How to Score More Runs? Play the Best Hitters
In the past twenty years Major League Baseball has seen a pronounced increase in run scoring, a phenomenon often credited to the use of performance enhancing drugs. You may have heard about this. Teams scored 4 to 4.5 runs per game nearly every year from 1975 and 1992 but have exceeded those levels ever since, scaling 5 runs per game in 1999 and 2000. Although diluted pitching is mentioned on occasion, or smaller ballparks, or a smaller strike zone, this period is likely destined to be known as the “steroid era,” reflecting the popular consensus of the causes of the higher offensive levels. Those who believe that the use of PEDs has decreased in recent years point to the major leagues 4.61 runs per game last year, the second lowest total in the past 15 years. More skeptical people would point out that the offense is still at a higher level than it had been in the previous 40 years. Either way, run scoring is often seen as a proxy for the prevalence of PEDs.
Of course, there are other explanations for the run scoring, and the true cause is likely a combination of several factors which work together. To give just one example, the strike zone, especially about a decade ago, had shrunk to such a degree that a bulked up slugger could repeat the same powerful stroke on every swing. Whereas Henry Aaron's swing had to be flexible enough to handle a letter high fastball and a breaking ball at the knees, Mark McGwire’s swing did not. The reduced strike zone, I would argue, helped lead to the bulked up bodies and the various methods, good and bad, of attaining them. The causes work together.
One factor often overlooked in the increased offense is a very basic one: managers are choosing to play better hitters than they used to. As an illustration, I present the story of Don Buford.
Buford was a college football and baseball star at USC who did not begin his pro career until he was 23. He always had great on-base skills (walking over 90 times twice in the minors) and even a little power, despite his 5-feet-7, 160 pound frame. In 1963, at age 26, he led the International League in batting average, doubles, runs scored, and stolen bases and was named the minor player of the year by The Sporting News. The White Sox organization moved him to third base in 1962, and then moved him to second base for his rookie major league season of 1964. He never became a great infielder, but he was a fine offensive player right away. In 1965, he hit .283 with 67 walks and 37 extra base hits, standout numbers in the 1960s especially for a middle infielder. He was not a kid, 28 years old, but one of the better players in the American League.
In 1966 Eddie Stanky replaced Al Lopez as manager, took one look at Buford and decided he needed to steal more bases and bunt more. This sort of worked—Buford stole 51 bases, and led the league with 17 sacrifices—but he was a less valuable player. The 1967 White Sox contended until the final weekend despite hitting .225 and scoring just 3.28 runs per game, both totals next-to-last in the league. Buford was seen as epitomizing this team—chopping down on the ball to beat out hits, hitting behind the runner, stealing bases—and the club was seen as proof that you could win without any hitting. After the season the White Sox made a six player deal with the Orioles, sending Buford and two pitchers for Luis Aparicio, a good shortstop who would fit right into their offense.
With the Orioles Buford had no place to play, as the club had Brooks Robinson at third base and Dave Johnson at second base, and manager Hank Bauer used Buford as a reserve infielder. At the All-Star break he had started 22 games and played in 26 others, mainly at second, and was hitting .234. During the break, Bauer was fired and replaced by first base coach Earl Weaver.
Usually when a manager, especially a rookie manager, takes over at mid-season he just keeps doing what the other guy was doing. Why call attention to the fact that you thought your predecessor was wrong? Earl Weaver did not really think that way. Weaver had managed against Buford in the minor leagues, and believed that he was a better player than Bauer did. In his first game as manager, he played Buford in center field and hit him leadoff in the order. Buford walked and scored in the first, homered in the fifth, and the Orioles beat Washington 2-0. Buford led off every game the rest of the season, and responded by hitting .298 with 11 home runs and 45 walks in the final 82 games of the season. In 1968, these were star numbers. “Don Buford is the spark plug,” said Frank Robinson after the season, “the guy who always gets on base, who doesn’t scream or yell, but when you see him out there on a sack, you just have just got to bring him home.” Buford scored 45 runs in the second half of the season.
