The Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers had the two most productive lineups in the major leagues during the 2013 season. Boston led the majors with 5.27 runs per game. Detroit was second at 4.91 rpg. The Tigers led the league in batting average and hits, striking out less than any other team, while the Red Sox led in most other offensive categories, including on base percentage, slugging, and OPS with the Tigers right behind them in those categories.
The question posed for purposes of this article is: Are the Red Sox a more efficient lineup than the Tigers when they get runners on base?
We recently compared the offensive efficiency of the Tigers with the Oakland Athletics. Curious to me was how the A’s were third in the league behind Boston and Detroit in runs scored, but only ninth in batting average. Were they making better use of their base runners than Detroit? The conclusion was that Oakland was able to score a slightly higher percentage of base runners primarily due to the fact that they had a higher percentage of extra base hits. Oakland’s base running advantage produced only a few more runs. But then, the A's aren't exactly speedsters on the base paths.
Boston, I think, makes for a more interesting comparison. The Red Sox are among the league’s elite in both speed and power categories. The Red Sox’s 363 doubles was 62 more than the second ranked A’s. Despite the Tigers having 59 more hits and 16 more base runners, Boston had 30 more total bases than the second ranked Tigers, and they stole 123 bases to the Tigers 35. In fact Boston runners were thrown out only 19 times attempting to steal, one fewer than Detroit’s. Their 87% efficiency in stealing bases matches their 87% efficiency in throwing out runners. No question that Boston has a huge advantage running the bases.
Detroit had more base runners, 4290 to Boston’s 4274. The Red Sox overcame that difference and raised the Tigers by 57 runs. The next question, then, is how many of Boston’s 57 extra runs are attributable to either speed or efficiency on the bases, and how much, if any, is due to the batter’s performance. To distinguish, let’s separate the actions of the batter vs the actions of the base runners.
Boston scored a higher percentage of base runners, with .155% of runners scoring, while Detroit was just above the league average with .142% scoring. That by itself does not measure efficiency, as the Red Sox had 71 more doubles and six more triples than the Tigers. While Boston easily led the league in extra base hits, Detroit ranked fourth. So, when the hits are added up, Boston actually had more scoring chances than Detroit. Add in the 88 stolen bases, and the advantage is even greater.
Clutch hitting: Let’s dispose of the nonsense here. The Tigers led the league in batting average with runners on second and/ or third base, with a .282 average. Boston was second at .278, ranking just as the two teams are in batting average in any situation. RISP is, first of all, batting average, which is a poor measure of offensive efficiency. Secondly, the term "scoring position" is a complete misnomer, especially when dealing with Tiger base runners.
In fact, the Tigers also led the league in on base percentage, slugging percentage, home runs, and OPS with RISP. In situations with RISP, Tiger batters performed as well or better than any lineup in the league. The Red Sox held their advantage in extra base hits with RISP.
The two teams led the league once again in RISP situations, but Boston had 112 more plate appearances, which they converted into 56 more runs. While the Tigers were more efficient on a percentage basis, and significantly so, the fact that Boston put more runners in scoring position, either through extra base hits or base running, gave them the advantage necessary to produce those extra runs.
What does make sense, is that some batters, or some teams, may be more efficient than others at taking advantage of scoring opportunities. Hitting, base running, and strategy all factor in, I think in that order.
The most obvious situation would be a runner on third base with less than two outs. Boston had 385 such situations scoring the runner 53% of the time. That number of chances led the league, and the efficiency ranked second. Detroit was just above the league average with 51%. The Red Sox had 25 more of these chances, and turned that into 23 more runs.
234 times during the season, the Red Sox had a runner on second when the batter hit a single. They scored 143 times, or 61.1%. The Tigers had 213 similar situations, second in the league, and scored the runner 54% of the time, for 115 runs. The 28 run difference in this situation are primarily due to more opportunities, and secondly due to base running. Detroit actually singled a runner from second to third 86 times to Boston’s 80. The Tigers are good at that, despite criticism of Tom Brookens’ riskiness.
The Tigers easily led the league in singles with a runner on first base. But they ranked only sixth in the league in moving that runner to third base, just 21% of the time. By contrast, Boston moved the runner from first to third on a single 27% of the time.
With runners on base, not necessarily in "scoring position", the Tigers hit .291 to lead the league with Boston second. Detroit also had four more home runs to lead the league, the two clubs had the same on base percentage, and the OPS and total bases favored Boston just slightly. Boston still scored 51 more runs despite Detroit having 20 more hits. The Red Sox’s 32 more doubles were a large factor in the added run production with runners on base. The speed of the batter and the base runners would figure prominently in this equation.
With a runner on second base and no outs, the Tigers led the league by advancing runners 59% of the time, to the Red Sox 55%. That would give Detroit a few more chances to score the runner from third base.
Boston had three more sacrifice flies than Detroit during the season. If the Tigers had been as efficient as the Red Sox in scoring runners from third with less than two outs, they could have added another ten runs during the season. On average, that’s worth one win.
Boston ranked second in the league in "bases taken" with 173 while Detroit was third with 166. These numbers include bases advanced on fly balls, passed balls, wild pitches, balks, and defensive indifference. I am mildly surprised that the difference here is not greater, although each of these events is greatly dependent on actions of the opponent.
Detroit grounded into six more double plays than Boston, erasing some of the advantage of getting more base runners. A small part of GIDP's is speed, but much bigger parts of the equation are having runners on first, and hitting ground balls.
The Tigers were more "efficient" in making "productive outs" 32% to 31% but that doesn’t produce any advantage in terms of run expectancy or win expectancy. Both teams are a bit below league average in their "success" rate sacrificing runners over, and Boston gave away more outs this way in any case.
The Red Sox had a dozen more infield hits than Detroit, and one more bunt single for the season. That might be worth 1.8 runs
What stands out in the grand scheme is the great advantage that the Red Sox have in getting runners into scoring position by hitting doubles, stolen base efficiency, and taking the extra base. The Tigers are a slow team on the bases, but they’re not inefficient by any means. In fact, the Tigers are much more likely to advance or score runners with base hits, rather than steals or taking chances.
Boston scored more runs than Detroit because they had more extra base hits, especially doubles. They were also marginally more efficient at scoring the runner from third base. Some percentage of those extra base hits are attributable to the speed the batter. The increased efficiency of the Red Sox moving runners around to score is attributable mainly to base running. Tiger hitters were at least as efficient in situations with runners on second or third base, regardless of the number of outs.