic since the Astros shifted Biggio to left from center when they acquired Beltran, but the principle here is consistent enough through time to stretch the parameters a little.

           PA         AB          H          BB          HBP         TB
Regulars     2492        2160       615        299       33        1037    
Bench           678          613       168          64         1          297    
Total         3170        2773       783        363       34        1334
OBP: .372
SLG: .481
OPS: .853

Notice that the addition of the bench is not as dramatic on the corners as it is on the middles. There are two very good reasons for this. First, even though the bench had a similar number of plate appearances as the middles bench, it is a considerably lower percentage of total plate appearances for the group as a whole. Secondly, it is much easier to find quality backup corner outfielders, first basemen, and third basemen then it is backup catchers, shortstops, and second baseman.

What does this all mean?

I’m positive you’re asking yourself that question now. Well, take a look at this team and notice the glaring weaknesses. We got within one game of the World Series despite having a very flawed offense. When you factor in a pitching staff held together by a thread you have to see how tenuous a situation the club was in even before decisions on Beltran, Kent, and the pitching staff were made. In other words, even with the same cast of characters we likely wouldn’t have won anyway. Of course, we wouldn’t be this bad….

Fast-forward to this year and process the following changes. Biggio and Kent are essentially a wash, but you remove Beltran in center and insert Taveras. Now, you see the gap between the middles and corners get wider even under the best of circumstances. This is where we need a little creative thinking. The reflexive response is to immediately say, “You see? We should have signed Beltran?” No, that misses the point. You look at middles in corners in groups and not individually. If the club would have changed catchers (A.J. Piernyrski or Jason Kendall) and/or shortstops they would have covered the losses in centerfield and then some.

Coming up Next

In the next edition we will look at some things the Astros can do this coming off-season to get some balance in their lineup. Believe it or not, it isn’t going to be as difficult as it seems.

Scott Barzilla is the author of “Checks and Imbalances” and “The State of Baseball Management.”