There are some great water cooler conversations out there in baseball land: What are the best infields of all time? Which squads did their best in clutch situations? Which teams in baseball history improved the most as the season wore on? And there are a host of similarly questions that I find interesting: what’s the worst-hitting pitching staff of all time? Which clubs hit the most homers off of groundball pitchers?
Normally, you could only answer these questions by guessing, going off of general reputation, or by spending way too much time looking up the answers somewhere. This year it all changed. In one of its many great updates, Baseball Reference came out with team offensive splits. You can get over 100 offensive splits for each team from 1957 onward, from standard things like home/road numbers to a bit more unusual ones, like how they do when the game is within three runs, or against finesse or power pitchers.
I was so taken by this, I went through the website, and downloaded over 80 splits for teams from 1957 to 2006 into an Excel database so I could look up all kinds of fun stuff and answer those ever-pressing questions listed above. With 1,240 teams in the years in question, I had over 100,000 different splits. (For those curious, I got the following splits: platoon, home/road, halves, months, position, batting order, bases occupied, outs, clutch, inning, and most of power/finesse, and flyball/groundball. For reasons too dull to explain, I didn’t get the neutral splits on the last two. I ignored designated hitters in the NL since interleague play began, and pitchers in AL since the DH).
Let’s say you want to look at the 1981 Cubs‘ infield. They have their own split available. Looking it up, you can see they hit a dreadful .232/.294/.330 as a unit. If you want to compare them to other teams, you use sOPS+. That compares their aggregate OPS+ with league-wide numbers for that split. In this case, it’ll compare the Cubs’ infield OPS versus league-wide numbers, adjusted for scoring context. That strike-shortened infield came in at a limp sOPS+ of 83. Even for the Cubs that’s bad.
The other stat, tOPS+, looks at how a split did compared to the team’s overall numbers. tOPS+ for that horrible ’81 infield then compares their numbers to the 1981 Cubs offense as a whole. Since pitchers took up a good chunk of those at-bats, they came in at a tOPS+ of 94, which tells you how bad their entire roster was that year.
With sOPS+, tOPS+, Sean Forman’s splits, and my database, I can answer a whole junk drawer full of bizarre questions that I’ve always wondered about.
I guess I could be systematic and go through what I found split by split—but you know what? That sounds mighty dull. I’m just going to pick and choose what I found most immediately interesting:
Forgotten Great Infield: The 1965 Reds
One of the first things I checked out was what team had the best infield ever by sOPS+. Why infield? Hey, why not? Outfield seems so obviously—that’s where you get your power from after all. Here are the best sOPS+ from infields in the last half-century:
Team IF sOPS+ 1965 CIN 138 1976 CIN 138 1982 MIL 132 1974 CIN 131 1975 CIN 131 1963 STL 128 1994 HOU 127 1972 CIN 127 1969 MIN 127 2002 NYY 126 1991 DET 126
Well, they were half the Big Red Machine’s infield with Rose at second and Perez at first. Plus they had a great season from Leo Cardenas and Deron Johnson as well as Perez’s platoon partner Gordy Coleman. Those guys anchored a great forgotten offense. That Reds teams scored more runs than any other club in the New Deadball Era of 1963-8. Every single starter on the team had an OPS+ over 100. And they were all in their 20s, too.
Yet they came in fourth when their pitching crapped out. Well, their general manager knew how to solve that problem. He traded the team’s oldest regular—their best hitter to be sure, but his power had noticeably flagged off the previous three years after a career of sliding hard and running into walls. Since his value was high, and he didn’t look like he was going to age very well, the club traded him for a pitcher in his mid-20s who already had won 110 games. After all, Branch Rickey always said you should trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late, right?
Billy Martin don’t fear nothin’, you hear? He don’t fear NOTHIN’!
Baseball Reference’s splits also tell us how teams did in various base-running situations. Not only can you see which team, for example, hit the most bases-empty triples (1979 Royals, 46), but you can learn all kinds of things about how willing they were to take chances.
For instance, you can look up how many times they tried to pull off triple steals. After all, the only way to do it is to have the bases loaded, and the splits pages give SB & CS for every variation of bases occupied. These teams were the bravest of them all:
Team SB CS SBA 1969 MIN 12 2 14 1958 DET 3 2 5 1970 MON 3 1 4 1962 LAD 3 1 4 1984 CHC 3 1 4 1972 BAL 3 1 4
OK, look, I knew Billy Martin was a gutsy manager who was mighty damn aggressive, but sweet loving Christ! Twelve stolen bases and two caught steals? (I assume they had some inning-ending outs that caused stolen bases not to count or something). That’s unreal. In his first ever season as manager, Rod Carew set a record with seven steals of home. He had them pull off their first triple steal within a month of the season’s starts.
And that’s not all, either. You can also find out which teams tried the most steals with runners on second and third:
Team SB CS SBA 1980 OAK 2 5 7 1963 LAD 3 2 5 1967 CHC 2 3 5 1969 MIN 2 2 4 1977 NYY 2 2 4
For those playing along at home, please note that three of those five were Billy Martin squads, all with different franchises, too. And there’s one more I want to look at—steals with only a runner on third:
Team SB CS SBA 1980 OAK 2 6 8 2006 LAA 1 5 6 1987 SFG 0 6 6
Again, a Billy Martin team up on top. There are five teams tied with five SBA, including (of course) Martin’s 1969 Twins, who were successful three times. I could check first and third, but that would mostly just say how many times the trailing runner advanced when the team didn’t throw. Billy Martin was the gutsiest manager of them all. Not very surprising, but still mighty fun to see.
