Baseball players are smarter than football players. How often do you see a baseball team penalized for too many men on the field? ~Jim Bouton
At at time when the Astros' offense is offensively offensive, it's time to review baseball offense after the first month (March/April, actually). Let's begin by looking at the pace of scoring in baseball so far.
In a comment a few days ago, I said that it seemed like quite a few teams were having offensive difficulties during this first month. The Cubs, Pirates, Reds, and Braves all seemed to be bitten by offensive slumps. I wondered if offense was down across baseball. The answer wasn't what I thought it would be. But the facts are what they are.
The answer to the question is quite different, depending on whether you are looking at the American or National League. I calculated average OPS, Runs/Game, and Batting Average during March/April for the four year period, 2007 - 2010, by league. As it turns out, in 2010 the NL is enjoying better than average offense, and the AL has experienced worse than average offense.
2010 R/G: 4.65 Batting .258 OPS: .740
4 Yr. Average R/G: 4.56 Batting .258 OPS: .741
2010 R/G 4.45 Batting .255 OPS: .737
4 Yr. Average R/G 4.66 Batting .260 OPS: .742
Contrary to my presumption, the National League teams were scoring runs at a greater clip, even though the batting averages and OPS were no greater than normal. Maybe it's because the Astros haven't played teams like the Diamondbacks and Rockies, which have been scoring machines, that I didn't realize that the hitting slumps of teams like the Astros and Braves were not the norm. The AL is down not only in scoring, but also batting average and OPS. Surprisingly, the NL run scoring, batting, and OPS all exceed the AL's numbers. That is an unusual occurrence in recent years. Of course, there is plenty of time for that relationship to change this season. Some people have suggested that the addition of Target Field in the AL could be the cause for the decline in AL offense. I doubt that is the case. Target Field's early ballpark factor is 1.11 for runs scored.
On to the Astros' Little Shop of Horrors
Baseball is almost the only orderly thing in a very unorderly world. If you get three strikes, even the best lawyer in the world can't get you off. ~Bill Veeck
Do you have the stomach for it. You know, to review the Astros' offensive performance in the first month of 2010. The Astros are last in the NL in Runs/Game with 3.24, just below the Pirates (3.64). They are last in OPS with .623, just below the Braves (.665). If it makes you feel any better, the Orioles, in the AL, have scored fewer runs per game, 3.18. For comparison, last year's Astros had a significantly better OPS (.696) in March/April, but were scoring fewer runs per game (2.56). The current Astros rank last in the NL in the following categories: HRs (9), walks (38), OBP (.285), ISO (.097), XBH %, Line Drive %, and HR/Flyball %, The Astros are next to last in pitches per plate appearance (Giants are last), and this statistic probably tells a lot about why the Astros' offense has stumbled out of the gate. The Astros have had the most strikes and seen the fewest 3-0 counts among NL teams. The Astros have the smallest percentage of strike outs looking. The Astros have the highest GB/Flyball ratio and the second highest contact percentage. Probably not unrelated to this, the Astros have the second highest GIDP ratio per opportunity. The team batting average (.241) is only the fourth worst in the league. Yes, there are teams which have hit worse.
I know we have to look really hard to find the good offensive stats for the Astros. The Astros have made the fewest outs on the bases (2) in the league. That's a difference from the previous year. The Astros have the second most infield hits in the league (behind only the Marlins). The Astros are third in pinch hit RBIs. The Astros may make a lot of outs, but the team is fifth best in percentage of productive outs. The Astros are league average (15%) in the percentage of baserunners who score, which isn't bad considering the overall poor state of the offense. The Astros are the third best team at scoring the runner from the third base with less than two outs (61%). The team is second best at advancing the runner from second base with no outs.
Despite the bad offensive output, the Astros' hitters perform better in the clutch. The Astros have a .261 batting average and .756 OPS with Runners in Scoring Position (RISP), compared to .235 and .568 without RISP. With RISP and two outs, the batting average is .264 and the OPS is .786. Clutch hitting is not the Astros' problem. Too few base runners is a problem, which has a lot to do with the team's lack of patience and lack of walks. The lack of HRs is another problem so far.
Without question the slumps by Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee, as well as the Berkman injury, are significant factors in the Astros' poor offensive output to start the season. Pence's OPS in March/April last year was 41% higher than this year, and Lee's OPS in the same months was 85% higher last year. That difference is probably worth 7 or 8 runs, which might have added an extra win, depending on the circumstances. Similar to our previous discussion about Berkman's absence, this probably doesn't take into account the lineup interactions which would have occurred if Pence and Lee had hit more like they did at the start of the 2009 season.
Maybe We Should Have Signed This Guy...
I was such a dangerous hitter I even got intentional walks in batting practice. ~Casey Stengel
Based on March and April (I know the small sample could turn out to be deceptive), Kelly Johnson has to be the most adroit signing of the off season. Arizona signed Johnson for $2.35 million, after Atlanta non-tendered him. Johnson leads the NL in slugging and HRs. He has a wOBA of .495, an OPS of 1.202, and has hit 9 HRs. After the Braves non-tendered Johnson, the Astros were reportedly one of the teams showing interest in him. TCB had a fanpost about the Astros' interest, and it's fair to say that the community here liked the idea of making a low cost bet on Johnson. The Astros could have used Johnson 9 home runs.
(Note: stats from Baseball Reference.com.)
Bad People Department...
This is off-topic, and a more serious issue than baseball's early offensive stats. Greg Lucas, who hosts the Fox Sports Southwest game chat during Astros' games has "strong things to say about some Astros' fans" and "it's not complimentary." I'm not going to repeat his story--you can click to find out anyway--because I don't want to give these scumbags any jollies from seeing their conduct described. I don't think readers of this blog would do anything like this. But I'm glad Lucas talked about this horrendous behavior. Anonymity allows racism to surface; and this kind of despicable behavior shouldn't just be buried. People need to make clear that these kinds of actions are unacceptable, whether done under the cover of internet anonymity or not.