The decline of smallball and its impact on the game

Monday August 12th, 2013

Carlos Beltran's successful sacrifice bunt last week re-ignited a debate about the value of bunting.
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

This decade is proving to be one of extremes for baseball. It's been well documented that scoring is at its lowest in two decades, batting averages are at their lowest in four decades and that a new league strikeout record is being set each year. But there have been other significant changes that, though less pronounced, speak to changing norms of strategy.

For the second straight season, major league baseball is on pace to set a record for the lowest frequency of both sacrifice bunts and intentional walks in history, and stolen base attempts are at their second-lowest rate since 1971.

These long-accepted tenets of small ball and micromanaging -- long since derided in the sabermetric community -- are falling out of favor not only in a few quantitatively-inclined big league front offices but also down at the field level.

Driving these changes appears to be a growing appreciation over the value of an out, and the increasingly widespread acceptance of the data on the Run Expectancy Matrix, which lists the average number of runs scored based on the 24 combinations of number of outs and location and quantity of men on base. (A team that has the bases loaded and no outs, for example, is expected to score 2.23 runs in that half-inning; with no one on and two outs, the expectation is 0.09 runs.)

"I do think there definitely is a bigger awareness of what the run expectancy charts say," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "That doesn't mean you go by that all the time. [Manager Ron Washington] goes a lot more by the gut than some do. But there's more conversation about it and more awareness. There's probably got to be greater conviction now when you do utilize those things."

An example in St. Louis on Aug. 5 perfectly illustrates the newfound view. In the seventh inning with two runners on and his team trailing the Dodgers 3-1, Cardinals outfielder Carlos Beltran dropped down a bunt and incited a debate.

Beltran advanced the two runners at his own expense in a situation when old-school baseball textbooks surely would have called for a sacrifice: National League game, No. 2 batter in the lineup at the plate, tying run advancing into scoring position, home team playing for a tie.

Instead, the play sparked a controversy of sorts. It was discussed extensively in the St. Louis media and in online outlets such as the Baseball Think Factory and FanGraphs, which called it "the worst bunt of the year."

Beltran acknowledged to reporters the following day that he chose to bunt on his own and said, "I think I did the right thing." He also called all the commotion paid to his decision "stupid."

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny diplomatically straddled both sides of the line and told reporters, "I think there's a lot of people who would rather see the bunt completely eliminated from the game. I'm not one of them. I also don't think you should give away outs."

Let's look at the run expectancy matrix for the Beltran example: with runners on first and second and nobody out, on average a team will score 1.417 runs; with runners on second and third and one out, the expected output drops to 1.291.

And those numbers are for average situations, not ones that involve a hitter like Beltran, who leads the Cardinals in home runs and OPS. Interestingly, Beltran cited statistics in his defense, noting how well the subsequent batter, Allen Craig, has hit with runners in scoring position this year; "clutch" production happens to be a stat that many sabermetrically-inclined folks believe is a fluke of smaller sample sizes. The Cardinals, for the record, scored one run that inning on a groundout by Craig and went on to lose, 3-2.

Presently, sacrifice bunts occur at a rate of 0.28 per team per game, down from last year's record low of 0.30. Sac bunts last occurred at 0.40 per game in 1993 and at least 0.50 in 1956; between 1905 and 1930, the rate was over 1.00.

This, of course, is not a totally modern phenomenon -- Earl Weaver, who managed the Orioles for all but two seasons from 1968 to 1986, disdained the sacrifice bunt -- but it represents a more widespread adoption of such a strategy. Cardinals GM John Mozeliak, who was asked about this topic well before Beltran's bunt, said bunting preferences result "from a manager's approach."

There are fewer opportunities to sacrifice given the declining rate of players reaching base -- the lowest in a quarter-century -- but the sac bunting rate was still much higher in previous seasons with an equivalent or lower league-wide on-base percentage. Previously, the bunt was a way to take advantage of limited opportunities; the 21st century game still has enough home run power and slugging and to reduce the need for bunts.

Sacrifice bunts not only can minimize a team's ability to do damage in the inning it's playing but also can hurt its chances in later innings because the lineup might rotate one fewer spot. There's a strong correlation between number of batters in a game and a club's winning percentage, a phenomenon studied by pitching guru Rick Peterson and summarized as the Rule of 39 -- that a team's winning percentage is greater than 50 percent when it faces fewer than 39 batters in a game (i.e. avoiding facing the opponent's No. 3 hitter for a fifth time).

"I'm not a big believer [of the sacrifice bunt]," said Rays manager Joe Maddon, whose club is 25th in the majors with 19 sacrifice hits. "It's just a rote way of bunting just because you're supposed to move the runner because if you don't do that and it doesn't work you're going to be questioned about it -- that is so ridiculous.

