An Offense For The Ages

Jose Lopez
I will admit, I have been itching to do this post. It has been in the back of my mind for months, and as September unfolded, I knew I had to do it. My curiosity spiked after Joe Posnanski took some time to try to put the 2010 Mariners offense in some sort of historical context, and was appalled at how bad it was. He discovered that no team with a designated hitter has ever scored so few runs, which in itself is pretty darn amazing.

However, I wanted to take Posnanski's research one step further. He looked purely at runs scored. He did not consider the context (though I am sure he is well aware that a run scored now isn't quite the same as a run scored 40 years ago).

In the grand history of baseball, offensive production has fluctuated a surprising amount. For instance, the 1930s had similar offensive numbers to "the steroid era." Presumably, they did not have steroids back then, but reporters really stuck to on-the-field reporting back in those days.

The 1960s were almost as dead as the fabled dead ball era. Things were so bad that the mound was lowered between the 1968 and 1969 seasons, and continued to be so bad that the American League adopted the designated hitter in 1973.

Offensive production has had its ups and downs league-wide, which is part of why I was amazed when Posnanski had to go back to the early 1970s to find a team that straight-up scored fewer times than the 2010 Mariners.

Runs scored were harder to come by back in the early 1970s, for whatever reason. Nobody scored that many runs.

But teams do score runs in 2010.

In fact, even though offenses aren't as prolific as at the height of the steroid era, they still are pretty prolific in the grand scheme of baseball history. In a historically hitter-friendly context, you have to go back to a historically pitcher-friendly context to find another offense that scored as few runs as the 2010 Mariners. As far as I'm concerned, that should count for something.

That's when the light bulb went off in my head. The 2010 Mariners weren't just bad, or even historically bad. There was a chance that this was the worst offense the American League has ever seen.

I investigated further, with a pretty simple metric. I call it RUNS+, in the spirit of OPS+. OPS+ is simply a measure of how much better or worse a player (or team's) OPS is compared to the league average. An OPS greater than 100 is above average, and below 100 less than average. RUNS+ takes a team's runs scored and compares it to that year's median runs scored in the league.

I intentionally chose to compare to the median instead of the mean for one reason. Before expansion, the American League had only 8 teams, and even now has only 14, so 1 or 2 particularly good or bad offenses could skew the mean noticeably. The median is resistant to skewing, whereas the mean is not, so median was my tool of choice - especially because I was hunting for the kind of teams that could skew the mean.

The idea behind RUNS+ is to take into consideration the offensive environment a team operated in, so that RUNS+ ratings from different eras can be compared directly. Therefore, if the 2010 Mariners offense really is among the worst in American League history, it should have one of the lowest RUNS+ scores of all-time.

In 2010, the median runs scored in the American League was 771.5, and the Mariners crossed the plate 513 times. That comes out to RUNS+ of 68.

As I delved into the American League's past, I began to appreciate just how atrocious that 68 is. Year after year after year, I looked for contenders, and comparable scores were few and far between. It got to the point where I raised my eyebrows when I saw a RUNS+ below 80. This team, the epic 2010 Mariners, was at 68!

As I went farther and farther back in history, and continued to cross off years with no legitimate contender, I will admit that I started to get excited. In my heart of hearts, I figured I would find some random team that was just unbelievably bad. For instance, I knew many teams were gutted when players served World War II, but baseball still went on. It seemed plausible that some team which already couldn't score runs could have lost its best hitters, and really bottomed out. Things happened back then that no team faces these days. I figured that once I found an offense clearly worse than the 2010 Mariners, I would look for some sort of crazy circumstance, and point at that they had some sort of excuse, whereas the Mariners just sucked.

I went all the way back to 1901, the birth of the American League. I don't have to dig for crazy circumstances. There are only three other American League offenses (and I don't know about the NL; I didn't look at them) that I think are even in the debate along with the 2010 Mariners for worst offense in American League history. Drumroll please...

One team in recent memory is within shouting range of the M's historic depths. The 2002 Detroit Tigers scored 575 runs when the AL median was 806.5, which comes to a RUNS+ of 71. The team went 55-106, dead last in the central. Also, this team got bailed out by the infamous 2003 Tigers, who despite a marginally better offense (591 runs, 75 RUNS+), went 43-119, just avoiding a record-tying 120th loss by getting a sweep in their final series of the year. In fact, Posnanski thought that the 2003 Tigers offense would give the 2010 Mariners a run for their money, but he was surprised when they scored almost 80 more times. In reality, Posnanski remembered more correctly how bad that team was than he gave himself credit for. The 2003 Tigers played in a more offensive friendly environment.

Anyway, the best thing to happen to the 2002 Tigers was the 2003 Tigers, because that team is so much more memorable for their failure. In 2002, Detroit had a handful of solid hitters. Bobby Higginson was on the wrong side of 30, but still okay. Dmitri Young and Randall Simon were both alright, but only one could play DH on a given day. Carlos Pena wasn't the slugger he has become with the Rays, but he was solid.

Two things about the 2002 Tigers offense stick out. First, as a team, they struck out 1035 times, and only worked 363 free passes. Pitch selection, anyone? The king of all the Tiger swatters was Chris Truby, who in 292 at-bats walked a measly 5 times with 71 strikeouts.

Speaking of Truby, he is part of what has to be one of the biggest black holes in MLB history. Third base was a complete disaster for the 2002 Tigers. Truby had only a 36 OPS+, and he logged the most time of anyone at the hot corner for the team. It's hard to believe that he got 292 at-bats with such horrific hitting, but the other option was Craig Paquette, who posted a 44 OPS+, and was 5 years older than Truby.

