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 Robinson562    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.”