The Offensive Efficiency Paradox: of the Hitless (Punchless) Wonders
Once upon a time--oh, more than a hundred years ago to be precise, back when there be spitters and dentists in the professional game--the Chicago White Sox shocked the baseball world by winning a relatively close three-team pennant race despite finishing dead last in batting in the American League with a .230 average and hitting only seven home runs, and then in the World Series, by golly, taking out the overwhelmingly favored 116-win cross-town Cubs, who had the most formidable offense in baseball and the stingiest pitching besides. The '06 White Sox were in the middle of a five-year stretch-- 1904 to 1908--when they not only had the best overall record in the American League that averaged to 91-63, or five games better than second-best Cleveland's 86-68 average season during those years, but also the league's best record over any five-year period for the entire decade, by one game over 1901-05 Boston and two over 1906-10 Detroit. Unlike their pennant-race rivals in any one of those seasons, the White Sox were competitive every year from 1904 to 1908, twice finishing within two games of the top. But they won only the one pennant.
They were blessed, of course, by terrific pitching that included a Hall of Fame spitballer (Big Ed Walsh) and the aforementioned dentist (Doc White, who had off-season patients), but were below the league average in batting every year. After winning the pennant despite their league-low batting average in 1906, the "hitless wonders" lived up to that appellation each of the next two years by being legitimately competitive with next-to-lowest batting averages of .238 in 1907 and .224 in 1908. From '06 to '08, Chicago averaged only 7.4 hits per game, compared to 8.7 per game by the six other teams that finished first, second or third.
Well, maybe the ChiSox weren't quite the offensive lightweights their historical moniker makes them out to be. They were fairly prolific at scoring runs: 3rd in 1904, 2nd in 1905, 3rd in 1906, and 3rd in 1907. Alas, they were fifth in scoring in 1908, undoubtedly undermined by their near-subterranean .224 batting average, which was certainly not helpful in a three-way pennant chase they did not lose until the final day of the season. Their ratio of one run scored for every two hits from 1904 to 1908 was substantially better than the league-average ratio of 2.24 hits per run and better than the 2.17 hits for each run of the ten other teams that finished first, second or third in the standings during those seasons. Or put another way, the 1904-08 White Sox scored 95 percent as many runs as those other ten teams averaged on 11 percent fewer hits.
How'd they do it? They were selective and disciplined at the plate! leading the league in walks every year from '04 to '08. They sacrificed for the cause! leading the league in sacrifice bunts every year from '04 to '07, and probably in '08 too--a year the statistic was muddled because sacrifice flies were included in the same category as sac bunts--since they had only seven fewer sacrifice hits than Cleveland, which had a far more imposing offense. They stole if they had to! leading the league in 1904 and stealing the second or third-most bases each of the other years. So, yes, this was clearly an efficient team when it came to scoring.
Ah, but there is a paradox. Based on the proposition that base runners are currency and runs are profit, the White Sox were far less efficient in capitalizing on their number of runners on base. Their ratio of runs scored to runners earning their way on base by hit,walk or hit batter was not as good as those of their fellow contenders--the teams finishing first, second or third--particularly from 1906 to 1908; the ChiSox required 2.9 base runners for each run they scored, 7 percent more than the 2.7 base runners per run for the six other contending teams those years. This was at the same time they scored 89 percent as many runs as their rivals from '06 to '08 on 14 percent fewer hits.
The reason for this paradoxical discrepancy between two indicators of offensive efficiency--runs scored to hits versus runs scored to total base runners--is simple really, and can be summarized by the words "total bases." A whopping 83 percent of the White Sox' hits from 1906 to 1908 were singles. The 17 percent of their total hits that went for extra bases was appreciably below the 21 percent extra base hits averaged by the AL's six other contending teams during those years. The White Sox averaged 149 doubles, 42 triples and only 5 home runs those three years, substantially fewer in all categories than the 199 doubles, 69 triples and 16.5 home runs annual average of their pennant-race rivals.
Extra-base hits, after all, have much bigger impact than singles because they both set up and score more runs. Chicago's rivals for the pennant scored more of their total base runners because they averaged 24 percent more total bases on their hits. It is perhaps remarkable that the White Sox scored as many runs as they did--without which they would not have been in the pennant hunt every year even with their exceptional pitching--for as relatively few total bases they had. The White Sox averaged 11 percent fewer total bases for each run they scored than the AL's six other first, second and third place teams from 1906 to 1908.
But the broader point is that even in the dead ball era, before Babe Ruth introduced the home run as its own offensive strategy, extra-base hits provided the most solid foundation for scoring runs. Without that foundation, the White Sox' "no extra-base offense" had to work harder to score runs through singles and walks and sacrifice bunts and stolen bases and well-timed hits with runners in scoring position, requiring more runners on base (ultimately) for each run scored than teams that had more (doubles and triples) power in their line-up. They were not so much the "hitless wonders" as the "punchless wonders."
Or, to paraphrase Earl Weaver from a much later generation, White Sox' player-manager Fielder Jones would have loved the three-run double or triple. With more punch in their line-up, the White Sox--who finished six games back in 1904, two off the pace in 1905, third and 5-1/2 back in 1907 and 1-1/2 behind in their third-place ending to the 1908 season--might have had more than just their 1906 championship to show for having the best record in the American League from 1904 to 1908 and, for that matter, the entire first decade of the junior circuit's history.