Before Moneyball: How the Tigers Learned to Embrace the Strikeout

A conversation between Tim Kurkjian and Mark Teixeira on the May 7 edition of “Baseball Tonight” on ESPN reminded us of the following article, which was originally published in The 1992 Elias Baseball Analyst (New York: Fireside, 1992. Print.)  It’s also a reminder that the Moneyball-style approach of identifying undervalued players based on their statistical profiles didn’t begin with on-base percentage.  Nor is an appreciation of power-hitting, high-strikeout players a recent development.

 

The ancient Greek lyric poet Archilochus wrote: The fox knows many tricks, the hedgehog just one—one good one.

Epigraphists believe Archilochus was a Detroit Tigers fan.

The Tigers’ one trick echoes ancient Greece, the legendary land of Homer.  Last season, the Tigers hit a major-league high 209 home runs and ranked second in runs scored. They pushed those runs across the plate despite ranking dead last in batting average in the American League and leaving the league’s second-highest total of runners on base.

Along with their homeric exploits, the Tigers struck out impressively.  Four of the American League’s top six strikeout victims were Tigers.  Overall, Detroit fanned 1185 times, breaking the junior-circuit record of 1148 established by the 1986 Seattle Mariners, a 67–95 last-place team.  The Tigers barely missed the 1968 New York Mets’ major league mark of 1203.  The Mets may have been just 12 months away from a miracle, but when they set the strikeout record they scored just 2.9 runs per game and finished ninth in a 10-team league.

Obviously strikeouts are no way to get runs across the plate. When the Mariners said bye-bye to homer-hitting strikeout specialist Steve Balboni a couple years ago, then-Seattle manager Jim Lefebvre said “the game stops” when a Balboni-style batter steps into the box.  Certainly the one time in 20 or so when that slugger hits one out is inspiring and useful, but are the rest of his at-bats merely a waste of time?

In the Cardinals essay of the 1987 Analyst, we showed that teams that advance more than a fair share of base runners on outs tend to score more runs than otherwise similar teams that don’t.  We’ve continued to notice that runners rarely advance on strikeouts.  So if only the Tigers would put the ball in play a little more often, they’d score more runs, right?

We went back into history to examine that supposition, seeking teams with the same offensive characteristics as the 1991 Tigers, but with lower strikeout totals.  Although the ’91 Tigers seem to be a team out of the 1930s (their still-classic period uniforms further enhancing that image), 16 of the 17 most-similar teams played after 1960.  The most similar team we found should warm the hearts of those who believe that ballparks shape ballclubs; it was the 1962 Tigers:

Year G AB H 2B 3B HR BB SO SB BA SLG
1991 162 5547 1372 259 26 209 699 1185 109 .247 .416
1962 161 5456 1352 191 36 209 651 894 69 .248 .411

That’s a close match as far as the condiments go.  Now here’s the beef: One of those Tigers teams scored 758 runs (or 4.7 per game); the other scored 817 runs (5.0 per game), or 7 percent more. And, ladies and gentlemen, the team that scored more runs was last season’s strikeout kings.

O.K., maybe that’s a fluke.  But the odds of such an aberration get longer the further you progress down the list of statistical clones.  You’d be unlikely to mistake any of the following teams for last season’s Tigers in a dark alley. Compare the rest of the 10 most-similar teams, and note that all were outscored by the 1991 Tigers:

Year Team G R R/G AB H 2B 3B HR BB SO BA SLG
1991 Tigers 162 817 5.04 5547 1372 259 26 209 699 1185 .247 .416
1969 Red Sox 162 743 4.59 5494 1381 234 37 197 658 923 .251 .415
1956 Dodgers 154 720 4.68 5098 1315 212 36 179 649 738 .258 .419
1961 Angels 162 744 4.59 5424 1331 218 22 189 681 1068 .245 .398
1979 Orioles 159 757 4.76 5371 1401 258 24 181 608 847 .261 .419
1985 Tigers 161 729 4.53 5575 1413 254 45 202 526 926 .253 .424
1987 Yankees 162 788 4.86 5511 1445 239 16 196 604 949 .262 .418
1987 Athletics 162 806 4.98 5511 1432 263 33 199 593 1056 .260 .428
1970 Red Sox 162 786 4.85 5535 1450 252 28 203 594 855 .262 .428
1987 Orioles 162 729 4.50 5576 1437 219 20 211 524 939 .258 .418

