Much was made during the 2015 season – and especially during the postseason, by national broadcasting teams – of the Astros’ propensity to hit home runs but not much else. After closely tracking the stats all season, a close perusal showed the Astros maintaining one of the lowest team batting averages – as well as one of the highest number of strikeouts – across all of baseball for much of the season, before a late season offensive surge from several erstwhile struggling hitters like Luis Valbuena, Chris Carter, and Evan Gattis drove the Astros final team batting average for the 2015 season to .250, which was good for "just" tenth worst in baseball this year. However, among all teams who scored at least 700 runs this season, the Astros posted the lowest batting average*. The Astros also mashed the second most home runs in the sport, with their final season tally of 230 home runs falling just two short of the Blue Jays, who led all of baseball in that regard.
This raised a question here at TCB: how does this feat stack up against history? Has it ever happened before that a team has led its league in home runs while finishing dead last in batting average, a distinction that the Astros only narrowly avoided? And...what can we learn from this season in that respect?
Painstaking research (read: sorting the team statistics at fangraphs.com first by home runs and then by lowest batting averages and then checking each year chronologically backward…not exactly Pulitzer-winning levels of research) revealed that, no, never has a team led baseball in home runs while finishing last in team batting average – at least since the advent of the expansion era of baseball in 1962. There have, however, been some notable instances of near misses. Here’s a look at the most notable of these cases.
· In an interesting near miss, the Chicago White Sox posted the worst batting average in baseball in 2007 (.246, well behind the second worst, the Arizona Diamondbacks and their .250 team batting average) but led all of baseball in home runs in both 2006 (236) and 2008 (235). A large part of the power outage in 2007 can be attributed both to injuries (Paul Konerko, Jim Thome, and Jermaine Dye all played considerably less in 2007 than they did in the years preceding and following) and ineffectual play from players like Joe Crede, who hit 30 home runs in 2006, the penultimate season of his short career, before injuries and inefficacy ended his career just three injury-plagued campaigns later. Still, it’s an interesting statistical anomaly that the White Sox would lead in home runs one season, post the worst team batting average in baseball the next season, and then once again resume the top of the home run heap the season following that.
o Chicago White Sox 2006 season: 90-72, 3rd place
o Chicago White Sox 2007 season: 72-90, 4th place
o Chicago White Sox 2008 season: 89-74, 1st place (lost in ALDS)
· The Chicago Cubs finished the 2002 season with the second lowest team batting average (.246, .002 better than the Pirates) and finished fifth in the Majors with 200 home runs. They were pretty far behind the teams with the most home runs (the Rangers hit 230 and the Yankees hit 223) but still, finishing fifth in home runs while finishing with the second lowest batting average is noteworthy enough to make this list. It is worth mentioning that 39.5% of their home runs came from just two players that season, Sammy Sosa (49) and Fred McGriff (30).
o Chicago Cubs 2002 season: 67-95, 5th place (30 games back)
· Similarly, in 2001, the Milwaukee Brewers were fourth worst in batting average (.251, not far from as bad as the worst team – the Pirates – at .247) and had the sixth most home runs, with 209. However, they were once also pretty distantly trailing the top teams in home runs (the Rangers, with 246, and the San Francisco Giants with 235) so this instance too is one of a team just barely squeaking onto the list. This season was the beginning of Richie Sexson’s run as one of the more feared sluggers in the game, as he raked 45 home runs, a .276 ISO, a .271/.342/.547 slash line, a .373 wOBA, and a 124 wRC+. All told, it’d end up as one of his finer seasons. Jeromy Burnitz added 34 of his own home runs, while Jose Hernandez added 25 more and Geoff Jenkins chipped in with 20 in an injury shortened season which saw him play in only 105 games.
o Milwaukee Brewers 2001 season: 68-94, 4th place
· In 1999, the Oakland Athletics (led by Jason Giambi, Matt Stairs, John Jaha, Ben Grieve, and a young Miguel Tejada) smashed their way to 235 home runs – second only to the waning juggernaut Seattle Mariners, who saw 90 home runs hit between Ken Griffey, Jr. and Alex Rodriguez on their way to hitting 244 home runs for the season. The A’s also finished the season with a team batting average of .259, fourth worst in baseball.
o Oakland Athletics 1999 season: 87-75, 2nd place
· The Detroit Tigers led handily in home runs in 1991, outpacing the rest of the league with their 209 dingers. The next team hit only 177 home runs. They were, however, "only" seventh worst in team batting average at .247 – the worst that year were the Phillies, who hit .242 as a team. Lou Whitaker and Mickey Tettleton both met or surpassed 140 wRC+ seasons. In fact, five different players for the Tigers posted wRC+ numbers of at least 120 or better. Cecil Fielder mashed his traditional 44 home runs on the year – then, a truly powerful number – while Tettleton hit 31, Rob Deer hit 25, Whitaker hit 23, Travis Fryman hit 21, and Tony Phillips hit 17 home runs.
o Detroit Tigers 1991 season: 84-78, 2nd place
· In 1988, the Baltimore Orioles were just very bad at baseball. They finished dead last in team batting average at .238, yet finished only 21 home runs short of the Blue Jays, who led MLB with 158 home runs. Since the power discrepancy wasn’t great in those years, many teams were fairly close to the home run lead.
