Doing more with less

The Mets, Brewers, and A’s are trying to emulate these playoff teams

The New York Mets, Milwaukee Brewers, and Oakland Athletics are trying to pull off extremely difficult feats in 2021.

They’re contending for divisional titles despite severe offensive weaknesses:

  • The Mets had scored just 3.80 runs per game through yesterday. The only National League club to do worse is Pittsburgh. The hapless Pirates have brought in only 3.63 runs per game.

  • The Brewers were batting .223 as of Monday. That’s the worst average in the NL and second-worst in the majors. Only the Seattle Mariners (.219) are having a harder time getting hits.

  • Six American League clubs boasted winning percentages of .533 or better as of yesterday. Five of those teams also rank among the top six in runs scored. The Athletics are the exception, plating only 4.39 runs per game, putting them below the league average of 4.57.

And yet there they are at the top of the standings. The Mets and the Brewers lead their respective divisions, the latter by a comfortable margin of seven games. And the Athletics would lock up a wild-card berth if the playoffs started today.

How are they doing it? With pitching, of course. The Mets have given up 635 hits this season, the fewest allowed by any team in either league. Opponents are batting .212 off Milwaukee’s pitchers, the lowest BA against any big-league staff. And the Athletics have issued 252 walks, the smallest number any AL club has given up.

All three teams have overcome their offensive deficiencies to remain in contention for 2021’s world championship. It’s not the easiest way to win a title, but plenty of clubs have gone that route in the past.

Listed below are the 10 teams in the Expansion Era (1961-2020) that qualified for the playoffs despite the greatest deficits in firepower.

They’re listed in reverse order of their offensive ratings, indicating the extent of each club’s ability to produce more runs and bases than its pitching staff surrendered.

An offensive rating is calculated by comparing the runs per game and bases per out (BPO) generated by a given team’s hitters and allowed by its pitchers. The results are benchmarked to the average outputs for the league and season involved.

The maximum possible offensive rating is 50 points. The top-rated club in the Expansion Era is the 1984 Detroit Tigers at 48.055 points. They scored 5.12 runs per game, while giving up 3.97, yielding a surplus of 1.15. And they posted a .747 BPO, compared to a .606 BPO against, for a surplus of .141.

The typical playoff team has an offensive rating in the neighborhood of 35 points, based on the median score for all 352 Expansion Era clubs that qualified for the postseason. But the 10 teams below did much worse — all finishing at 25 points or lower.

Most of them failed to hit very well, though they benefited from strong pitching. A couple of these teams did better at the plate, but weren’t quite as strong on the mound. Several had the good fortune to play in weak divisions or under 2020’s expanded playoff structure. Yet they shared one common trait: They were able to surmount their offensive imbalances to make the playoffs.

The Mets, Brewers, and Athletics hope to follow suit.

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1. Miami Marlins (2020)

  • Offensive rating: 16.695 points

  • W-L record: 31-29 (.517)

  • Runs per game: 4.38 offense, 5.07 defense (deficit of 0.69 per game)

  • BPO: .671 offense, .780 defense (deficit of .109)

  • Postseason: Qualified for National League playoffs, but did not win league title

  • Notes: Almost one-third of Miami’s games — 19 of 60 — were defined by as blowouts, instances where the final margin was five runs or greater. The Marlins lost a hefty majority of those contests, 13 in all, suggesting that they should have been saddled with a losing record. Yet, even despite a lack of power, they snuck into 2020’s expanded playoffs. Their slugging average of .384 was the third-worst in the NL.

2. Minnesota Twins (1987)

  • Offensive rating: 20.492 points

  • W-L record: 85-77 (.525)

  • Runs per game: 4.85 offense, 4.98 defense (deficit of 0.13 per game)

  • BPO: .721 offense, .764 defense (deficit of .043)

  • Postseason: Won American League title and World Series

  • Notes: The Twins are the only world champs on this list. They edged the Kansas City Royals for the AL West title, even though the Royals possessed a vastly superior pitching staff (3.86 ERA vs. 4.63 for the Twins). Minnesota had lost eight of 12 games to Detroit during the regular season, yet somehow trounced the Tigers in the ALCS. The St. Louis Cardinals were heavily favored in the subsequent World Series, but the Twins triumphed in seven games.

3. Toronto Blue Jays (2020)

  • Offensive rating: 23.578 points

  • W-L record: 32-28 (.533)

  • Runs per game: 5.03 offense, 5.20 defense (deficit of 0.17 per game)

  • BPO: .738 offense, .758 defense (deficit of .020)

  • Postseason: Qualified for American League playoffs, but did not win league title

  • Notes: There was no disputing the Blue Jays’ firepower in 2020. They finished fourth in the American League in homers and third in runs scored. The problem was their pitching staff, which allowed even more runs than their potent offense was able to put on the board. Only one AL club, the Boston Red Sox, yielded more hits or walks than the Jays did. The results were deficits in both runs and bases.