"We only bunt because we believe the guy on deck has a legitimate chance to drive in the run and, furthermore, the guy in the hole does because if you bunt up and they don't pitch to the guy on deck because you bunted, then that's really a shame. Bunting does not ensure anything, so I'm not into it."

Therein is the second pratfall of the sac bunt -- not only does it yield an out, but it also opens up first base for a possible intentional walk, though those too are at an alltime low.

Intentional walks, which have been tracked since 1955, are being issued at a rate of 0.21 per game, down from last season's 0.22. They were last as high as 0.30 in 2002.

Though Mozeliak said he had not studied the issue, he believes that more teams are pitching to tough hitters more because they still feel like there's higher percentage chance of getting the guy out.

"I imagine two things are in play: certainly, one, people are understanding that giving free bases are not all created equally," Mozeliak said. "And then I also think teams are being so much more aggressive with their defenses. With positioning, I think you're able to arbitrage that decision a little more then maybe in the past. People aren't willing to give up the opportunity for an out quite as easily."

The league-wide batting average is down to .253, the lowest in the majors since 1972. "It's just harder to get hits," Mozeliak said.

Use of the intentional walk varies widely, from the 45 issued by the Giants to the seven by the Red Sox.

"I'm still a believer at the right time," said Maddon, stressing the importance of the matchup. "It depends on who the guy is. To tell me that you prefer your chances against [Miguel] Cabrera rather than anybody else with runners in scoring position, then I disagree. Or Papi [David Ortiz] when he's swinging the bat well and you have a much better matchup on deck, I totally disagree.

"Any kind of sabermetrician [based] thought process there pretty much belongs in the garbage can -- it's about that guy hitting right there in that moment who's very scary, and the guy on deck is less scary by a long shot."

As for stolen bases, 72.9 percent of steal attempts are being converted, the 15th highest rate in baseball history, but that's down from 74.0 percent last season. The bigger difference is in the number of tries: last year 0.90 steals were attempted per team per game, but that's down to 0.76 this year, a 16 percent reduction.

The basic rule of thumb is that a club needs to be successful on three out of every four, i.e. 75 percent, of chances in order to break even. Again, the run expectancy chart shows why. A man on first with no outs leads to an average of 0.83 runs in the inning. If a runner is successful stealing a base, there's a man on second with no outs, which produces 1.06 runs, but if he's thrown out, there's no one on and one out, which is a meager 0.25 runs per inning. In other words, the potential cost is three times more severe than the potential gain.

All three -- the sacrifice bunt, intentional walk and stolen base -- are helpful tools for winning ballgames when employed judiciously, and as Daniels said, there ought to be a greater conviction in their use.

Line Drives

• The red-hot Royals have won all seven series they've played since the All-Star break -- and have only gained a half-game on the similarly streaking Tigers.

Mariano Rivera had a bittersweet week. He blew three consecutive saves, which was the bitter part, but the Yankees still won two of those games -- and it called attention to the fact that he had never previously blown three straight chances despite serving as New York's closer since 1997.

JAFFE: What's up with Rivera?

Miguel Cabrera had a red hot weekend in the Bronx with home runs in all three games, including two off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera (the first of which occurred when he was limping around the batter's box). Cabrera may have won the Triple Crown last year -- replicating that feat this year will be hard, but not impossible, given Chris Davis' six-home run lead -- but he is undeniably having a much better season.

His .365 average is 35 points better than last year; his .459 on-base percentage is 66 points better; his .686 slugging percentage is 80 points better; he's on pace for 50 home runs and 154 RBIs (improvements of six and 15, respectively); and he's even leading the AL in runs scored with 85, which was point of contention in last year's MVP debate when he trailed Mike Trout in that category.

• The Astros are a longshot to meet the doomsday expectations of 120 losses this season, but they haven't won back-to-back games since June 15-16 -- going 11-35 in the interim -- and are now on pace for 110 losses.

• Waiver trades, like the one that sent Alex Rios from the White Sox to the Rangers last week, will be worth watching until the Aug. 31 deadline. For those interested in the waiver trade process, here's a primer from a few years ago.

The Royals are last in the AL in home runs and Alex Gordon's modest total of 13 leads the team.
Colin E. Braley/AP

Three Up, Three Down: Contenders' home-run dependence

This is a look at which teams with realistic playoff chances rely most heavily on home runs to score. Those that lean on the longball the most are often prone to more slumps but also more hot streaks.

Home runs often carry increased importance in the postseason. The best pitching tends to congregate on teams playing in October -- plus, aggressive bullpen use can further minimize offense -- so home runs are often the best way to score. In fact, home runs become slightly more frequent in the playoffs. From 2010 through 2012, for instance, the average regular season game featured 4.33 runs per team per game and a home run hit every 35.2 at bats; during those same postseasons, scoring was down to 4.02 runs per team per game but home runs were up to one every 33.6 at bats.

