FanGraphs: Can you win without power?

July, 6, 2010
7/06/10
10:19
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After losing again last night, this time to the Kansas City Royals in a game in which Felix Hernandez took the mound, the Mariners now stand at 34-48. The biggest culprit in their disappointing season is clearly their offense, which is last in the AL in nearly everything related to producing runs. The Mariners' biggest problem on offense is a total lack of power; they are tied with Oakland for fewest home runs of any American League team, but the A’s have 24 more doubles and nine more triples.

Many people see Seattle’s lack of power and its overall failure as a cause and effect, suggesting that teams that don’t hit the ball out of the park are structurally flawed and can’t win. Rather than just taking this at face value, though, I thought we should look at whether other teams have won without having any real thump in their lineups, compensating by scoring runs in other ways. As it turns out, a number of punchless squads have ended up playing meaningful games in October.

The most recent example of a playoff team that won this way was the 1996 Dodgers. They won 90 games and the NL wild card despite finishing last in the league in slugging percentage with a .384 mark. They managed to score 703 runs on the back of Mike Piazza and a poor supporting cast, though two of the other guys in the lineup, Raul Mondesi (24 homers) and Eric Karros (34 homers), could at least hit the ball over the wall.

If we’re looking for a playoff club that really lacked power, we have to turn the clock back to 1987, when the St. Louis Cardinals won more games (95) than they hit home runs (94). With Vince Coleman, Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee, it was a team built around speed and defense, but the Cards were able to finish second in the NL in runs scored because they got on base (No. 1 in OBP) and ran like the wind (No. 1 in steals). They did have one big-time power hitter, Jack Clark, who accounted for 37 percent of the team’s home run total by himself, but the rest of the lineup was a bunch of slap hitters who were on the team for their defense.

That squad is a good comparison for Seattle, because the M's were hoping to ride the speed-and-defense model to a division crown. However, their .309 team OBP ranks 13th in the AL. And though they are third in the AL with 75 swipes (and an 80 percent success rate), you can't steal first base. And unlike the '87 Cards, they don't have even one masher. Franklin Gutierrez leads the squad with just eight homers, and Ichiro Suzuki has the highest slugging percentage (.415) of any of their everyday players. Seattle's team slugging percentage of .349 is the lowest in the AL.

If we’re searching for a team that got to the playoffs without any real big-time power threat, though, we have to go back to the 1973 Mets. They slugged a ridiculous .338 as a team, which was bad even by the lower offensive standards of the time. Their leading home run guy, John Milner, hit 24 bombs but also hit just .239. Rusty Staub, the team’s best hitter, launched only 15 jacks, but he racked up a lot of doubles and walks.

Still, despite being power-starved, that Mets team was able to win the NL East and take the A’s to seven games in the World Series, showing that it is possible to contend without a big-time power bat in the middle of the lineup. However, considering that the Mets won just 83 games in the regular season, they don’t exactly inspire confidence that this plan will always work.

While some teams have been able to get away with a lack of power, it's rare. The Mariners needed more from Milton Bradley and Jose Lopez, who were being counted on to produce the offensive punch in the middle of the lineup. When they both decided to have the worst years of their careers, the Mariners' chances for contention went out the window.

Dave Cameron is a writer for FanGraphs.

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