4. Milwaukee Brewers (2020)

  • Offensive rating: 23.633 points

  • W-L record: 29-31 (.483)

  • Runs per game: 4.12 offense, 4.40 defense (deficit of 0.28 per game)

  • BPO: .657 offense, .646 defense (surplus of .011)

  • Postseason: Qualified for National League playoffs, but did not win league title

  • Notes: Here’s the third squad from 2020 to land among the four playoff teams with the greatest deficiencies. The Brewers, unlike the previously mentioned Marlins and Jays, compounded their difficulties by finishing with a losing record. They still slipped into the expanded postseason, even though only two NL clubs scored fewer runs per game in 2020, and only four produced fewer hits.

5. Arizona Diamondbacks (2007)

  • Offensive rating: 23.987 points

  • W-L record: 90-72 (.556)

  • Runs per game: 4.40 offense, 4.52 defense (deficit of 0.12 per game)

  • BPO: .706 offense, .715 defense (deficit of .009)

  • Postseason: Qualified for National League playoffs, but did not win league title

  • Notes: The Diamondbacks edged past the Colorado Rockies by half a game to win the NL West. How did that possibly happen? The two clubs allowed virtually the same number of runs per game (4.52 by Arizona, 4.65 by Colorado), but the Rockies were much more potent offensively (4.40 runs per game for Arizona, 5.28 for Colorado). The secret was the Diamondbacks’ ability to win one-run games — 32 such victories in all, the most in the NL.

6. New York Mets (1973)

  • Offensive rating: 24.114 points

  • W-L record: 82-79 (.509)

  • Runs per game: 3.78 offense, 3.65 defense (surplus of 0.13 per game)

  • BPO: .583 offense, .607 defense (deficit of .024)

  • Postseason: Won National League title, but did not win World Series

  • Notes: The NL East was famously weak in 1973, with the 82-win Mets the only club above .500. They faced the powerful Cincinnati Reds (99-63) in the NL Championship Series, then the 94-68 Oakland Athletics in the World Series. They beat the former, then extended the latter to Game Seven before losing. Pitching was the key to New York’s unlikely success. The Mets ranked 11th in the 12-team NL in most runs scored, but second in least runs allowed.

7. San Diego Padres (2005)

  • Offensive rating: 24.132 points

  • W-L record: 82-80 (.506)

  • Runs per game: 4.22 offense, 4.48 defense (deficit of 0.26 per game)

  • BPO: .691 offense, .689 defense (surplus of .002)

  • Postseason: Qualified for National League playoffs, but did not win league title

  • Notes: The Padres barely played .500 ball, but nobody else in the NL West topped .475, so the divisional crown went to San Diego. The club definitely lacked power. Its .391 sluggling average was the second-worst in the league. Nor was the pitching any great shakes. San Diego allowed 4.48 runs per game, barely better than the league average of 4.51. A first-round playoff loss to St. Louis in a three-game sweep came as no surprise.

8. Texas Rangers (2015)

  • Offensive rating: 24.564 points

  • W-L record: 88-74 (.543)

  • Runs per game: 4.64 offense, 4.52 defense (surplus of 0.12 per game)

  • BPO: .706 offense, .703 defense (surplus of .003)

  • Postseason: Qualified for American League playoffs, but did not win league title

  • Notes: The Rangers won a tight battle with the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Angels for the AL West title. Texas flashed the best offense among the three clubs (4.64 runs per game, third-best in the league), though its pitching was weak. Only two AL clubs (Boston and Detroit) allowed more runs than the Rangers, and both of them finished last in their respective divisions.

9. Houston Astros (2020)

  • Offensive rating: 24.701 points

  • W-L record: 29-31 (.483)

  • Runs per game: 4.65 offense, 4.58 defense (surplus of 0.07 per game)

  • BPO: .675 offense, .697 defense (deficit of .022)

  • Postseason: Qualified for American League playoffs, but did not win league title

  • Notes: Here is another example of 2020’s generous nature, the thoroughly pedestrian Astros inching into the postseason despite their losing record. Some clubs overcome their deficiencies by winning an inordinate number of close games, especially on the road. Not Houston. It went 10-14 in one-run contests and a miserable 9-23 away from home. Yet it somehow landed the AL’s eighth seed.

10. Kansas City Royals (1984)

  • Offensive rating: 25.315 points

  • W-L record: 84-78 (.519)

  • Runs per game: 4.15 offense, 4.23 defense (deficit of 0.08 per game)

  • BPO: .653 offense, .639 defense (surplus of .014)

  • Postseason: Qualified for American League playoffs, but did not win league title

  • Notes: The AL West contained seven clubs in 1984. The Angels and Twins played .500 ball, and four other clubs fell below. That left the 84-win Royals as division champs, even though they surrendered more runs than they scored. The AL Championship Series matched this club against the 1984 Detroit Tigers, who rank as the greatest club of the Expansion Era, bar none. The Tigers rolled to a sweep.