Sunday, June 24, 2007

Brushing Shoulders with the '31 Yankees

The '07 Tigers have essentially the same offense as they did last season in terms of personnel with the notable exception of Gary Sheffield. That makes the transformation of the ’06 Tigers into one of the most prolific offenses in MLB history close to unfathomable. Things looked ordinary enough after the first month of the season. The Tigers averaged just a smidge over five runs per game in April which was on par with what the offense produced in ’06. Then, the Tigers started to hit. In fact, that last sentence is an understatement of monumental proportions. The Tigers didn’t just start to hit, they started to hit at an historical pace.

Amazingly, that torrid pace has not only gone unnoticed by the national media but by the majority of Tigers nation as well. Sure, fans and writers alike know that Magglio Ordonez is having a splendid season and that Gary Sheffield has started to come on after a slow start. I don’t mean to insinuate that people don’t realize that the Tigers offense is rolling. I’m just not sure that most people know just how well they are hitting. The Tigers could have the best offense in baseball history by the time this season is over. That looks funny in print but I assure you it isn’t a joke.

The Tigers averaged 6.07 runs in May. If the Tigers averaged that many runs for the entire 162-game slate, they would finish with close to 1,000 runs which is a feat that has only been accomplished by seven teams in MLB history. Sustaining a six runs per game pace for an entire season is nearly impossible—or is it? The Tigers have averaged 7.33 runs per game in June and that includes nine interleague road games without the use of a DH. In 45 games since May 6, the Tigers have averaged 6.7 runs per game. 45 games represent more than ¼ of the schedule which is a substantial portion of the season. There is no reason to think that this team will be facing a prolonged slump anytime soon. Pitching seems to be down significantly this year in the American League and the Tigers are taking advantage. The addition of Gary Sheffield has also made each spot in the order more productive. The Tigers have a boatload of games remaining against some of the worst pitching staffs in baseball. The scene is set up pretty well for a run at greatness.

The modern day record for most runs scored in a season is 1,067 by the 1931 New York Yankees. If the Tigers are going to challenge that record, they will need to score a lot of runs over the next three months. The 1931 Yankees averaged 6.97 runs per game for the season. To set the record, the Tigers would need to average 7 runs per game over the next 88 games. That will not be an easy task but remember the Tigers have been averaging just about that many runs per game over the last 45 games. If it weren’t for a relatively slow April, the Tigers would be ahead of the pace set by the ’31 Yankees.

Here is a look at the ’31 Yankees compared to the ’07 Tigers in OPS+ which is just another way of saying OPS compared to the league average:

1931 New York Yankees

C Bill Dickey 121
1B Lou Gehrig 195
2B Tony Lazzeri 108
3B Joe Sewell 110
SS Lyn Lary 114
OF Babe Ruth 219
OF Ben Chapman 136
OF Earle Combs 126

The ’31 Yankees led the majors in Runs, Hits, Home Runs, RBIs, Total Bases, Walks, OBP, Slugging %, Batting Average, and OPS.

2007 Detroit Tigers

C Pudge Rodriguez 96
1B Sean Casey 92
2B Placido Polanco 112
3B Brandon Inge 109
SS Carlos Guillen 152
OF Magglio Ordonez 191
OF Curtis Granderson 133
OF Craig Monroe 86
DH Gary Sheffield 146

The ’07 Tigers lead the majors in Runs, Hits, Doubles, Triples, RBIs, Total Bases, Slugging %, Batting Average, and OPS and in most cases, no other team is even close. The only major offensive statistics that the Tigers do not lead MLB in are Home Runs and OBP. The Tigers are third in both categories.

Should the Tigers manage to keep up their June pace and challenge the ’31 Yankees, the inevitable question of which offense was better will arise. There are a number of ways to compare the best offenses of all-time. The easiest is simply to compare runs scored or runs scored per game. While that is certainly a convenient method, doing so ignores important factors such as the relative strength of the league and how much better the offenses were than the league averages. Eddie Epstein wrote an article back in 2001 exploring the best ways to compare the best offenses in MLB history. His tool of choice for the comparison was runs scored compared to the league average. Unfortunately, Epstein’s approach isn’t full-proof either. Comparing success to the league average ignores the strength of the league. I would expect the ’31 Yankees to compare more favorably to their league than the ’07 Tigers compare to their league. Baseball wasn’t nearly as competitive in 1931. It was much easier for one team to dominate a category with only half the teams that exist today.

There are other factors to consider as well. The Yankees scored their runs in only 153 games and there was no DH. Those two factors certainly work in the Tigers favor since they have 162 games and the use of the DH. It’s also important to note that the Yankees had the luxury of playing four extremely bad teams 22 times each. The Yankees also had the advantage of playing in an era when the competitive index was considerably less than what the 2007 Tigers have to contend with. The majority of the pitching staffs in the American League in 1931 were dreadful. Four of the eight AL teams finished at least 28 games below .500. Those factors played a big part in the Yankees offensive explosion. Also, the Tigers only have the sixth highest payroll in the American League (and 9th in MLB). Their payroll is $100,000,000 less than the New York Yankees and $48,000,000 less than the Boston Red Sox. That is certainly a disadvantage that the ’31 Yankees didn’t have to contend with.

I’m not sure there is a way to compare the two teams that would be fair to both. Only one team has scored more than 1,000 runs in the last 56 years and six teams scored more than 1,000 between 1931 and 1951. There was something afoot in the first half of the 20th century that made it easier to score 1,000 runs. The Tigers would truly distinguish themselves in the annals of baseball history if they could accomplish something as rare as scoring 1,000 runs in a season, let alone challenge the all-time record. And if they fall short, who cares, it’s not everyday we see our favorite baseball brush shoulders with the 1931 Yankees.

--An amazing footnote to the 1931 season is that the Yankees actually finished 13.5 games behind the Philadelphia A’s for the AL Pennant despite scoring 209 more runs than the A’s and going 11-11 against them head to head.


Anonymous said...

Well, who WERE the only 7 teams in major league history to score 1000 runs in a season?

Jake said...

’30 Yankees
’30 Cardinals
’31 Yankees
’32 Yankees
’36 Yankees
’50 Red Sox
’99 Indians


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