o Baltimore Orioles 1988 season: 54-107, 7th place
· And one of the closest examples of what we’re looking for occurred in the year of the birth of expansion in baseball, 1962. The Detroit Tigers led baseball with 209 home runs, but finished with the fourth worst team batting average at .248. Interestingly, the San Francisco Giants – led by Willie Mays, Felipe Alou, Willie McCovey, and Orlando Cepeda – led all of baseball with a .278 team batting average and finished second in baseball with 204 home runs, by virtue of eight total players finishing in double digits in home runs. Willie Mays hit 49 home runs that year. But the Tigers, who are the focus of our bullet point this season, also boasted eight hitters in double digits – led by Norm Cash, Rocky Colavito, Al Kaline, and Chico Fernandez. Al Kaline, in the 9th season of his Hall Of Fame career, was limited to just 100 games and was STILL an All Star (in the 8th consecutive year of what would prove to be a thirteen year streak of All Star Game selections) and still finished sixth in the Most Valuable Player award voting, as well as winning his third consecutive Gold Glove award. Vic Wertz was in the twilight of his own underrated career but still managed to post the highest batting average of his career (.324) for the Tigers in 1962, and a wRC+ of 125 with a .373 wOBA, in just 74 games.
o Detroit Tigers 1962 season: 85-76, 4th place
This is the part of the article where it is requested that those who are already knowledgeable in SABR have some patience, as some of the stats below are interwoven with what the initiated might feel as overly obvious or condescending explanations. Those explanations exist to help explain to others who are not yet dallying placidly in the waters of the font of SABR what we're looking at when we say things that make traditionally-minded stats folks scratch their heads, like "Batting average isn't that important."
What can be learned from these cases? Perhaps not much, other than that baseball is a funny game. If one were to delve deeper into each individual team on the list, one would undoubtedly find a myriad of reasons – like pitching, for instance – that these teams found less success than they undoubtedly hoped to.
However, one fact about each team leaps out – every single team on this list who were among the bottom teams in team batting average (so, exclude the 2006 and 2008 White Sox) missed the playoffs…except the 2015 Houston Astros.
And perhaps a big part of that is that it’s much easier to make the playoffs now than it was in, say, 1988. Or 1962. But the Astros not only made the playoffs, they led their division for most of the season. They finished sixth in runs scored in all of baseball, despite posting their abysmal team batting average – which, at the very least, should hopefully illuminate for some of those baseball fans still obstinately, inexplicably entrenched in the camp which espouses so-called "Gramps" stats like batting average as paramount offensive metrics that…no, batting average is not a metric of paramount importance. The Astros also finished second in isometric power this season (.187, narrowly trailing the Blue Jays at .188 and distantly leading every other team) which, for those not steeped in any SABR knowledge, just means the Astros hit the ball harder than just about any other team when they DO make contact.
The Astros also finished second in all of baseball in wOBA, or Weighted On-Base Average, with a .325 mark. Again, for the uninitiated, wOBA is essentially a metric which examines hits and times reached base based on their value – and the metric believes that not all hits are created equally. This immediately places the metric on more sound footing than batting average – which treats all hits as equals – or the slightly-improved-over-batting-average OBP, which at least measures other ways to reach base besides notching a hit. wOBA is one of the more important and accurate metrics with which to measure player (or team) offensive performance, and the Astros trailed only the Blue Jays in that metric. Read all about wOBA here.
Another very popular SABR metric for ascertaining the value of offensive performance in which the Astros excelled as a team this season is team wRC+. You can see a detailed description of what wRC+ really means by clicking here, but suffice to say, wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus) is a metric which endeavors to apply more accurate value to different types of hits – similar to wOBA – while also managing to be adjusted to take into account things like park factors (is the hitter hitting in an offensive haven like Cleveland or Denver? Or are they hitting in an offensive nightmare of a park, like in San Diego?) and current run environments in baseball. Generally speaking, wRC+ is weighted so that 100 is average in any given season. This season, the Astros finished fourth in all of baseball as a team in wRC+ with a 105, trailing only the Blue Jays (who were just basically playing a different sport than the other 29 Major League teams this year on the offensive side of the ball), the Giants, and the Dodgers.
So, honestly, what does it really mean that the Astros finished 2015 in second place in team home runs (by a mere two home runs) and finished the season with one of the lowest team batting averages?
In reality, the most important thing it means is that baseball has truly advanced far beyond the value of outdated statistical models like batting average – baseball is still baseball, of course, but true offensive value doesn’t mean what our grandfathers taught our fathers to teach us it means. It’s true enough that teams (like the Royals, who finished directly behind the Astros in runs scored this season with 724) can find success with a team full of slap hitters who excel in no real areas other than avoiding strikeouts. It is also true that teams can rely on the "three true outcomes" (home runs, strikeouts, and walks) much like the Astros and Dodgers do (both teams finished near the bottom of baseball in team batting average, yet near the top in runs scored and home runs) and have marked success, offensively.
To put it in terms our grandfathers would have appreciated, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
*The Astros scored 729 runs this season while batting 0.24967943 (1,363 hits in 5,459 at bats) compared to the Baltimore Orioles, who scored 713 runs and batted an oh-so-slightly better 0.24977211 (1,370 hits in 5,485 at bats).