The way a team is built is always at the heart of discussions of free agent acquisition, trade analysis, optimal lineup construction, etc. It is what general managers are paid to do, and there are some very divergent philosophies that are espoused by folks like Brian Sabean or Jeff Lunhow. A few teams each year by happenstance or design end up having one unit, offense or pitching and defense (p/d), far outstrip the other in performance, and these are what I want to look it today.
In this instance I am stripping teams down to a function of two activities, how many runs do they score and how many do they give up. Some teams have innate advantages to one or the other of these activities based on fun things like park effects or deep pocket books, but that’s okay. What I did was pull the last ten full seasons (2004 through 2013) first and find out what the average runs scored/given up by a team was for that year. Then for each team I gave them a plus minus for runs scored and given up so a team that scored 20 more runs than the average gets a +20 and if they also allowed 20 fewer runs than average they get another +20 and their extremeness rating is 20 – 20 = 0, so their units of offense and p/d are balanced and not extreme. The most extreme differences for the two units over those ten years are as follows:
What stands out is that the most extreme teams tend to not be very good because one unit tends to be very, very bad creating an insurmountable obstacle to success. The Rangers of 2008 are by leaps and bounds the most extreme team because the had the best offense in major league baseball at 148 runs more than the average team, but they also allowed the most runs that year giving up 214 more than average and thus one 79 games and an extremeness rating almost 50% above second place. The 2005 Red Sox are the only team that made the playoffs with one dominant unit, and their pitching staff was bad, but not extremely bad as we will see in a bit. Their 2011 team was similar, but the 90 wins was not enough to get them into October.
Another interesting thing in this group is that almost all of them skew toward hitting. Only the 2010 Mariners, and the Giants teams 2009 and 2011 were pitching oriented with no offense to speak of. Also, 2005 was evidently the year for being extreme as there are three teams from that season in the top 10. Now let’s look at teams that are most extreme in one or the other category rather than the combined.
If we look at just extreme offenses there is a lot of success. The top offense of the last 10 seasons was the 2007 Yankees who scored 190 more runs than the average team that season. I was looking at the top 15 offenses by this measure and the Yankees show up 6 times and Boston does 4 times. Money can buy you a great offense, and it can get you to the playoffs. A full 80% of the top 15 offenses above average made the playoffs with only the aforementioned 2008 Rangers and 2011 Red Sox along with the 2005 Rangers missing the postseason. Those three teams all had negative p/d production relative to average that kept them out, though the Red Sox team was close.
Before moving to p/d extreme teams, I also looked at the records of these teams versus their Pythagorean expectation and they seem to perform as you would expect. Seven of the 15 were below expectation, so conversely eight above and on average the actual and expected were very close to being the same.
The teams that were best by runs allowed look very different. At +165, the 2011 Phillies’ “Best Rotation Ever”, was at least the best rotation of the past ten years by runs allowed versus the average. The volatility of pitchers prevents particular organizations from dominating this list like the offensive list. Only the Giants and Padres show up more than once with the three and two seasons respectively, thanks PECTCO! That means the top 15 offenses of the past decade belong to only four organizations versus 12 different teams being represented on the pitching side.
This probably shows that teams are being smart (or unsuccessful) in trying to build a team with extreme pitching dominance too. Only eight of the 15 best p/d teams made the playoffs, so better than naive probability of getting there, but a lot worse than the dominant hitting teams percentage at a little over 50% versus the 80 we saw before. Three of the playoff teams did manage to cover up below-average offenses, but generally you need a decent offense to go along with dominant p/d. A big reason for the difference is that the offenses tend to diverge from average to a greater extent as we can see in the top 2, top offense +190 and top p/d only +165. This difference is consistent though decreasing in magnitude moving down the top 15s.
If you compare the pitching extreme teams’ actual wins versus their Pythagorean expectation it does not behave like the extreme offensive group did. Out of the top 15 pitching extreme teams, 11 had fewer wins than expectation. The two tail p-value on a paired t-test for actual versus expected is 10.4% which doesn’t make for a strong conclusion, but probably means this needs some more attention. So what does all of this mean for this year’s playoff race?
The extreme run scoring teams for 2014 are Oakland, LA Angels, and the Blue Jays. Detroit was close, but they also just traded away some offense, so I will save them for another day as I think they are interesting right now too. Oakland is a lock for the playoffs and are the only team on pace to crack the top 15 of the past ten years with the offense trending toward being about 125 runs above average though the departure of Yoenis Cespedes may bring that back a little. The Angels are also looking pretty good for the playoffs, but probably as a wild card due to Oakland. Toronto is 2 games out of the wild card and needing to jump two teams, so they are in some trouble as their p/d is not doing so well. Their only trade deadline move of note was to add Danny Valencia so they have not shored up the pitching much though Marcus Stoman and Aaron Sanchez have come up and maybe Daniel Norris will as well.
The extreme p/d teams so far this year are Seattle, Washington, Oakland again, and a couple of almost teams like Cincinnati and San Francisco. Seattle is there with Toronto only flipped as they have a below average offense. They added Kendrys Morales and Austin Jackson and Chris Denorfia to try and help, but all have struggled so far for the Mariners. Oakland of course added lots of pitching in Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel and then Jon Lester, so don’t be surprised if they end up with the best offense and defense by the end of the year. Washington added Asdrubal Cabrera to a very average offense and Matt Thornton to their bullpen, but since they are almost a lock for the playoffs they weren’t needing large upgrades.
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