For comparison, Jose Lopez's anemic 2010 was worth an OPS+ of 71. Adam Moore had an OPS+ of 44, so imagine a whole year of his bat at third base, except worse.

Still, I say with a degree of comfort that the 2010 Mariners were a worse hitting team than the 2002 Tigers. They scored fewer runs, have a lower RUNS+, and the two teams played in relatively similar offensive environments.

There is a span of 70 years before the next contender appears, the 1932 Boston Red Sox. They scored only 566 runs when the AL median was 819, which gives them a RUNS+ of 70. The sponsor of their Baseball Reference page, Jeremy Lundblad, says, "My statistical analysis says you'll never find a worse Red Sox team..." and I will take Jeremy at his word. The team finished with a 43-111 record, definitely one of the worst records of all time, fueled by one of the most anemic offenses of all time.

In some ways, Boston's failure is remarkable. Their first baseman, Dale Alexander, had a great year. He hit .372 with power, and an incredible 55 to 19 strikeout-to-walk ratio (not a typo). It was good enough to garner some MVP votes.

However, starting shortstop Rabbit Warstler more than cancelled Alexander's contributions. His .211/.259/.276 triple slash line, and 39 OPS+ are tough to stomach, even from a traditionally defensive-minded position. Incredibly, despite being an automatic out, Rabbit did not lead the team in sacrifice hits, which really says more about him than the lack of talent around him. His sacrifice hit totals doubled a couple years down the road, along with a spike in his walk rate. Somebody got in Rabbit's ear and told him he couldn't hit worth beans.

Not surprisingly, Boston switched managers in the middle of their 1932 debacle. They replaced Shanno Collins (after an 11-44 start) with Marty McManus - who happened to be the utility infielder. Like Alexander, he got some MVP votes, though I have to think they were either thanks to his interim manager/utility player status, or purely out of sympathy.

Quick sidetrack: Wouldn't it have been awesome if the Mariners had named someone like Jack Wilson the interim manager when Don Wakamatsu was fired? It would have given him something to do when he was on the DL. Also, in the case of a player/manager, is a player's performance as manager relevant when considering their MVP candidacy? The quandaries that baseball reporters faced back in the day...

Ultimately, I would still say the 2010 Mariners had a worse offense than the 1932 Red Sox. It is harder to compare the two because they played in different times, but the Mariners scored quite a bit fewer runs despite playing more games, and have the slightly lower RUNS+ rating. Furthermore, though Ichiro is amazing, I doubt he gets MVP consideration this year like Dale Alexander did in that season. The Red Sox certainly have a case, and as Mercury Morris might put it, they are in the neighborhood - but I still think they fall just a tad short.

The last, and least, of the contenders is the 1909 Washington Senators. They scored 382 runs when the American League median was 542, which comes to a 69 RUNS+ rating. Just 205,199 fans watched them all year at home, which is literally a tenth of how many patrons checked the M's out at Safeco this season. Washington finished 42-110, easily last in the American League.

Unlike the other couple contenders, there are no painfully obvious black holes in the 1909 Senators lineup. There also aren't any great players in their lineup, either. Probably the most interesting player that took the field for that team was second baseman Joe Delahenty, mostly because he was one of five Delahenty brothers that played in the majors, the most notable being hall-of-famer Ed Delahenty.

The best name in the lineup has to go to Jiggs Donahue though. The old time baseball nicknames need to make a comeback.

The best player on the '09 Senators was an up-and-coming flame-thrower by the name of Walter Johnson. He was just 21 years old in 1909, but the ace of the staff in only his second full season in the majors. Johnson logged a team-leading 296.1 innings, though he would go on to have 9 consecutive seasons of 300+ innings starting in 1910. Of course, Walter went on to become one of the greatest pitchers of all time, but not even this budding superstar could muster anything better than a 13-25 record with such non-existent run support.  Felix Hernandez isn't the only pitcher to get short-changed by a bad offense in MLB history.

Then again, Johnson did sport a 2.22 ERA, which was the only time he had an ERA over 2.00 from 1907 to 1916. So, really, he had a pretty bad year by his standards. And this was well before the DH, so he could have done something about the runs scored with his own hitting.

Even by dead ball era standards, and the Senators played in the heart of that era, the Washington offense was anemic. I can't comprehend a team scoring only 382 runs in a season. Kind of like objects have terminal velocities they hit as they fall, I wonder if the Senators went as low as an offense could possibly go.

Then again, Washington's 382 runs were good for a 69 RUNS+, whereas the 2010 Mariners mark of 68 is lower. There is an argument that what the Mariners just did is worse.

In the end, I think it is a toss up over which offense is worse between the 1909 Senators and 2010 Mariners.  The Senators played in an era where strikeouts were avoided at all costs, and sacrifice bunts were used profusely. It isn't surprising that nobody scored many runs with such a conservative approach, but still, the Senators check in well below their peers. While the Mariners scored over 100 runs more than the Senators, they have the advantage of 100 years of offensive developments and improved strategies.

Even though the 2010 Mariners easily outscored the 1909 Senators, how much of that is simply in their approach? Who was actually worse? RUNS+ suggests that the Mariners were as bad at the modern approach as the Senators were at the dead ball era approach. It is fun to think about what the Senators might have done if they had tried to swing for the seats a little more, and downright frightening to think about what the Mariners might have looked like if they all tried to hit like Chone Figgins, except without patience. Based on my emotional reactions to those two hypotheticals, I say the Mariners are the more worse offense, by a very thin margin.

It is not hyperbole to say that the 2010 Mariners had the worst offense the American League has ever seen. Not many others are in the conversation. No other team has scored fewer runs relative to the league's median that year, and there are not many teams in general that have scored fewer runs regardless of offensive era. Next year will be better because, literally, it cannot get any worse.