The look here is at contending clubs who score the highest and lowest percentage of their runs via the homer. Baseball Prospectus catalogs this as the "Guillen Number" in reference to former White Sox and Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen, whom BP remembers for touting his small-ball ways in Chicago when really his offenses were powered by homers. BP's data was used here.


1. Orioles

Baltimore has hit the most home runs in the majors (153) and ranks second in percentage of runs scored via the homer (44.3 percent) behind only surprise leader Seattle, which clocks in at 47.4 percent.

2. Braves

Atlanta ranks fourth in the majors in Guillen number (42.9 percent) and third in total home runs (141). The last NL club to finish in the majors' top-three in total homers was the 2009 Phillies, which reached the World Series.

3. Rangers

The Rangers rank seventh in percentage of runs scored via the homer -- 40.5 percent, one spot ahead of the Tigers -- but may see that proportion drop with leading home run-hitter Nelson Cruz suspended for the rest of the regular season.


1. Royals

The Roylas have had their headline-grabbing woes with home runs at Kauffman Stadium -- its previous hitting coach once told Fox Sports Kansas City, "There is just no reward here (for us) to try and hit home runs" -- and the team has barely scored a quarter of its runs via the homer (25.6 percent), which is last in the AL by nearly eight percent.

2. Cardinals

St. Louis, which recently had a drought of just two homers in 18 games, has scored only 26.9 percent of its run via the long ball, which is easily the lowest rate among contenders and ranks 28th in the majors overall.

3. Dodgers

L.A. rates near the top of the league in highlight reel home runs -- thanks, Yasiel Puig -- but scores less than a third of its runs that way, at just 30.0 percent (26th in majors).

Trend to track: Shutouts

There are up to 15 baseball games each day of the week, notwithstanding the occasional doubleheader, and six times in the 16 days since July 26 have there been at least four shutouts on the same day. On July 27, in fact, there were seven games in which a team's lineup was blanked over nine innings.

In all, there have been 243 shutouts so far this season, good for a pace of 337 -- that would be the fifth-most for a single season in baseball history and the most in the 30-team era. Put another way, in 14 percent of all major league games this season, one team fails to score a single run. (It's worth noting that since the most recent expansion in 1998, there are 4,860 games scheduled each year, compared to 2,464 in the pre-expansion years of the Modern Era that lasted from 1901-1960.) Here are the top 10 seasons in major league history with the most shutouts:

1915: 359
1914: 357
1972: 357
1968: 339
2013: 337*
2010: 329
1976: 325
2011: 323
1971: 315
2012: 310
1978: 305
1969: 300

*Year-end pace. Data from Stats LLC

Another side of . . . Adam Eaton, Diamondbacks OF

The Diamondbacks' rookie centerfielder believes in baseball immersion.

"Being a student of the game has always helped me in the offseason," Eaton said. "A lot of guys like to turn their brains off in the offseason. I like to turn it on and try to get better mentally -- situational baseball, talking baseball. I love reading baseball books."

Last winter he read Mental Toughness: Baseball's Winning Edge by Karl Kuehl, John Kuel and Casey Tefertiller. Eaton has also read both of Orel Hershisher's books, which include situational insights and other practical advice like how to manage the game while having a family.

Such passion started at a young age for Eaton, who after an elbow injury didn't debut until July 9 this summer. He grew up outside of Columbus, Ohio, but his father was from East Canton and thus a huge Indians fan. Eaton, now a 5-foot-9 speedy centerfielder, idolized all of those great 1990s Indians teams but especially Kenny Lofton for his comparable style of play.

His favorite day of the week as a young boy was Sunday, because he and his father watched the evening national telecast "like it was a religious thing."

"That was the only day I could ever stay up when I was a little," Eaton said. "[My father] thought Sunday Night Baseball was such a learning experience. It felt like it was almost a family thing. Me and my dad sat down, and Joe Morgan would always explain things, more in-depth for some reason on Sundays, but he would say this is a reason he did that. It would be awesome for us. My dad would look at me and ask, 'What did you learn?' we would pick things out we learned that night."

After starring at Miami of Ohio, Eaton, 24, put up preposterous minor league numbers, highlighted by a .381 average, .456 on-base percentage, 119 runs and 38 steals in 119 Triple A games in 2012. And he's starting to heat up in the majors now too: Eaton is 6 for his last 16 with two walks over four games.

The Final Out

The Mets' Matt Harvey has unquestionably had a great season, but the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw is the obvious choice for NL Cy Young. He leads the majors in innings (182 1/3) and ERA (1.88), proving quantity and quality. Even after adjusting for his league and pitcher-friendly home ballpark, Kershaw's ERA+ is 190, which means he is 90 percent better than the average pitcher. If he finishes the season that way, it would only be the third such season in 10 years, joining Roger Clemens in 2005 and Zack Greinke in 2009.

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