Buford led off for the Orioles the next three years, and helped ignite a league-leading offense for one of the greatest teams ever assembled. Buford did not become more valuable as a player by lifting weights or moving to a better park so much as he played for a manager who allowed him to be the player that he could be. Weaver did not want Buford to chop down on the ball and run like hell to first base. According to Buford, Weaver just wanted him to get on base and hit line drives.
This pattern is also seen in the career of Joe Morgan, a similar, though decidedly better, player. They were about the same size, both second basemen, though Buford was out of position there, and both had decidedly underrated on base skills. While Buford’s skills were misunderstood by Eddie Stanky, Morgan’s were misunderstood by Harry Walker. Morgan hit .260 every year with a bunch of steals, so Walker had him sacrifice and hit behind the runner. Morgan also had extra base power and walked 90 or 100 times a year, but middle infielders were not really judged that way in 1970. Morgan’s power was seen more as a source of trivia than part of the conversation when discussing his value.
Unlike Walker, and unlike most everyone else at the time, Morgan knew how a baseball offense worked and he did not mind telling people about it. When a reporter asked him about his stolen bases, he would say, “Stolen base totals don’t impress me unless the player has a high stolen base percentage.” He talked about getting on base even when no one was asking him about it. Walker did not care for Morgan’s outspoken confidence, an attitude Morgan believed was racially motivated. When he was leading the Astros in home runs in the middle of the 1971 seasons, Morgan said, “This team’s going nowhere if I lead the team in home runs.” When he did, in fact, lead the team in home runs and his team finished fourth, he reminded reporters of his earlier prediction, adding, “no matter what some people might tell you.” Harry Walker correctly interpreted this as a criticism of his baseball acumen, and Morgan was soon sent to the Reds in an eight-player deal that kicked the Big Red Machine into a new gear.
While Earl Weaver has received proper credit for his role in utilizing the talents of Don Buford, Sparky Anderson’s effect on Morgan has gotten less attention than it warrants. While some in the press were raving about the Astros acquisition of Lee May in the deal, it was Anderson who said of Morgan, “He gets on base an awful lot of times. His on base ratio is unbelievable.” Unlike Walker, who considered himself a teacher of hitting, Anderson told Morgan to get on base and crush the ball whenever he swung. The Reds already had two big egos in Pete Rose and Johnny Bench, and Anderson was perfectly comfortable adding a third. Anderson later called Morgan “the smartest man I ever coached.” Walker was threatened by Morgan’s obvious intelligence, while Anderson considered it an asset. Bench and Rose quickly saw what they had, and made it clear that chopping down on the ball would not be acceptable.
So what do we make of all this? In the past generation or so, there has been a growing appreciation for plate discipline, the willingness to see a lot of pitches and get on base. Teams are stressing this skill in the minor leagues, players are becoming more aware of the value of patience, and managers are utilizing on-base percentage in deciding who makes the team and who plays. Assuming this is a good thing, that managers are doing a better job of playing the right guys and directing the offense more effectively, than it stands to reason that this revolution should, in and of itself, be leading to more runs being scored.
Weaver was ahead of his time in his ability to put the right guys on the field, with Buford being perhaps the best example of this. Similarly, Sparky Anderson deserves credit for allowing Joe Morgan to be Joe Morgan. In today’s game, there is a much greater understanding of how runs are scored and how players should be developed to produce those runs. This appreciation has, every obviously, led to higher scoring games. Returning to pre-1993 offensive levels will take more changes than just removing performance enhancing drugs.
Mark Armour is a baseball writer living in Corvallis, Oregon, and the director of SABR’s Baseball Biography Project. His book Joe Cronin: A Life in Baseball was recently published (to good reviews) by the University of Nebraska Press. He and Dan Levitt are working on a sequel to their 2003 book Paths to Glory.