The fact is that despite—or perhaps on account of?—their ponderous strikeout total, the 1991 Detroit club outscored nearly every comparable team (strikeouts notwithstanding) in recent major league history.  In fact, last season’s Tigers outscored every one of the similar teams until we reach number 15 on the hit list: the 1985 Baltimore Orioles, who scored one more run in one fewer game. We don’t insist you take these figures as an endorsement for strikeouts, or even as a comeback plea for Dave Kingman.  But they make it awfully difficult to claim that strikeouts are a bigger drag on a team’s offense than other outs; they suggest that an out is an out.  A hitter may look pitiful when striking out, but very few look too impressive popping out either.  If a major league hitter wants to avoid strikeouts, it’s likely he can do just that—and tap out to short every time up. But in the modern game, players swing for the fences, and unless they’re Joe DiMaggio that means more strikeouts—but not necessarily fewer runs.

In previous eras, strikeouts were stigmatized, perhaps rightfully so.  A half-century ago, smaller gloves, generally less-skillful fielders, and more-poorly-maintained fields (without carpets, no less) turned many more batted balls into adventures. It made sense to emphasize putting the ball in play, since almost anything could happen.  But this Tigers case study shows that such an approach may not be important any more, if you have a lineup of sluggers doing the striking out.  Besides, when batters strike out, they’re not hitting into double plays and they’re increasing pitch counts, thereby (according to the current statistical vogue) wearing down pitchers and giving base runners more opportunities to steal.

It’s been known for years that home runs help teams win games and players win bigger salaries.  Ralph Kiner said he gripped his bat at the bottom because “that’s where the Cadillacs are.”  Arbitration has institutionalized the connection between statistics and salary, and homers rank among the numbers that pay best. Today’s Tigers seem to be leading the major leagues’ charge toward the one-trick hedgehog, er, pony—or better still, ballplayer. Blame the usual suspects—expansion, the designated hitter, competition for top athletes from other major sports—as more players than ever before stay in the majors on the strength of a single skill.

Football turned the similar narrowing of its players’ skills into a positive by declaring them “specialists.”  Well, last year there were nine specialists in major league baseball as well—defined as players with at least 20 home runs and fewer than five steals, or 20 steals and less than five home runs, while batting at least 10 points below the league average.  And 1991 was a slow year for that sort of thing.  Over the last decade, there have been an average of 11 one-tool wonders per season, with more qualifying on the home-run end than the stolen-base end.  That 11-specialist average for the past decade is higher than every season during the 1970s except one; more than any two years during the 1950s combined (or any three during the 1960s); and more than for the entire decades of the 1940s, 1930s, or 1920s.

Rob Deer typifies the trend; he’s been on the list for the last three seasons.  Surprisingly, he’s the only Tiger in this thicket.  Pete Incaviglia is a two-time specialist, but he didn’t homer enough to make the list in 1991; with no tricks left in his bag, Big Pete wasn’t good enough even to remain on the Tigers roster for 1992.  But striking out a lot and hitting home runs doesn’t necessarily make a player a hedgehog.

Deer fanned 175 times to lead the A.L. last season, en route to his 25 homers and .179 batting average.  He didn’t hit his weight, but Deer is a better (and heavier) than average right fielder, and he walked 89 times, for a .314 on-base average. That’s better than Lance Johnson’s, whose batting average was 90 points higher than Deer’s.  Deer scored as many runs as Don Mattingly and knocked in just four less in 100 fewer plate appearances.  This Deer may be a hedgehog, but he ain’t a worthless one by any stretch of the imagination.

Cecil Fielder is a big burly bruiser who hit 44 homers and struck out 151 times in 1991, with no triples, no steals, and just 25 doubles.  More home runs than doubles often indicates a lumbering slugger, the single-tool stereotype; Harmon Killebrew did it 18 times, the most in major league history.  But Fielder isn’t on the specialist list either, because he batted .261, a point above the league average.  That’s also one point better than Mo Vaughn, the much ballyhooed young slugger, and Robin Yount, the vaunted all-around performer; it’s five points better than John Olerud, the purported natural (actually, we’ve done some of that purporting ourselves) whose spot Fielder could well be filling in Toronto if the Blue Jays had wanted it that way. Fielder also walked 78 times, giving him a .347 on-base percentage.  That’s five points better than Devon White, the reborn leadoff hitter who saved the Blue Jays, and 21 points better than aging but still athletic Dave Winfield.  Of course, none of those other players approached Fielder’s power numbers, and baseball history suggests they never will.  Sure, some of them bring other skills to the table; but Fielder does a lot more than homer and fan, too.

