Big Bat Theory?
The Denver Post and Patrick Saunders led off Sunday's paper (12/14/08) with an article asking "whether a team can thrive without a top-flight slugger?" Anytime a question is thrown out like that and then not backed up by anything but baseball anecdotes I have to look into the numbers. The obvious difficulty in answering a question like this is how do you classify a slugger? Is it your home run king, your RBI leader, a combination of HR/RBI leader, or some other stat like OPS? In the Rockies 16 years of existence, the HR and RBI leader was the same only 8 times (Bichette, Galarraga, Castilla, Helton (x3), and Holliday).
In my thinking and looking at 16 years of Rockies data, I will classify a slugger as a batter that hits greater than 18% of their teams HRs or hits in more than 16% of the team's RBIs. So for 2008, Holliday and Hawpe hit 25 HR which individually accounted for 16% of the team's total HR (160). In 2007, Holliday's 36 accounted for 21% of the team's total (171). So Holliday was a slugger in 2007 but not so much in 2008. For RBIs, Atkins had 99 or 13.9% of the team's total (714) in 2008 and Holliday had 16.6% (137) of the team's total (823) in 2007. The All-Time leader is Helton in 2000 when he accounted for 26% of the team's HR at 42 (team 161) and Castilla in 1998 when he had 18.2% of the team's RBIs (144 of 791). So back to the analysis...if you take the years the Rox had a HR slugger (i.e. > or equal to 18%) then there were 12 seasons with HR sluggers. During these 12 seasons, the team had a collective record of 909 - 973 (0.483) versus 280 - 368 (0.432) . The RBI leader team collective records for greater than equal to 16% is 760 - 798 (0.488) versus 429 - 543 (0.441). And finally for those years with the HR and RBI (18% and 16%) you had a collective record of win percentage of 0.488 versus 0.452. Note: For three season of these seasons, the team had a separate HR leader and RBI leader and are not counted in the the win percentage above (2004 Burnitz and Castilla / 1999 Walker and Galarraga / 1994 Galarraga and Bichette). From this analysis, it would appear having a big bat does make for a better Rockies team. For four of five of those winning seasons the HR and RBI leaders were the same...
Let’s see how this stacks up with the rest of MLB. In 2007 and 2008, the MLB average was 18% and 19% respectively for HR leaders with respect to their team totals and 14.3% and 14.5% for RBIs. It is interesting to note that in 2008, only 8 of the 30 teams had different HR and RBI leaders (Marlins, Reds, Cubs, Mets, Rockies, Dodgers, Blue Jays, and Mariners). In summary then, for the two years noted, if you look at collective team records for those that had one batter have more than 18% of the team's total HR then the record was 2431 - 2429 (.500) and evenly split with 30 teams having one batter > 18% vs 30 with no batter > 18% of total team HR. For RBIs, when one batter with more than 16% of the team's RBI total then the record was 1226 - 1205 (.504) with a 15/45 split. From the MLB perspective then having a HR slugger doesn't seem to win many more games but having an RBI man does help to the tune of 21 more wins. Note you would have to get to greater than 22% for HR totals before you see a winning percentage over 0.500 and only to a tune of 30 more wins. Overall not very convincing that having a big bat in the line up makes much of a difference in the MLB although if we assume that all teams seek such a bat in the middle of their line up what exactly can we measure (and of course having a big bat doesn't help if your pitching and bullpen stink!)?
So perhaps there really isn't any true statistical basis for determining if having a slugger is worth more wins. From my perspective having a big bat accounting for a lot of HR and RBIs is probably more relevant to the mental side of the game. How many late inning rallies center around that number 3 or 4 batter? Also there is no way to measure how a team feels if behind by one or two runs with their slugger coming up 3rd or 4th in the order versus having their 7 - 9 hitters? I tend to think of it as the reason baseball has sided with one dominant closer. I don't think it really matters who pitches the 9th but so much of baseball has become mental (based on statistics?) that it may give a team a boost (?).
Ultimately what Saunders was getting at was that with the loss of Holliday, the 2009 Rockies will probably not have a big bat in their line up. Atkins will probably lead in RBIs and Hawpe in HRs. History has shown that for the Rockies, a slugger does seem to improve our chances but in the end that is why we watch, because in baseball, statistics don't always lead to wins.