Maybe Mike Scioscia should’ve called Lew Burdette?
Let’s go back to positional splits for a second. You know, these new splits tell us how all DHs did, and how all pitching staffs did. Has there ever been a pitching staff whose numbers were better than a DH? You’ve got to figure in 50 years it’s happened at least once, right? I love looking up crap like this.
Well, it’s a little trickier because while the splits have sOPS+, and tOPS+, they don’t have standard OPS+. sOPS+ really doesn’t work here, and tOPS+ is tricky because quality of the rest of the line up can really vary wildly—even more wildly than ballparks (exception pre-humidor Coors Field that is). So, I’ll go a little low-tech here and use plain’n’simple OPS.
Here are the worst DHs ever:
Team OPS 1981 MIN 546 1988 TEX 560 2001 ANA 562 1974 CWS 588 1976 MIL 603
Twins hardly count—that was only two-thirds a season. I’m especially impressed by the ’01 Angels who did it in the Silly Ball Era. I’d say they’re the gold standard of DHs—fool’s gold standard.
Which pitching staffs had the best OPSs ever?
Team OPS 2002 COL 610 1958 MIL 589 1974 PIT 562 1982 PIT 554 1961 STL 546
Well, the Rockies have a huge honkin’ park factor muddying it up, but the Milwaukee Braves played in a pitcher’s park in an era when run scoring was less than it is now. Yes, the 1958 Braves pitchers were a mightier offensive juggernaut than Scioscia’s DHs. It’s actually even more embarrassing than it sounds—the Braves had Bob Buhl on their staff. A couple of years later he set MLB’s record for most Plate Appearances in a season without a hit.
Maybe they should’ve had Enzo Hernandez pitch
Speaking of pitching staff numbers, which rotation had the limpest collection of bats ever? Here I can use sOPS+, which is a bit dangerous because pitchers have been on a downward trajectory as hitters since baseball begun. Sure they sucked back in 1957, but they’ve gotten worse over time. I’ll throw in raw OPS for comparisons:
Team sOPS+ OPS 1976 SDP 23 230 1965 DET 24 215 2001 NYM 31 235 1985 SDP 33 236 1964 SFG 33 237 1958 STL 33 279 1998 CIN 35 251 1973 CIN 35 255 1968 CAL 36 230 2006 MIL 36 232
Depending on how you look at the numbers, it’s got to be either the ’76 Padres or ’65 Tigers. The Padres were in the worse park, but the Tigers played in the worse era. Both teams had a batting average of 80. Yup, .080. The Tigers had more extra-base hitters with two doubles and a triple, but both of San Diego’s big shots were triples.
Actually, I’ll give the Tigers the, er, honor in a tiebreaker. As bad as the Padres were, they were OK at making contact, striking out only 99 times in 411 PA. In 458 appearances, the Tigers whiffed 180 times. Adam Dunn doesn’t fan that frequently.
Going by sOPS+ the best hitting pitching staff was that Rockies staff I just dismissed a few minutes ago. Actually, they have the top two. Here’s the leader board:
Team sOPS+ 2002 COL 228 2001 COL 196 1982 PIT 195 2003 CHC 190 2003 STL 188
I think sOPS+ breaks down here. Pitchers hit worse now than ever, saw those rare good hitting guys—ike Jason Marquis, Carlos Zambrano, and Mike Hampton really stick out. If you go by tOPS+, it’s a tie between the ’58 Braves and ’02 Rockies at 60.
Davey Lopes would be proud
Time for a Rickey story. In 2001, while playing out his string with the Padres, Bruce Bochy inserted Rickey into a game against the Brewers as a pinch runner. Rickey being Rickey, did what he did better than anyone who ever played—e stole second base. This set up a little bru-ha-ha. You see, San Diego had a comfortable lead when this happened, and Milwaukee skipper Davey Lopes was irate. He threatened to bean Henderson the next he had the chance.
Let’s look at which teams win the Davey Lopes Seal of Approval: they run far less often with the game out of reach. One split at Baseball Reference is number when a team is up or down by more than four runs, so this is fairly easy. Turns out there have been 24 teams who haven’t played for that extra run when the game was effectively out of reach. Here are the five with the most SBA for the entire season:
Team SBA split SBA all 1979 OAK 0 173 1995 MON 0 169 1980 CHC 0 157 1996 MON 0 142 1990 DET 0 139
Looks like Felipe Alou is Lopes’s favorite manager. The others were: the 1976 Padres (the club with the terrible hitting pitchers), 2003 Brewers (Lopes was gone), 2000 Phillies, 1985 Braves, 1997 Expos (Alou, again), 1977 Blue Jays, 1994 Red Sox, 1985 Tigers, 1984 Brewers, 1967 Yankees, 1992 Red Sox, 2006 Braves, 2004 D-backs, 2006 Giants, 1994 Tigers (the third appearance for Sparky Anderson), 1994 Braves, 2000 Red Sox, 2005 A’s, and 1968 Senators.
In their two seasons under Lopes (2000-1) the Brewers had three and six tries. Maybe they were all with the tam down by that much.
I have no brilliant summation. This is something of a junk drawer column. But I have plenty more junk in this drawer.