The Army of McGwires

“In 1998, after watching McGwire hit two home runs in a double-header at Shea, my friend Eric and I were chilling on his back porch discussing McGwire’s awesomeness.

We agreed that he was the best hitter imaginable, but I argued that his talents were mitigated at least a bit by the fact that he couldn’t even capably defend first base, at least not to the eye.

From there, we speculated on how a team would fare if you could somehow clone Mark McGwire and field an entire team of Mark McGwires. Would nine Mark McGwires score enough runs on offense to compensate for their awful defense and pitching?

It’s an interesting question, but one that can’t be answered.”

Howdy, Tedheads. I’m Patrick “Ted” Flood. I’m temporarily commandeering TedQuarters for this guest post in an attempt to answer the above question.

As a personal aside, I remember my father taking me to the double-header Ted Berg was talking about there. McGwire hit his 50th home run of the season in the day game, his 51st home run in the nightcap. I still have the scorecard — Met greats Hideo Nomo and Masato Yoshii are on the cover . . .

Anyway, I disagree with Ted’s assertion that the McGwire question cannot be answered. Not only do I think we can come up with an answer for how a team of twenty-five Mark McGwires would fare — maybe not a perfect answer, but a decent estimate — but I also believe that we must come up with an answer. I believe it to be the essential question of our time.

So with this guest post to TedQuarters — you’ll need to click through to read so I don’t suck up the entire frontpage — I’m going to try to come up with that answer. About how many games would a team of cloned Mark McGwires (in 1998) win?

Okay. There are basically three things we’ll need to figure out for an answer:

– How many runs would a lineup of all Mark McGwires score?
– How many runs would a pitching staff of Mark McGwires backed by Mark McGwire fielders allow?
– Where can I work in a Taco Bell reference?

The first question is the easiest one, so let’s tackle that first.

How many runs would a lineup of all Mark McGwires score?

In 1998, Mark McGwire hit 61 singles, 21 doubles, a then-record 70 home runs, and walked 162 times. In a word, he was awesome. His season ranks among the top five offensive seasons by a righthanded hitter in baseball history. According to Baseball-Reference, McGwire created 193 runs and made 369 outs — those are the two important numbers to take away here. 193 runs created against 369 outs.

We know that a baseball team plays 162 games and usually makes 27 outs a game — 4,374 outs over a full season. A team will gain some outs if they play extra inning games and will lose some outs in the bottom of the ninth when they win at home, but we’ll stick with 4,374 outs here.

As stated before, one Mark McGwire used 369 outs to create 193 runs in 1998. Using that same ratio, if we give an army of cloned Mark McGwires a full season of outs to play with, they would score 2,288 runs. But wait — because McGwire was old and slow in 1998, we’re going to shave off 47 runs due to poor baserunning (via Baseball-Prospectus’ baserunning). So we’ll say that a team of Mark McGwires would score around 2,241 runs in a full season. Which is a lot.

How many runs is 2,241? It’s almost two-and-a-half times the number of runs last season’s Yankees team scored, and they were the highest scoring team in baseball. The 1894 Boston Beaneaters (yup, that’s their real name) hold the record for most runs scored in a single season, 1220 runs in 132 games. Team McGwire would obliterate that record, scoring 13.8 runs per game, easily besting Team Jacob and Team Edward along the way.

Basically, 2,241 runs is an unbelievable number of runs.

Now, if we assume an all McGwire lineup looks like this:

LF Mark McGwire
2B Mark McGwire
1B Mark McGwire
3B Mark McGwire
RF Mark McGwire
C   Mark McGwire
SS Mark McGwire
P   Mark McGwire
CF Mark McGwire

and we know that they’re going to score 2,241 runs, hit 830 home runs, and bat around a few times doing so . . . we can come up with some goofy stat lines for the lineup of ginger giants.

