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 YankeesPA 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 DodgersPA 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.”