It's old news that recent editions of the Seattle Mariners specialize in preventing runs. However, the economic justification for a low-run-scoring approach has not been fully explored.
The Seattle Mariners might be on to a Moneyball-esque discovery. The team is attempting a novel or at least long-abandoned approach to winning ball games by keeping the TOTAL score low.
So far this hasn't panned out. The Mariners still need to score more runs than they allow.
In his book, Moneyball, Michael Lewis describes Billy Beane building the Oakland Athletics with the goal of achieving a specific difference between runs scored and runs allowed.
At the time, that might have been a new team-building philosophy. New or not, runs scored minus runs allowed needs to be considered.
Moneyball did not mention another crucial factor, total runs scored and allowed. The winning implications of a fixed difference between runs scored and runs allowed depend on the run-scoring environment.
Consider a team that out scores opponents by 162 runs over the course of a season. If that team allows zero runs, that team wins every game.
Now consider two non-pathological situations, both with the Seattle Mariners out scoring their opponents by 162 runs over the course of season. Suppose the Mariners score 799 runs while allowing 637 runs. The team almost did this in 2003, scoring 795 while allowing 637.
Applying the Bill James Pythagorean formula, a team scoring 799 while allowing 637 is expected to win 99 games. If we drop the run numbers by 100, to 699 runs scored and 537 runs allowed, the expected win total grows to 102. By changing the run-scoring environment, we have changed the impact a given run difference has on winning.
For a given difference between runs scored and runs allowed, the higher-scoring team can expect more wins if the total number of runs is lower.
Jack Zduriencik appears to be aware of this. He has focused on run prevention, putting offense on the back burner. The results are ugly so far, but the general strategy is sound.
Michael Lewis' Moneyball comes to mind when I pose the following question: “What is the cheapest way to win 94 baseball games?” Winning 94 games is equivalent to winning 58 percent of regular season games.
Suppose the Mariners score 950 runs in a season. It sounds absurd now but it they have done it before. The team could expect a .580 record by allowing only 808 runs. That is a difference between runs scored and runs allowed of 142 runs.
Now consider a slightly more realistic Mariner juggernaut, one that scores 850 runs. This team could expect a .580 record by holding opponents to 724 runs. That is a run scoring difference of 126 runs. You see where this is going.
The current Mariners would be happy to score 705 runs in a single season. Were they to score that many, they could reasonably expect to win at a .580 clip by keeping runs allowed to 600. That is a difference of 105 runs.
Putting that into context, allowing 600 runs over 162 games is the same as allowing 3.70 runs per game. The Mariners are allowing only 3.70 runs per game so far this season. Unfortunately the Mariners are only scoring 3.26 runs per game.
I doubt there is a constant price on “run difference” units. If there is anything close to a constant price, it is clear that more wins can be extracted per-unit run difference if overall run scoring is kept low.
Some of the reasoning behind Zduriencik's team building in Seattle might involve exploitation of this sort of pricing inefficiency. Such an inefficiency might be a byproduct of an array of undervalued assets
This season and last have shown Mariner fans that the sword has two edges. Zduriencik's Mariners have fallen on the wrong side of the run-scoring equation, allowing more than than they score.
When both sides score few runs, the winning side's greater glories are balanced by the losing side's increased woes. A low run-scoring approach is making the Mariners -44 run differential this season all the more bitter.