Because they bat around so often, everyone in the lineup is going to come to the plate about 900 times. Left fielder Mark McGwire would score 260 runs and hit 101 home runs out of the leadoff spot; Third baseman Mark McGwire, the cleanup hitter, would hit 94 home runs, 28 doubles, walk 209 times, score 243 runs, and drive in 290 runs. I think that makes him the safe bet for MVP. The Mark McGwire hitting ninth would score “just” 212 runs and hit “only” 82 home runs.

We wind up with a team hitting 5 home runs and scoring 14 runs per game. That’s far more runs than any real team could ever score — but we already knew that a team of Mark McGwires would score a hilarious amount of runs. This leads into our next question:

How many runs would a pitching staff of Mark McGwires backed by eight Mark McGwire fielders allow?

The answer:

I don’t know. A lot?

The more in-depth answer:

Mark McGwire never pitched in the major leagues, nor did he pitch in the minor leagues. He played first base, third base, and right field in the majors, but no other defensive positions. We are going to need to make a few assumptions if we want to know how many runs Team Big Mac would allow.

While we don’t have any professional pitching statistics for McGwire, Baseball-Reference does have the statistics for every position player that has ever taken the mound. If we assume McGwire’s performance as a pitcher would be similar to the performance of other position players as pitchers, we have something to go on.

But is this a realistic assumption for Mark McGwire? I actually think so. McGwire was first drafted by the Expos out of high school in 1981 as a pitcher. He went to college as a pitcher; it was only at USC that he finally became an infielder full time. As a former college pitcher, McGwire fits the profile for the sort of position player who might be used in mop up duty.

Of course, McGwire was old and somewhat bulky in 1998, but so was Roger Clemens. We’re going to assume McGwire could still get the ball over the plate at a decent velocity.

Now, as for position players on the mound . . . they’re surprisingly effective. I mean, they’re bad, but they’re not that bad. Position players, active from 1988 to the present, have a 7.45 ERA on the mound. That is nowhere near as bad as I might have guessed. They walk 7.4 batters, strikeout 3.3 batters, but allow just 1.2 home runs per nine innings pitched (6.83 FIP). The home run rate is surprisingly low — seven starting pitchers had higher home run rates last season. It might be batters just trying to put the ball in play, not really trying in blowouts, or slower pitches simply not traveling as far when batted. For whatever reasons, it’s surprisingly difficult to homer off position players. It’s weird and I don’t have a great answer as to why it is. But it’s all I have to go on.

Please note that Oliver Perez’ walk rate since 2009 is higher than the walk rate of position players pitching.

Non-pitchers on the mound allow 7.74 runs per game (1,254 runs per season), which is what we’ll assume Mark McGwire would allow — but that’s with real defenses playing behind them. Our Mark McGwire pitching staff will be backed by eight other big red fielders, players who aren’t particularly skilled at tracking down spherical objects in flight. We’re taking McGwire, a poor defensive first baseman, and sticking him at shortstop and center field. It’s easily going to be the worst defensive team of all time.

But we want to estimate how bad. If we assume that the non-pitchers had average defenses behind them — a decent assumption, considering the BABIP against for the non-pitchers was .299 — then we just need to figure out how many runs the Team McGwire fielders would cost on defense compared to those average fielders.

Well, we know that Mark McGwire was a poor defensive first baseman in 1998. By Total Zone, McGwire averaged minus-13 runs over a full defensive season as a Cardinal. That’s the number we’re going to use to figure (guesstimate) the McGwires’ defensive contributions at other positions.

Thankfully, sabermagician Tom Tango has already compared how players perform moving around different defensive positions, allowing us to come up with approximations for Mark McGwire all over the diamond. Using Tango’s work (and then adjusting for the lack of strikeouts by the pitching staff of McGwires), our Team Mac would be minus-216 runs defensively. Every Mark McGwire would be the worst defender at their position. For example, catcher Mark McGwire, would be an amazing 40 runs below average. The team’s -216 runs is over three times worse than last season’s most ineptly defending team, and two times as poor as the worst fielding team in 1998.

