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Playoff Contenders Who Can’t Score

Posted By Eric Seidman On May 6, 2012 @ 12:00 pm In ESPN Insider 2012 | No Comments

Despite being two games under .500 through the first week of May, the Philadelphia Phillies are still projected to make the playoffs. Their rotation boasts five effective pitchers, with three elite starters at the front, and they employ the best active closer in baseball. Pitching was always going to be their ticket to the post-season this year, as the team would go as far as its pitching carried it.

That sentiment rings true now more than ever, as the offense is scoring only 3.6 runs per game. Runs are much tougher to come by without Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in the lineup, but slow starts from counted on contributors like Jimmy Rollins, Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino have rendered the offense anemic quite often through their first 28 games. The Phillies 100 runs ranks 8th in the National League, but their per-game rate ranks 11th.

Obviously, scoring runs and winning games are strongly correlated – the more runs scored, the better the odds are of winning the game. However, this Phillies team is interesting in the sense that their starting rotation is so effective that they could still make the playoffs with a poor offense, which leads to the million-dollar question:

If the offense doesn’t improve and the Phillies make the playoffs, where would they rank among historically low-scoring playoff teams?

The inclusion of extra wild card teams muddies these waters a bit, as there is now a greater chance for everyone to make the playoffs, let alone low-scoring squads. This doesn’t skew our look through history insofar as what has actually happened. With that in mind, it’s imperative to remember that context is key. The Phillies 3.6 RPG average is meaningless without introducing the league average of 4.07 RPG for the senior circuit. Their RPG+, if you will, suggests they are scoring runs at 88 percent of the league rate. Numbers below 100 imply the offense is below average.

That adjusted rate is what we need to make accurate comparisons across various eras and scoring environments. Teams can have lower averages than the Phillies 3.6 RPG but a higher normalized rate given how frequently the league scored as a whole. I went ahead and normalized scoring rates by league and year, throughout history, and found these five teams as the lowest-scoring playoff contenders:

Team Year RPG RPG+
New York Mets 1973 3.78 90.97
Los Angeles Dodgers 1966 3.74 91.37
Houston Astros 1981 3.58 91.62
Los Angeles Dodgers 1996 4.34 92.65
Los Angeles Dodgers 1965 3.75 93.06

The Phillies, at 88.15, would top this list if they and the league continued scoring at the same rate, and they managed to make the playoffs. What’s even more noteworthy is that the NL East-leading Washington Nationals have scored fewer runs – just 93 over 27 games – and with an RPG+ of just 84.17, are the third lowest-scoring team in the National League.

Most of the teams above were from past eras, so what does the table look like if restricted to the Wild Card era of 1995-2011?

Team Year RPG RPG+
Los Angeles Dodgers 1996 4.34 92.65
Arizona Diamondbacks 2007 4.39 93.39
San Diego Padres 2006 4.51 94.73
San Diego Padres 2005 4.22 94.95
Los Angeles Dodgers 1995 4.40 95.05

Again, both the Phillies and Nationals would rank as the lowest scoring teams, relative to their scoring environment, to make the playoffs if all applicable assumptions were realized. While the Phillies aren’t currently in the playoffs if the season ended today, the Nationals are 18-9 and lead the division. While much has been made about the Phillies rotation and offensive woes, the Nationals are essentially in the same boat, albeit with far better overall results.

The added wild card spot throws a wrinkle into this equation, as it’s entirely possible that some teams that just missed the playoffs from 1995-2011 would have qualified for the table above. I looked through the standings in each season of the Wild Card era, identified the teams that would have been the second wild card had it existed at the time, and compared their RPG+ to the five low-scoring teams above. Two teams – the 2009 Giants and 2010 Padres – would stake a claim as belonging on that low-scoring list if two wild cards were in play throughout the entire era.

In fact, the 2009 Giants would have actually been the lowest-scoring team to make the playoffs, as they posted a 91.49 RPG+ that season. They missed the Wild Card by four games – the Rockies won it at 92-70 – while scoring 4.06 runs in a 4.43 run league.

From 1995-2011, of all the teams that made the playoffs or would have made the playoffs if two wild cards were in play, the lowest-scoring team was the 2009 Giants and their 91.49 RPG+. The Nationals are currently at 84.51 while the Phillies are at 88.50. It’s still very early in the season, and both teams could see substantial shifts in their run scoring and prevention, but this is what they are up against. It is very possible that one of these teams will become the lowest-scoring playoff team in history.


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