The “Big Bat” Myth

If you were inclined to believe the cranks on fan boards, the fearmongers hosting sports talk shows and certain newspaper columnists, the Angels season is over because Bill Stoneman failed to flush the farm system — along with young major league talent such as Casey Kotchman, Howie Kendrick and Joe Saunders — for the mythic “big bat”.

Lost in all the hysteria has been one basic fact check — just how often has a team loaded with “big bats” actually won a World Series?

The stats show that it really doesn’t seem to matter much.

In fact, you can find some World Champions who were amongst the worst offenses in their league.

The first example that comes to mind is the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1980s. The Redbirds went to the World Series in 1982, 1985 and 1987. They beat the Brewers in seven games in 1982, then lost to the Royals in seven games in 1985 and the Twins in seven games in 1987.

In 1982, the Brewers had the #1 slugging percentage of all 26 major league teams at .455. The Cardinals were #21 (#8 in the NL) at .364. The Brewers were #1 in homers with 216. The Cardinals were last among all 26 teams with only 67. Yet if you look at runs scored, the Brewers were #1 at 891 but the Cardinals were #14 (#5 in the NL) at 685. How did the Redbirds score runs? They were #2 among all teams in stolen bases with 200, and had the second fewest strikeouts in the NL with 805 (the Dodgers were #1 at 804).

In other words … the Cardinals played Contactball, the Angels’ style of play.

In 1985, the Royals were the #8 SLG (.401) out of all 26 teams (#8 in the AL) and #8 in HR (154) out of 26 teams (#8 in the AL).  The Cardinals had the #20 SLG (.379) in the majors (#6 in the NL) and were #25 in HR (87) in the majors (#11 in the NL).

In 1987, the Twins were #6 in SLG (.430) in the majors (#4 in the AL) and #7 in HR (196) in the majors (#5 in the AL).  The Cardinals were #24 in SLG (.378) in the majors (#10 in the NL) and were last in the majors in HR (94).

So in a six-year span, the Cardinals went to three World Series, won one and took the other two to Game Seven. Not bad for a team lacking "big bats."

Let’s take a look at the World Series participants in this decade and see how they ranked in their leagues each year.  The world champion is in bold.

YEAR AL TEAM SLG (Rank) HR (Rank) NL TEAM SLG (Rank) HR (Rank)
2006 Tigers .449 (#5) 203 (#3) Cardinals .431 (#8) 184 (#5)
2005 White Sox .425 (#7) 200 (#4) Astros .408 (#11) 161 (#9)
2004 Red Sox .472 (#1) 222 (#4) Cardinals .460 (#1) 214 (#3)
2003 Yankees .453 (#4) 230 (#3) Marlins .421 (#6) 157 (#11)
2002 Angels .433 (#6) 152 (#10) Giants .442 (#1) 198 (#2)
2001 Yankees .435 (#7) 203 (#4) Diamondbacks .442 (#4) 208 (#4)
2000 Yankees .450 (#6) 205 (#6) Mets .430 (#8) 198 (#6)

As of this writing, the Angels are #8 in the AL in SLG (.414) and #13 in HR (72).

Would the Angels be better off if their offense generated more runs?  Of course.  But they’re already #3 in the AL in runs scored (532), behind the Tigers (615) and the Yankees (612).  The Angels just swept the Tigers by a large margin, and the Yankees are desperately trying to stay in the post-season race.

More importantly, they have the #3 ERA in the AL, behind the Red Sox (3.73) and the A’s (3.82).

If the Angels have a healthy Garret Anderson and Casey Kotchman for the rest of the season, their offensive productivity should improve.  Eventually Vlad Guerrero will come out of his home run slump.  Hopefully Howie Kendrick will return soon, and Mike Napoli will add more power when he returns from the disabled list.  And who knows, maybe Juan Rivera will return in September to contribute some more pop.  Of course, a catastrophic injury to a key player will cripple the offense, but that’s true of every team in the majors so that’s not a real argument to flush the farm system.

The facts show that the "big bat" by no means guarantees a World Series appearance, much less a championship.  The post-season is a crapshoot, as evidenced by the mediocre (83-78) St. Louis Cardinals winning the 2006 World Series.

In my opinion, the real key is the back end of the Angels’ rotation.  They need a reliable #4 and #5 starter.  Maybe it boils down to whether Bartolo Colon can come back and do a reasonable impersonation of his 2005 Cy Young Award performance.

But all this "big bat" nonsense is just spin to create controversy where there is none.  Or at least there shouldn’t be.


UPDATE August 2, 2007 6:30 AM PDTLos Angeles Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke published a column today writing that the Dodgers were wise not to trade the future for the present. Plaschke wrote:

… Today’s titles cannot be bought by tossing down a wad of sweaty bills at last call.

Today’s titles are not won today, or last week, or this season.

Today’s titles are not won by instant roster changes, they are won by slow organizational upheavals, restocking and reworking and resisting every impulse to scream.

Chances are, if you are desperate enough to trade top prospects for one big name, you are not good enough to win with him.


UPDATE August 2, 2007 8:45 PM PDT — An article on MLB.com offers one theory for the Angels’ preference for Contactball over longball. Orlando Cabrera suggests the thick marine layer during night games contributes to cutting down long fly balls, thereby encouraging hitters to go for line drives.

1 Comment

It’s not just a theory that the Marine Layer inhibits Homeruns. It’s a fact.

As evidence, I would use an article from the hardball times which looks at HR per flyball rates for all stadiums circa 2005-2006.

http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/when-the-wind-blows/

Angel stadium has, by far, the lowest aggregate percentage of homers to flyballs. Not Petco. Not Pac-Bell. Not RFK. Angel Stadium.

It’s worth considering.

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