Slapping those 216 runs from poor defense onto what we already have from letting a position player like McGwire pitch, and we wind up with 1,470 runs allowed by team McGwire — easily a record. The 1899 Cleveland Spiders, who won 20 games and lost 134, hold the record for the most runs allowed with 1,252 . . . they probably shouldn’t have let the Cy Young fellow go. In recent times, the 1996 Detroit Tigers allowed 1,103 runs. Team McGwire would easily surpass those marks, but perhaps not by as much as we might expect. Nine Big Reds only allow 33% more runs than the ‘96 Tigers — and the ’96 Tigers featured “real” pitchers and “real” fielders. That seems off to me.

But maybe it is realistic. Maybe. Mark McGwire was still a professional athlete. He used to be a pitcher, and he certainly would be a better fielder than you or me. Plus, I’m going to imagine that this team of McGwires has Dave Duncan working his magic as its pitching coach. And who knows — maybe the pitching staff of McGwires becomes more comfortable on the mound and more effective as the season went on.

(If you didn’t guess from the lineup, I’m also assuming Tony La Russa is the manager. He might force one or two of the McGwires to pitch lefthanded out of the pen, but we’ll ignore that.)

(Also, just for fun, Mark McGwire, starting pitcher, would go 16-7 with an 8.31 ERA in 195 innings pitched. It’s entirely possible that one McGwire would get lucky and win 20 games with an ERA well over 8.00. I’d like to see the Cy Young voters figure that one out.)

Team Mac, red hair blazing like the shell of a Volcano Taco from Taco Bell, would score 2,241 runs and allow 1,470 runs. So we have all our answers. The army of McGwires would both score and allow more runs than any team in history. All of their games would feature multiple pitching changes, multiple home runs, and take six hours to play. They would be exciting, but a long, painful sort of exciting. I don’t know if anyone would want to watch them play more than once.

But how many games would they win? Bill James has a formula for a team’s “Pythagorean winning percentage,” which relates a team’s runs scored and allowed to a winning percentage. Based on 2,241 runs scored and 1,470 runs allowed, Team McGwire’s expected winning percentage would be about .680. That equates to a record of 110 wins and 52 losses. I also did some basic Wins Above Replacement (WAR) numbers just for the heck of it, and I again came up with Team McGwire winning 110 games and losing 52.

Basically, if you set a team of cloned Mark McGwires loose, they would win their division and probably finish first in their league — but they would be beatable. They would be the favorites in the postseason, but they wouldn’t be a lock to win the World Series. They’re basically the Yankees in the 2000s.

So . . . would an army of Mark McGwires actually win 110 games? I have no idea. Ted was right: barring actually cloning Mark McGwire, we can’t really ever know. There are some imperfect methods here that I am aware of, there are other imperfect things I’m probably not aware of, and there are likely several ways to improve on this answer. But I think this is a decent way to start. Of course, any suggestions are welcome.

Alright, that’s all I got. I’m out. If you want more of me, you can check me out at PatrickFloodBlog.com, on Twitter @PatrickJFlood, or you can harass me with emails here. I’ll be around in the comments too.

30 thoughts on “The Army of McGwires

  1. One unanswered question in the equasion is PEDs. We all know Big Mac was on some stuff (Andro at least) admittedly during the 1998 season which would be banned from baseball now.

    So would if we did create a team on 1998 McGwires, would they be subject to the current drug testing guidelines, meaning his performance would probably drop off some if he had to clean it up, or would 1998 McGwire be grandfathered into the old rules from 1998 somehow.

    • Well, I mean, the Mark McGwires are all clones to begin with, so . . .

      But just for the heck of it, I’m going to say that we’ve genetically engineered the team of McGwires to be exactly like Mark McGwire in 1998. The clones have been engineered so that they do not need steroids in order to replicate McGwire’s performance.

      I’m going to say that they benefit from the effects of steroids without actually being on steroids.

  2. Very interesting.

    Something to consider is the amount of walks Team McGwire would draw. It would probably be less than 162 per player because with the same hitter on deck, opponents would be less likely to pitch around or intentionally walk the batter.

