Plugging in the Numbers   (02/05/01)

One of the great things about the winter and spring is that fans go crazy with optimism:

"Even though our team only won 75 games last year, we just signed a 15-game winner- we can compete for the division!"

A number of pundits deride this kind of thinking as overly simplistic.  Of course, they turn right around and do the same thing in a much more subtle way.  "Well, this team just got a really good hitting outfielder who should be worth about 70 more runs than the average replacement outfielder, which should add up to about 7 extra wins.  Unfortunately, their closest competitor in the division got a really good starting pitcher who'll probably hold the opposition to 70 fewer runs than the average replacement, which will also mean about 7 extra wins"... etc.

Regardless, the effect of changes can not be measured arithmetically.  More simply put, one can not measure exactly how much a change in personnel will affect the outcome.  Even the smallest of changes can have a huge impact.

For instance, in 1972, AL teams scored a total of 6441 runs scored in 929 games.  That averages out to about 6.933 runs per game.  That same year in the NL, 7265 runs were scored in 930 games, roughly 7.8118 rpg.  The following year, AL teams scored 8314 runs.  That's an increase of nearly 2000 more runs!  What happened?  Well, for one thing, the schedule went from 154 games per season to 162.  OK, so even figuring in the increase in games played, we should still expect to see AL games average around 7 runs a game, right?  Nope.  The AL played 972 games in 1973.  Given 8314 runs scoring, that averages to 8.533 runs per game, a jump of over one and a half runs per game.  Scoring in the NL, however, remained fairly constant; in 1973, teams scored 8062 runs in 971 games, which amounts to 8.303 rpg or about a half run increase.  So what happened in the AL to cause such an offensive explosion?  The designated hitter was introduced in 1973.  This replaced the pitcher in the batting order with one of each team's nine best hitters.

However, when figuring out the increase per team, the bump in scoring comes to 131 runs per team.  So was each team's 9th best hitter worth 131 extra runs more than the starting pitcher?  Hardly.  I'm not sure even their 1st best hitter was worth that much  The effect of replacing a bad hitter with at least a mediocre one was felt throughout the line-up.  No longer could the opposing pitcher pitch around the 7th and 8th place hitters to get to the opposing pitcher.  He couldn't simply go "four wide" (intentionally walking a batter) if he got in trouble because now there was an RBI threat waiting in the next hitter, as opposed to before, when he faced a relatively easy out.  The bottom of the order started seeing better pitches.  Once the bottom of the order started producing more, the top of the order had more RBI opportunities.  Thus, four or five spots in the lineup produced more.  All from improving one spot in the line-up.  Ever wonder why AL pitchers seem to do well the first year they're in the NL and NL pitcher seem to struggle when they go to the AL?  Now you know.  It's not that AL hitters are any better than NL hitters.  The NL pitchers simply aren't used to the constant pressure of facing nothing but decent to good hitters and the AL guys, who are used to pitching that way, feel like they're on spring break when they get to face a pitcher.  But I digress...

Viewed arithmetically, this kind of jump in scoring would seem impossible.  The average starting pitcher scores about 6 runs a season.  A good pinch hitter scores about 30.  Each drives in a similar amount.  Either way, they total about 60 runs a season.  So there's no way that replacing the pitcher with a regular hitter should account for this kind of a boost in production if viewed as simply plugging in one number for another.  One seemingly small change had a much larger effect than could have been anticipated.

Sometimes the converse is true.  Sometimes a bunch of big changes don't necessarily mean big success.  In 1992, the Mets added Bobby Bonilla, Bret Saberhagen, Willie Randolph and Eddie Murray to a team that was already well-stocked with talent.  Almost everyone thought the Mets would run away with the division.  They finished 5th.  There are myriad reasons why this happened but the most commonly espoused was that they simply had too many star players who craved the spotlight and not enough who simply did everything they could to win.  Not enough worker bees, to quote a famous axiom.

So dream on, fans.  Even though your team may not have made a big splash this offseason, their fine-tuning may have been just the right tweak to move them to the head of the division.  Likewise, just because some team made a big splash signing free agents doesn't necessarily mean they're going to the promised land this October.  It's nice to see that even in an era when revenue disparity often causes many to suffer from revenue "despair-ity" that hope still makes it's home on the diamond.

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