During the last week of October, the national conversation included phrases such as “Gas House Gang” and “small ball.” This was in reference to the Kansas City Royals’ improbable run to a Game 7 of the World Series, and the means by which they did so. The strengths of the Royals this year was its bullpen, its defense, aggressiveness on the base paths and the fact that they are tough to strike out. (Not necessarily in that order.) But do the last two actually matter? Well, of course the matter on some level. But do teams that successfully steal significantly more bases than the rest win more games? Do teams that make contact at the plate stand a better chance to make the playoffs in the Wild-Card era?
Over at Bill James Online, Dave Fleming has an interesting piece on the relative importance of “contact,” i.e., low strikeout totals and “steals” to the Kansas City Royals season. It should be noted that Fleming’s piece was written the night the Royals advanced to the ALCS, so Fleming does not take into account the performance of the Royals in their sweep of the Orioles, or the World Series. Fleming concludes that while the Royals as a team are in fact a rarity with a low strikeout/high stolen base combination, in and of itself, such statistics are not good indicators of regular season success.
Fleming notes that the Royals struck out at lowest rate in the Majors this year, 985 times, while the MLB average was 1246. The Cubs led the league with 1477 strikeouts. It turns out the Royals led the league “contact” in 2012 and 2013 as well, with league leading strike out totals of 1032 and 1048, respectively. In short, the 2014 Royals increased their contact rate in 2014. Pretty impressive. But does it matter? The Royals won 89 games during the regular season, and the Cubs won 73 games. So yes, clearly contact-prone teams are more likely to win, right?
Wrong. According to Fleming, (and his statistics bear this out) during the Wild-Card era, teams with the lowest strikeout totals in season have a winning percentage barely above .500, and that is only due to the amazing Cleveland Indians teams of 1995 and 1996. In short, the evidence suggests that a team with a low strikeout rate does not stand to win more games as a result.
Ok, well, what about the Royals speed? “That’s what speed do,” right? Win games? Well, the Royals stole 153 bases this year, while the MLB average was 92. But historically, as Fleming points out, the Royals are not exceptional in this regard. During the Wild-Card era, the Royals are basically middle of the pack when it comes to number of stolen bases vs. the MLB average. For example, the 2007 Mets stole 200 bases in a year where the MLB average was 97 steals per team. Remember the 2007 Mets? Me neither.
But here’s where Fleming’s analysis gets interesting (from a Royals fan perspective). Fleming notes that the 2014 Royals are historic, in that no team in the Wild-Card era “has managed to avoid strikeouts and steal bases to the degree that the 2014 Royals have.” And, the top eight teams with the highest relative difference (compared to the MLB average) on strikeouts and stolen basis averaged 91 wins a season, with the 2014 Royals leading the way.
In sum, I take from Fleming’s piece that being a high-contact/high stolen base team is not a winning strategy in and of itself. On average, teams which have excelled in these categories over the last 20 year play a little better than .500 ball, but some lose 90 games. That said, Fleming’s piece suggests that after a certain point, however, it can matter. If a team’s combined relative difference in these categories is exceptional, then perhaps it is reasonable to expect something north of 85 wins.
Based on the above, I’ll paraphrase the great James Carville: It’s (likely) the bullpen, stupid.