    • I agree 100%. I had a paragraph about that, but cut it out due to space concerns. With no incentive to pitch around anyone, Team McGwire would hit more home runs, but score less runs overall. If you walk him ten times, it’s ten bases and no outs. If you pitch to him ten times, its 7 or 8 bases but also 7 outs. It’s less bases and more outs if you pitch to him.

  3. In the distopian future a team of Mark McGwires battles a team of Roger Clemens’ for the World Series. MLB is still reticent about using video replay, however.

  4. I think this underestimates exactly how bad McGwire would be in the outfield. He could barely run even then on his knees. I’m imagining him patrolling the outfield at Coors and wincing with every step. And what about GIDPs? He might be on 1st having walked or singled, but get erased at two or more bags on a slow roller to third.

    • Double plays are accounted for in the number of outs McGwire made.

      Anyway, I think he’d be even worse defensively than these estimates, particularly in center. People stick limpy guys in left all the time — Not so much in center.

  5. I don’t know that I agree that “he certainly would be a better fielder than you or me”

    I’m 25, and I’m almost positive I’m faster than McGwire was in 1998. I used to be a very good fielder in high school, to the point that I was lightly recruited by some colleges, but I couldn’t hit a curveball if my life depended on it, so that never went very far. On the rare occasions I still play, I’m still a pretty good fielder – I think that were I playing every day, I’d be pretty confident that I’d be a better fielder than Big Mac was at that point in his career. A team full of me’s would probably be really lucky to score any runs all season, and we certainly wouldn’t be the best defensive team ever, and we’d probably give up 3,000 runs, but purely fielding, I think we’d be better than a team of Big Macs.

  6. I’m somewhat confused: did you end up only using the ‘position players as pitchers’ data from 1988 to present, or did you use it all as presented on the B-Ref page? I’m assuming the former, as the latter would include some older guys who threw a ton of innings (ie Babe Ruth). Just wondering.

    • I used position players ACTIVE from 1988 (the first year McGwire played) to the present. Rick Ankiel is on that list, but I excluded him for obvious reasons. It gave me about a full season worth of innings to look at.

  7. I was at that double header as well and I was a HUGE McGwire fan when I was younger. So this post was pretty much awesome for me. Great post Patrick, love your work.

  8. Dude, you have to do this with Babe Ruth’s 1920 or 1921 season… you could project Ruth’s 1918-1919 stats as a pretty much league average pitcher through those years and come up with ridiculous numbers.

    • Yeah. I’ve thought about which player would make up the best possible team of clones. Ruth’s biggest problem is that he threw lefthanded — the all Ruth team’s defense at 2B, 3B, SS, and maybe catcher would take a big hit because of that.

      Still, the fact that he was Babe Ruth would likely more than compensate for that. Jimmie Foxx played first, third, caught 104 games and managed 1.1 WAR as a pitcher somewhere in there. He might be another good bet.

      • I would think the fact that Ruth was actually a good pitcher would cancel out throwing lefty, I’d definitely like to read it. Bonds would definitely have to be mentioned here as well.

      • Yeah, I think team Ruth would be the best because of the pitching.

        The biggest problem is that I have no idea how to adjust for a lefty shortstop/second baseman. I don’t think a lefty has played a defensive inning at shortstop since the 1800s, so I’d just be guessing.

  9. I don’t trust the pitching numbers. There’s a lot of guys with 0 ERAs from 1988 to now (more than half actually). That can happen if 3 or 4 hitters face a guy in the 9th inning after having faced professional pitchers. But if they get 4 at bats a game, for 3 straight games, those will disappear, and I don’t think the experience from pitching a full season will negate that. Of course, I have no idea how you could get a better estimate. Still a fun read.

    • I mean, it’s definitely flawed, but adding it all up does give a full season of innings. I’m also not sure how hard the batters are trying in blowouts against position player pitchers. They also don’t have to work through the lineup multiple times. Unfortunately, there really isn’t much more to go on.

  10. I don’t think the runs allowed side is very far off at all. Think of the World Baseball Classic. Everyone thought the really good teams full of major league stars would score 50 runs against the really weak teams like China but they didn’t score nearly that many.

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