Then there’s Mickey Tettleton, who struck out 131 times last season—the sixth-highest total in the A.L. and his third consecutive season of 117 or more.  He has now struck out 674 times in 2816 plate appearances—roughly one for every four PAs, almost exactly equal to Lew Burdette’s career rate.  But Tettleton also drew 101 walks last year, his second straight season with 100-plus free passes—a nice complement to his 31 homers, wouldn’t you say? All that from a switch hitter and pretty fair defensive catcher, to boot.  Until Sandy Alomar Jr. reproduces his rookie-season numbers, Tettleton could be the best receiver in the American League, if not all of baseball.

Here’s the point: The Tigers picked Tettleton, Fielder, and Deer off the discard pile.  Toronto gave up on Fielder, perhaps understandably, because they fell in love with long, lean Fred McGriff’s left-handed power stroke.  The Milwaukee Brewers let Deer leave as a free agent, replacing the devil they knew with Franklin Stubbs.  And when Tettleton became a free agent after a disappointing 1990 season, the Baltimore Orioles offered arbitration simply to ensure they’d get a draft choice when he signed elsewhere.  Tettleton hit just 15 homers in 1990, down from 26 the year before, although still third most among A.L. catchers. But he also fanned 160 times (a major league record for switch-hitters, if you follow that kind of stuff).  The O’s couldn’t have been too delighted when Tettleton took them up on the arbitration offer; faced with the prospect of paying an unwanted player more than a million bucks, Baltimore traded Tettleton to the Tigers for pitcher Jeff M. Robinson.  This past winter, Detroit signed Tettleton to a three-year deal, while the Orioles released Robinson.

The Orioles can say they needed to make room for minor league slugger Chris Hoiles, who may yet develop into the kind of threat Tettleton already is.  Or they can say they had to cut their payroll in order to accommodate Glenn Davis, a more accomplished slugger.  But you have to wonder how much of Baltimore’s decision to let Tettleton go for so small a price was simply a reflection of the disdain with which most teams regard players who strike out often—no matter what their other skills.

The Tigers are clearly the majors’ most enlightened team on this count, not letting strikeouts cloud their judgments about players, particularly those well suited to their own unique ballyard.  Of course, other factors contributed to the team’s willingness to go bottom fishing.  For years, the Tigers seldom chased big-ticket free agents, allowing much of their 1984 runaway championship team to trickle away, one at a time, uncontested: Ruppert Jones in 1984, followed by Aurelio Lopez (1985), Lance Parrish (1986), Kirk Gibson (1987), Darrell Evans (1988), and ultimately Jack Morris (1990).  And the organization’s farm system, perhaps the most productive of the 1970s when it spawned the foundation for that 1984 title, went dry in the late 1980s.  Last season, Milt Cuyler became the first Tigers rookie since Trammell and Whitaker in 1977 to accumulate as many as 400 plate appearances.  Nonetheless, Detroit’s trawling has yielded several big ones like Fielder, Tettleton, and 20-game winner Bill Gullickson to more than compensate for the flops (like Tony Bernazard and Andy Allanson, who also opened the 1991 season on Detroit’s roster).

Detroit has found its niche for the time being pulling frequent fanners from the bottom of the barrel.  But as other teams realize how they’ve helped restore respectability to the recently helpless Tigers, it could be that the availability of such players will dwindle.  To paraphrase Dr. Strangelove, the Tigers are showing the rest of baseball how to stop worrying about the strikeout and learn to love it.  Once those rivals wise up, there might not be any more Fielders or Tettletons to snap up so cheaply; and unless the Detroit farm system regains its lost touch, the big club may be forced to field a lineup of Bernazards and Allansons.  A team of apparent hedgehogs on the field has made the front office look pretty foxy, but they won’t survive in the woods much longer on that one trick alone.

Caps squander 2-0 lead in games, fall to Rangers in Game 7

The Rangers defeated the Capitals, 5–0, in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series at Verizon Center.  Washington led the series two-games-to-none, and Monday’s loss ended the sixth series in which the Caps were eliminated after holding a 2–0 lead in games.

Against all odds, the Capitals have a losing record (4–6) in series in which they won each of the first two games.  Historically, the NHL winning percentage of teams that took a 2–0 lead in a playoff series is 88 percent.

Two other teams have lost at least six playoff series after leading two-games-to-none. But both are members of the “Original 6,” having played and won many more such series than the Caps: the Red Wings (33–7) and Bruins (25–7).