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2011 Giants: Lowest-Scoring Contender Ever?

The San Francisco Giants have been in a a funk lately, turning a half-game lead in the division on August 9 to a three and a half game deficit in a mere seven days. Their pitching hasn’t been bad, but at some point the sheer lack of offense was bound to catch up with them. On Monday, Scott Miller of CBS Sports tweeted that no team had made the playoffs averaging fewer than four runs scored per game since the 1988 Dodgers.

At the time, the Giants were averaging 3.43 runs per contest. While they were looking up at the Diamondbacks in the standings and not technically in the playoffs, Miller’s point remained valid. If they climb back atop the division, the Giants could conceivably become one of the lowest scoring teams in history to make the playoffs if their offensive struggles persist. But would they be the lowest scoring team to make the playoffs?

For starters, standard runs per game averages cannot be used to tell this tale. The run scoring environment is different from league to league and year to year. Averaging 3.43 runs per game when the league scores 4.15 runs means something different than it does when the league scores 3.75 runs. To gauge where the Giants would rank in this regard, a runs scored average normalized for the league and year paints a more accurate picture of how good or bad a team is at plating runners than raw numbers sans context.

Another step would be to factor in the run environment of the respective home parks, since some suppress scoring more than others. But consider this more of a back-of-the-envelope first look at what will eventually be a more comprehensive study on the topic.

With that in mind, I calculated the runs per game for each team in every year and repeated the process for each overall league in every season from 1901-onward. After that, the two averages were compared as a percentage of one another, as opposed to subtracting the team mark from that of the league. I bring that up only because I covered this same topic for ESPN in September 2009, coincidentally looking at how the Giants squad that year was on pace to become the lowest-scoring playoff team. In that article, the team average was subtracted from the league average. Maybe it’s splitting hairs, but I’m more comfortable using an RPG+ type of stat.

Since 1901, and excluding strike-shortened seasons, here are the eight lowest-scoring playoff teams using a normalized runs per game average:

1) 1973 Mets: 3.78 RPG, 4.15 RPG-LG, 91.0 RPG+
2) 1966 Dodgers: 3.74 RPG, 4.09 RPG-LG, 91.4 RPG+
3) 1996 Dodgers: 4.34 RPG, 4.68 RPG-LG, 92.6 RPG+
4) 1965 Dodgers: 3.75 RPG, 4.03 RPG-LG, 93.1 RPG+
5) 1985 Royals: 4.24 RPG, 4.56 RPG-LG, 93.1 RPG+
6) 2007 Diamondbacks: 4.39 RPG, 4.71 RPG-LG, 93.4 RPG+
7) 1984 Royals: 4.15 RPG, 4.42 RPG-LG, 94.0 RPG+
8) 1991 Blue Jays: 4.22 RPG, 4.49 RPG-LG, 94.1 RPG+

The question then becomes: where would the Giants rank if they made the playoffs with their current runs per game average? The 2011 National League is scoring 4.15 runs per game on the whole, while the Giants are averaging 3.42 runs per game. That calculates out to an 82.5 RPG+, which would be by far the lowest adjusted scoring average for any team to make the playoffs.

A month and a half still remains in the season, but this data should show just how tough it is for poor offensive teams to qualify for the postseason. No team averaging fewer than four runs per game has made the playoffs since the 1988 Dodgers, but that team scored 3.88 runs in a senior circuit that averaged the same 3.88 runs. The scoring environment is greater this year in the NL, and the Giants are scoring runs at a substantially lower rate.

Odds are they won’t make the playoffs if they continue to be this inept offensively, but if they do they will be in some small company.